By Elaine Wong • BSc Anthropology
“Karuta is based on Japanese classical poetry, but the game itself is like a sport. I think you can’t find it in any other country. I mean, classical literature has been turned into a sports game! I think that, even if you don’t understand Japanese, you can still enjoy it…it can be a good introduction to a broader understanding of Japanese culture.”
– (Akiko, Japanese female, aged 27)
Anthropologists discuss the body through a large variety of perspectives. Amongst them, anthropologist Bruno Latour (2004) tries to define the body as an interface that can learn how to be affected in specialised ways. Here, I would like to demonstrate how his idea resonates with the practice of karuta.
Figure 1. Picture of cards depicting the first (left) and second (right) verses of a poem (Bernard 2014)
What is karuta?
Kyogi karuta (競技かるた) is a traditional Japanese card game that is based on a collection of 100 poems by 100 different poets called Hyakunin Isshu (百人一首). Each of the 100 cards used in the card game has one of these poems on it, but only the second verse. A reciter is present to read the poems in a random order. The goal is to quickly touch the corresponding card with the second verse when the first verse is being read by the reciter. Karuta has a set of complex rules of sportsmanship and etiquette, and requires a lot of mental and physical effort to play. This includes memorising the cards of all the poems, and strategising the placements of each card on a wide platform (as well as memorising the placements themselves). Moreover, you are expected to react quickly to subtleties of sound, and move the body efficiently to reach each card in time. To find out about the standard technicalities and progression of the game in more detail, please click here.
Karuta in London is a karuta-practising community founded in 2016 by, Momoko Okuyama, a 3rd year BASc Arts and Sciences student at UCL. On a rainy Saturday afternoon, I had the pleasure of filming one of their weekly practice sessions. After the session, I interviewed two players – Momoko and Akiko (pseudonyms) – with questions based on my observations during their matches. In the interest of anthropology, recurring themes of memory, body technique and sensorial experience arise in the playing of karuta.
Figure 2. Photo taken by author of Karuta players during a practice match hosted by Karuta in London
Practise, memorise, practise
- Body techniques
- Momoko and Akiko have highlighted that you need to pay attention to the way you swing your arm, as well as the shape of your hands to reach the cards as quickly and efficiently as possible. To facilitate this, your body posture is crucial too. We can see this in their practice session in the video, as most of the players were practicing their arm swings and hand slams in-between citations.
- Memorising the poems
- Momoko and Akiko spent around 3-5 months memorising all 100 cards, but of course, they said that it depends on the person.
- A: “Personally, I already like the more famous classics, so those ones are easier to remember. When I look at a card, I see a visual…an image. Linking it with the image, I understand the meaning of the poem…I also practice the actual memorisation of the cards. The faster you [recall your memory], the better you get at playing karuta” (e.g. the quicker you can get the cards).
- M: “I also did a lot of practice with reading out the cards. It allows me to internalise the rhythm that I’m supposed to move my body in. In a sense, I’m using my own reading as a way to let all the parts of my body, not just my hand… like this is how you’re meant to move depending on the poem that’s read at this rhythm. I think sound and music could be an important component. When I say music it’s mostly just the rhythm. At which second is the first syllable read [by the reciter etc.]”
Figure 3. Illustration from the World of Kyogi Karuta, of the moment when karuta players compete to take a card
Experiencing the ‘rhythm’ of karuta
During the practice session, I often noticed the players (even if they were not playing against each other) moving in sync when specific syllables were recited. Rhythm, as Momoko has hinted, matters significantly when playing karuta. I asked her, “during a karuta match, what usually goes on inside your head? Do you think about something?”
- Mindlessness = quicker response
- M: “When you’re actually playing the game…the moment when you hear the sound of the reader reading the first syllables, it’s not like I’m thinking about ‘something’. Because if I were, then I can’t respond fast enough to take the card from my opponent. It’s only when I empty my mind… I just focus on the sound and ‘knowing’ the positions of the cards.”
- Waiting for the ‘right’ moment
- M: “In terms of the sensation… when I touch the correct card, that’s when I get this sense of satisfaction… For me, at the start you don’t have an expected ‘rhythm’ when you’re taking the cards. But when you practice again and again you start to get the rhythm. When you manage to take a one-syllable card out of a hundred cards, that is the correct one. And then you have two-syllable cards where you have to listen for two syllables before you know which one it is. And three and four, and so on. I learnt the three-syllable ones first. For example, ‘arima‘ is a card that you can take after having heard the a-ri-ma. And when I know that I touched it right when I heard the ‘m’ of the reader, that’s when I feel the satisfaction. It’s not so much about who’s sitting in front of me but just the fact that I took it at the ‘right’ moment. Not faster than the other person, but just the fact that it was spot-on.”
- Different ways of sensing sound
- M: “Some people say that they also listen to the height… I mean the pitch! For example, they say this is an ‘a’ that started with a high pitch, then the next words must be this instead of something else. I’m not able to do it, I’m not at that level. Some people have a lot of talent in this area. For me I can’t do it with the pitch, but I can do it sometimes with the length of the syllable, which also relates back to rhythm.”
Overall, we see that a lot of sensorial elements are involved in the practice of karuta. Through the process of memorising and practising, Momoko and Akiko formed their own aesthetic relationships with the words on the cards as foundations for their own techniques. By understanding the poems, they can automatically recall them by visualising the meanings themselves. Additionally, they train their bodies regularly to continuously enhance their physical and mental reactions for obtaining the cards as quickly as possible. In Latour’s terms, they have gone from being “dumb” to karuta to becoming karuta bodies.
On a side note, if you are interested in trying the sport, please contact Momoko at firstname.lastname@example.org. Whether you have only just heard of karuta now, or are a well-seasoned player already, Karuta in London welcomes all levels, backgrounds and interests. It is a rare opportunity in London and a great way to get to know more about Japanese culture hands-on!
Bernard, C. (2014) Karuta: Gotta Catch ‘em All! An old Japanese card game brought into the light. Tofugu.com. Available at: https://www.tofugu.com/japan/karuta-japanese-cards/ [accessed 18 February 2018].
Bull, D. (1996) Karuta: Sport or culture? Japan Quarterly 43(1):67.
Karuta in London (n.d.) About. Available at: https://karutalondon.wordpress.com/about-2/ [accessed 18 February 2018].
Latour, B. (2004) How to Talk About the Body? The normative dimension of science. Body and Society 10(2-3):205-229.
World of Kyogi Karuta (n.d.) Detailed Rules of Kyogi Karuta. Available at: http://karuta.game.coocan.jp/detailedrule-e.html [accessed 18 February 2018].