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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

08/2013 manuscript  of the month

A manuscript in the shape of a deck of cards?

A worn-out deck of cards in a small lacquer box with coloured portraits of men and women in historical garment, above and next to them delicate traces of a calligraphic hand. Why a deck of cards made for family use in 18th century Japan has become an object of manuscriptology.

Fig. 1: Card with first stanza of the 17th set
poet: Ariwara no Narihira Ason
(* 825; † 880)

This manuscript from a private collection originally consisted of 200 from playing cards, with 198 still extant, each showing the first or second stanza of a poem of Japan’s most popular poetry anthology, the “Anthology of One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each” (Hyakunin isshu).

The cards are made of paper mounted on thin cardboard. The particular shape of (playing) cards goes back to an early encounter with European missionaries in the late 16th century, reflected also in the Japanese word karuta (< Port. carta). The cards measure 78 x 54 x 1 mm.

Material analysis of the miniatures provides evidence of different pigments and colorants. The bright orange colour is particularly noticeable. It is called minium, a lead oxide pigment, which had already been produced artificially in ancient times. In contrast, the blue parts were made from indigo, an organic pigment that counts among the most common blue colorants. It seems that the blue parts of the cards have already been touched up with blue smalt instead of indigo. The text is underlaid with a cloud-like area consisting of single, silver-coloured spots made from foil tin.

The sets of two cards with the two stanzas of one poem differ as to both the amount of text written on each card and the pictures. The first card contains the first part of the poem. It also shows the poet’s name on its right-hand side and a portrait of the poet. The corresponding second card is much simpler, as it only contains the text of the second stanza.

Fig. 2: Card with second stanza of the 17th set
poet: Ariwara no Narihira Ason
(* 825; † 880)

Although the first impression can be deceptive, this deck of cards is in fact a manuscript. There are two decisive arguments in favour of this thesis: First of all, all 200 stanzas were written by hand using a brush. In line with the Japanese tradition, the text is written in vertical columns and from right to left. The distribution of the characters on the surface is subject to aesthetic criteria. The calligraphic style of the characters (Jap. kanji) as well as of the numerous variants of syllable writing (Jap. hentaigana) is the so-called cursive form of “grass style” (Jap. sôsho). This blending of scripts provides at the same time information about the time of origin of the manuscript: using different source characters (Jap. jibo) for the rendering of syllables is a typical feature of the Edo period. Our manuscript clearly indicates that at this time of increasing literacy there was not yet made any effort for simplification and standardisation of the script. Thus when playing cards and trying to match, for instance, the first stanza with one of the cards spread out before the players (a kind of memory card game), the learning effect was considerably high.

In contrast to the handwritten text the portraits of the individual poets are woodblock prints that were later coloured by hand. In some cases the figures are provided with an attribute helping to identify a poet roughly (e.g. clerics with a rosary, a certain poet with a bow and arrows). The type and colour of the garment or other iconographic details help us to gather even more information, for instance, about the social status of a poet. Decks of cards of this kind were stored in special small lacquered boxes complete with a lid and cord.

The second reason to conceive this deck of cards as a manuscript may be found in the tradition it derives from. The most striking features of the playing cards are the inclusion of pictures and the physical separation of the two parts of each poem. The first feature originates from a very old tradition to add illustrations to poems. In contrast, the separation of the poem in two physical units is a genuine innovation. Previously the “Anthology of One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each”, compiled around 1240 by the leading poet at that time, Fujiwara no Teika (1162–1241), had been handed down as a conventional manuscript, either separately or together with other poetry collections.

Fig. 3: First stanza of the 80th set
poetess: Taikenmonin no Horikawa
(dates of birth and death unknown)
Fig. 4: Second stanza of the 80th set
poetess: Taikenmonin no Horikawa
(dates of birth and death unknown)
Fig. 5: First stanza of the 86th set
poet: Saigyô Hôshi (* 1118; † 1190)
Fig. 6: Second stanza of the 86th set
poet: Saigyô Hôshi (* 1118; † 1190)
When touched with the cursor, figures 1 to 6 show the source characters (Jap. jibo) of the cursive characters used on the cards.

However, when in the 17th century the traditional manuscript form was replaced by pairs of cards, the way in which the text itself was used began to change, too. The text spread first in aristocratic and later in bourgeois circles. The work, in its present form, thus attained the status of a handbook, which did not only enhance literacy but also conveyed canonical knowledge about poetry. The new manuscript form thereby contributed decisively to shaping the image of classical court poetry (so-called waka-poetry).

Fig. 7: The lacquer box and piled up playing cards
> Enlarge

The new material form of the manuscript highlights yet another feature: spatiality. When looking at manuscript pages, especially those of East Asian booklets or scrolls, the spatial character of the book almost disappears. The deck of cards however emphasizes its three-dimensionality through storage in a box and during usage: the pairs of poems are picked up by the players, who arrange the cards bit by bit in a pile or shuffle them for the next turn. Accordingly signs of wear are clearly visible.

The origin of our manuscript cannot be precisely traced anymore. We assume that it came to the “Seminar für Sprache und Kultur Japans” of the University of Hamburg at the end of the 20th century through contacts to the University of Hiroshima. The condition of the cards and the small lacquer box is not very good. Two cards are lost, another one is broken. The cards show definite traces of abrasion from use, especially on the monochrome back side. The small lacquer box shows traces of numerous crushes, too. Nowadays copies of complete decks in good condition are available at Japanese antiques or second hand bookstores for up to 380,000 Japanese Yen (approximately 2,900 Euros).

This PDF shows all existing cards in one spread (4,8 mb)


Als wär’s des Mondes letztes Licht am frühen Morgen: Hundert Gedichte von hundert Dichtern aus Japan; ed. and transl. by Jürgen Berndt. Frankfurt/M.: Insel, 1987.

Klie, Nicole: “Gespenstischer Zeitvertreib: ein Spuk-iroha-Kartenspiel aus der Edo-Zeit”, in: Sünden des Worts: Festschrift für Roland Schneider zum 65. Geburtstag; ed. by Judit Árokay and Klaus Vollmer. Hamburg: OAG, 2004, p. 299–321 (= MOAG; 141).

Mostow, Joshua S.: Pictures of the Heart: The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1996.

Yoshikai, Naoto: “Hyakunin isshu to karutae”, in: Bungaku to kaiga: kodai, chûsei no bungaku to kaiga [special issue of] Kokubungaku: kaishaku to kanshô 63:8. 1998, p. 61–66.

Paper on cardboard, 198 cards remaining, written and printed on one side
Dimensions: 78 x 54 x 1 mm
Stored in a small lacquer box
Place of origin: Japan
Time of origin: 18th to early 19th century

Text by Text von Jörg B. Quenzer (with assistance of YAMAMORI Takeshi, Oliver Hahn and Emanuel Kindzorra)
© for all images: CSMC