A traditional card game that combines agility, memory, and the Japanese kana syllabary, competitive karuta developed in the early 19th century. Its growing popularity, due in part to the recent success of manga and movies on the sport, has been a windfall for the Keio Karuta-Kai, which has grown to around 50 competing members.
Cards fly and voices echo in the club’s tatami-covered Hiyoshi Campus dojo. Inside, students face off in one-on-one bouts of competitive karuta, in which a reader recites poems from the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, a classical anthology of one hundred Japanese tanka by one hundred poets, which are written on one hundred different cards. The cards containing the poem are called yomifuda. 50 of 100 corresponding playing cards, called torifuda, are chosen at random and split between the two players. Each player arranges their 25 cards within their territory with the torifuda face up. The first player to get rid of all the cards in their territory wins. In addition to the 50 cards in play, the reader may also recite karafuda, called “ghost cards,” which refer to the remaining 50 poems not in play. Therefore, players must find and swipe the correct torifuda—corresponding to the reader’s yomifuda—before their opponent does, without mistakenly touching a card if a karafuda is read.
Players are given 15 minutes to learn their cards by heart. In this short time, players memorize and strategize. If a player takes a card from the opponent's territory, they may transfer any one of their own cards to their opponent’s territory. These decisions can make or break a game. Players can get an edge over their opponent through strategic card-giving.
The Keio Karuta-Kai has a long history at the university, first recorded as an official student organization in the mid-1950s. Since then, the Keio team has won 18 A-class national team tournaments and produced scores of A-class players. The Keio Karuta-Kai originally rose to fame after producing its first Queen, the highest rank of female player, in 1976. The first Keio Meijin, the same rank for a male player, appeared nine years later in 1985.
The two leaders of the present-day club are third-year Nozomi Hamano from the Faculty of Policy Management and second-year Yukari Suzuki from the Faculty of Business and Commerce. Hamano was the first Keio student to take first place in the university individual finals at the 22nd Japanese Collegiate Karuta Championships held in August 2015. This year he led the Keio team to second at the 23nd Collegiate Championships.
The vast majority of members of the Keio Karuta-Kai are beginners, with 70–80% having no prior experience. But each individual must improve in order to succeed as a team.
In Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, players can take the torifuda as soon as the first phrase of the poem, called the kimari-ji, is read. For example, the kimari-ji of the phrases amanohara and amatsukaze would be “amano” and "amatsu" respectively. But once one of them has been taken and only one remains, “ama” becomes the kimari-ji. Sixteen cards start with the syllable “a”, so players with a good enough memory can take the sixteenth card just by recognizing that initial sound. Karuta requires players to count the cards played throughout the game while reading their opponent’s next move. The best players learn the subtleties of the reader’s voice and train their bodies to respond appropriately to the slightest sounds. At practice, teammates swap tips and techniques with each other.
“A certain sense of vigilance and anxiety is important even in everyday practice, as is foresight, which is needed to recognize which cards will come next. Practice is essential to cultivate concentration,” says Hamano. This concentration can also aid in students’ academic careers. “Games last about 90 minutes, and strangely enough, you can concentrate better and retain more if you study in 90-minute blocks. Playing karuta might really help sharpen your mental skills,” Suzuki says.
Players take cards by touching them or forcing them out of their territory. It may looks as if players swipe the cards at random, but they employ specific techniques like tsukite and haraite to clinch cards without sacrificing speed. Other techniques, such as kakomite, are used to defend cards in their territory.
The apex of competitive karuta—the Meijin and Queen tournaments. Keio’s own Takashi Tanemura (1985 Faculty of Science and Technology alumnus) is somewhat of a legend, first becoming a Meijin as a student in 1985 and holding the title a total of nine times to achieve Eternal Master status. The titles of Meijin and Queen are conferred upon the respective winners of the final match of the national championship—a showdown between the previous year’s champion and the last-standing challenger. And to this day, Tanemura remains true to the Keio Karuta-Kai motto he grew to follow .
“In competitive karuta the stakes are high, and arguments over who was first can lead to trouble. What I learned from more senior players was to always concede a disputed card. Just be confident that you can take the next card. Cards are disputed because a player knows they didn’t have the speed to take the card. In those moments taking the next card with obvious speed is more important than fussing over the last card,” Tanemura explains.
Until college, Tanemura sweat it out on the basketball team, attending regular intensive practices. After entering university, however, the name Keio Karuta-Kai grabbed his attention, and when he went to check out a practice, he saw a battle being waged that was beyond his imaginings.
“I had an interest in the Hyakunin Isshu since I was in grade school. I also remember a rumor in high school that your grades would improve if you won a Hyakunin Isshu competition, so I tried as hard as I could to remember all of the poems. When I got to university, I was surprised at the fierceness of play when I went to see the Keio Karuta-Kai practice and wanted to give it a try,” Tanemura explains.
“A Queen Grand Champion named Makiko Yoshida (now Makiko Kanayama), who was a former Karuta-Kai member, would come and watch our practices on Saturdays. I think those practices are where I found my strength. Often people would tell me that I had an exceptional ability to distinguish sounds, but more than anything else, I think my ability to hear the spaces between sounds was what made me a good player,” says Tanemura. “They say that when your nerves are sharpened enough, you can even hear subtle differences in the way a reader enunciates consonants like S and M,” he explains.
Former members and classmates lent their support to Tanemura in Meijin tournaments after graduating. Keio alumnus Masahiro Mochizuki was one of them. Mochizuki followed in Tanemura’s footsteps in the Keio Karuta-Kai, and their showdown match is still talked about today.
The 33rd Grand Champion Championship of 1987. Meijin alumnus Tanemura versus challenger Mochizuki, a Keio student at the time. This was a much talked about match at the time—student versus alumnus. The match was a landslide victory for Tanemura. Tanemura would go on to achieve Eternal Master status, but nine years later, in 1996, the two would meet again, and this time Mochizuki would triumph, seizing the title from Tanemura.
“Ten years had passed since graduation, but many of my old Keio classmates sat in on practice games, and I was able to really train,” recalls Tanemura.
Mochizuki and other great players say they felt the true value of their efforts when they reclaimed their Meijin status for a second time. Tanemura currently serves as Executive Director of the Digital Business Bureau at Nikkei Inc. It also sounds like his time in the Karuta-Kai has proven a handy conversation starter with business partners.
“In business you need to be able to chat in order to break the ice. My days playing competitive karuta makes for a good story to tell if a conversation gets stuck or the mood gets dark.” Talking about how competitive karuta wasn’t as major as it is now, or explaining some of the rules of competitive play can help to ease the tension in a room. And I feel like the experience of giving something my all has helped me become who I am today,” Tanemura muses.
The pillars of Keio Karuta-Kai—level-headed decision making and passionate fighting spirit. Even after graduation, former members continue to look after the next generation as they continue the tradition.