Competitive Karuta in Chihayafuru – A Reflection of Sports and Martial Arts

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Competitive karuta in Chihayafuru, is a poem-guessing game that uses a deck of cards called uta-garuta, and in each card, a poem from Hyakunin Isshu is printed on them. In uta-garuta, there are two different types of cards – yomifuda: reading cards featuring the full poems and pictures, and torifuda: grabbing cards in which only the last two verses of the poems are printed.

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Each game usually consists of the reader, a judge and last but not least, the players. Players sit in a seiza position, and are required to arrange their torifuda cards in a particular manner on the floor. They are then given 15 minutes to memorize their opponent’s cards and positions. Once the 15 minutes are up, the reader will start reciting the yomifuda card which will be picked in a random manner and players are required to compete on the torifuda card that matches the poem being read, whoever faster will get the first point. If so, then that particular player can then send his own card to his opponent’s territory. The one who empties his own territory first wins.

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I’ve been playing competitive karuta since I was six, and the harder I played, the harder it was for my knees and back. So my goal is for all of you to be able to play karuta for a very long time without injuring yourself. For that, the first thing you need is stamina.
~by Coach Sakurazawa

It’s difficult to really categorize karuta as sports in an international level, though it is officially recognized as a sport in Japan. Nevertheless, watching Chihayafuru, one can easily notice how such a seemingly simple game of poem-guessing called karuta, can be so intense, exciting and mind-blowing. One also needs extreme physical and mental strength for these kind of games. Physical strength is needed for the swiftness, agility and power of the “swings” when attacking opponent’s cards, or guarding your own cards. Having a great stamina also helps sustain a steady performance over a long period of time, after all, karuta matches can last as long as several hours!

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Of course, mental strength is also one of the other most important aspect of karuta. After laying down the torifuda cards, players are required to memorize their opponent’s cards and positions, so that they can attack the needed cards at any given time. How familiar the player was able to memorize the 100 poems are put to test here. Players are also allowed to change the positions of his cards, all of them even, so the opposing side will have to re-memorize the positions. More so, a lot of the cards are similar, they may have similar phrases in the beginning verses, but the poems may be different altogether, and it’s incredibly easy to make such mistakes of reaching a card that sounds somewhat like the right poem, and it isn’t. They need to clear their mind, and to listen carefully to each and every syllables recited by the reader, and even the tone of each syllables, as the different words and phrases leading from that one particular syllable may sound different in tone and pitch. Speed is just as crucial in such a crisis of decision-making as you obviously can’t take your time slowly in listening without your opponents beating you to the punch. Indeed, there are indeed a few sports which require certain levels of mental capability, but none of them are comparable to karuta’s.

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In real life, it’s incredibly hard to balance between physical and mental strength. To me, the best thinking atmosphere will be a cool room temperature, and even then it’s difficult to upkeep the same level of focus over a long period of time. If the environment is hot, humid and stuffy, that makes it even harder to concentrate. Sweats, exhaustion, soreness – all kinds of distraction would effect the mind. The nature of competitive karuta challenges a person to upkeep a steady and stable balance of both of his physical and mental power. Constantly, one needs to have an intensely sharp and decisive mind to attack the needed cards, and the physical strength to make such an offense a success – a feature just as important as any other sports.

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Injuries are very bad. Avoid them at all cost. However, they can also provide an opportunity. Injury affects the one who caused it more then the one injured.
~A psychological advice from Harada-sensei

Of course, it’s not all just about memorizing and taking down opponent’s cards. Players can outdo their opponents through psychological advantages. Facial expressions, dispositions, styles – all these can be used against your opponents. Observing an opponent’s name and personality is another great tactical skill, as one could make an approximate guess as to what kind of cards his opponent is good at, and with such information, grants him the advantage.

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In team matches, simple but powerful cheers can reinforces the morale and spirits of one’s own team. Additionally, announcing and shouting one’s own victory, psychologically helped his own team member in distress who might had previously been defeated – it helps uplift his mood and increases morale for the team overall. Team dynamics like this represents an active and an unbreakable stubbornness to achieve victory – a passionate spirit like this is what we love to see in a sports game, two opposing teams giving it their all without mercy, and is the one thing which makes competitive karuta the most relatable to sports, physicality aside.

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On a lesser conventional scale, karuta also represents martial arts. The “swing”, is a move in competitive karuta that allows a player take his opponent’s cards. The technique involves swinging one’s dominant arm to attack one of his opponent’s card, the movement is aimed towards accuracy and swiftness, though there are some slight variations to it. For example, Yuube Keiko’s swings are so powerful that she pretty much blown away multiple cards at once, effectively restraining her opponent from getting the desired card. The current queen however, Wakamiya Shinobu – her swings is a mastery of the basis – her swings are so sharp and precise that there are even no tapping sound on the floor.

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The nature of the swing, and the swiftness, agility and precision required to pull it off, reminds me of a sword strike, and the one I could most easily draw parallels to, is Iaido, or Iai from Kendo – a Japanese sword fighting technique that likewise, required smooth and swift movements of drawing the sword from it’s scabbard, slashing one’s opponent, and placing it back into the scabbard. Indeed, both Iaido and karuta are nostalgically historical cultures, and does resemble each other in more ways then one, but the most prominent example is the philosophy of Iaido – “the way of mental presence and immediate reaction.”

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Another custom of karuta I find captivating is the respectful tradition. In each game, you are required to bow frequently while in seiza position – bowing to your opponents before the game, in the middle of the game (especially when you need to stand up for a brief while) and even after the game whether or not you win or lose. This also represents the foundation of a lot of martial arts – in which to upkeep a lawful spirit, being fair and respecting people. Again, this particular bowing aspect of karuta is quite similar to Iaido. Before and after Iai matches, both opposing participants are required to be in a seiza, put down their sword, and bow down to their opponents, before slowly getting back up with their sword. It’s an honorably custom that I feel is a graceful appeal of Japanese culture and martial arts.

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Chihayafuru is a great anime that shows me another part of Japan that I originally didn’t know about. While it’s close to impossible for me to play karuta, as I watched Chihayafuru, I got more and more immersed – Karuta is truly, truly the ultimate form of Japanese sports, martial arts, literature and culture.

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This entry was posted by Kai.

12 thoughts on “Competitive Karuta in Chihayafuru – A Reflection of Sports and Martial Arts

  1. “Karuta is truly, truly the ultimate form of Japanese sports, martial arts, literature and culture.”

    I think this pretty much sums it up. Karuta is an elegant, nuanced sport, and Chihayafuru does a great job in portraying that. I’m curious how much of this post was inspired from the anime and how much from original research.

    • For something unknown as karuta to foreign countries, Chihayafuru really does portray the excitement and intensity of karuta quite well, and of cause, so as the cultural and athletic aspects of it.

      Mostly from the anime :p Had to make some research on the basic foundation of karuta however, and also Iaido as well, though I already had a basic grasp on how Iaido works purely just from watching anime before.

  2. That’s what I like about Japan. They turn innocent games in the real into all out street fights with the fate of the universe at stake in animated form. Just look at shows like Saki, Shion no Ou, that serious mahjong anime whose name I forgot and Yu-Gi-Oh (The first one). What makes Chihayafuru special is its indescribable greatness. Seriously, this show’s so glorious that I STILL cannot find the right words to priase it.

    • You just reminded me that I had yet to watch (or read, not sure which) Shion no Ou, which had been sitting on my backlog quite a while. Love chess games, though unfamiliar with shogi, but I’m sure I will have a blast with the anime :D About the serious mahjong anime, is it Akagi? Indeed, and it’s one reason why I haven’t (or probably never will, lol) able to review it.

    • Indeed, it’s amazing how a simple poem-guessing game can be so over-the-top and extreme. I would love to try it some time, if I can read Japanese.

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