A brief history of Nintendo playing cards: part one

The birth of a gaming giant

Pre-Nintendo era

Playing cards have a long history going back to at least the 12th century, but the first known types to be introduced to Japan were by Portuguese explorers in the mid-16th century. Within a few short years, thriving trading routes were established and the first indigenous Japanese deck appeared, Tenshō karuta, getting its name from the Tenshō period, 1573–92.

Nintendo built its early success on many of the card types that are descended from these Portuguese designs.

It’s fascinating to think that for almost a 1000 years, playing cards that most likely originated from China in the East, were introduced eventually to the West (Europe), back to the East again (Japan), and then finally mass exported back to Western markets in the 20th century!

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Types of cards

Portugese-style ‘karuta’

Nintendo manufactured several types of these cards, or karuta (かるた), and still does in some cases! The Portugese-style karuta are typically smaller in size than standard 52-card Western-style decks.

Komatsufuda (小松札), A 48-card deck. The shogunate, in an attempt to remove the colonial and religious influences of Spain and Portugal, banned these cards forcing their radical redesign in 1633. Many were turned into abstract designs known as mekuri karuta as a result of Japan’s isolationist Sakoku policy. By the mid-20th century, only Komatsufuda remained.

Unsun Karuta (うんすんカルタ) has five suits of 15 ranks each for a total of 75 cards, and was developed in the late 17th century,

Kabufuda (株札) is another type of mekuri karuta, coming in a deck of 40 cards. All the suits shared identical designs and were used for gambling games such as Oicho-Kabu.

Harifuda (張札) and Hikifuda (引札) were also often used for gambling, Harifuda sets contain a total of 42 cards and Hikifuda, 48.

Hanafuda (花札) translates as ‘flower cards’ and is probably most strongly connected with Nintendo. It originates from the early 19th century, and each deck has 48 cards with flower designs. Instead of being divided by 4 suits with 12 cards each, a hanafuda deck is divided by 12 suits (months) with 4 cards each.

Most traditional Japanese hanafuda sets are available with either black, kuro (黒), or brick-red, aka (赤), backs and borders. There is no other difference and the choice is down to player preference. Hanafuda were usually sold in double boxes, containing both a black deck and a red deck, but this is now uncommon.

Hanafuda pre-war pair pawlonia boxes (Top)

Nintendo has produced many variations over the last century, the three main types available are:

  • Daitoryo: Nintendo’s most successful and iconic Hanafuda product, Daitoryo translates into English as “president”. This type features a portrait of Napoleon. Why Napoleon? Well, that’s unknown, but it’s been suggested that the photograph Fusajiro Yamauchi (Nintendo’s founder) used of Napoleon was in fact George Washington, or it’s possible he assumed (wrongly) that Napoleon was the president of France.

    Daitoryo Hanafuda set ('President')

  • Tengu: Tengu is a supernatural creature, half-man, half-beast, found in Japanese folklore, and his bright-red face is featured on a box of these cards. This motif was not exclusive to Nintendo and other card makers such as Ohishi-Tengudo produce very similar designs.
  • Miyako no Hana: A more traditional style deck, it is much cheaper than the Napoleon variant. It comes with a transparent slide box.

The Daitoryou version is considered the best out of the 3 types, yet there are only slight differences between them, in paper texture and finish, and quality of the case.

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Originally derived from a traditional Japanese game played with shells known as kai-awase, E-awase (絵合, painting contest) was converted to card format during the early 17th century. It is often played by children at elementary school and junior high-school level during class, as an educational exercise.

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Western ‘trump’ style

In 1902, Founder Fusajiro Yamauchi began manufacturing the first ever Western-style playing cards in Japan (also known as trump,トランプ). This was only 13 years after Nintendo’s inception as a Hanafuda playing card company.

The Western-style cards were originally intended for export, but proved popular domestically as well. Nintendo soon grew to become the dominant producer of Western playing cards for Japan.

The 1950s heralded the first of many licensing partnership deals, beginning with Disney in 1959, not just for playing cards, but with board games and other items. Nintendo has produced countless variations, including varieties of Nintendo ‘All-Plastic’ cards from the 1970s and 1980s onward.

The Mario Museum collection features several examples of the card types mentioned.

Playing cards with metal case
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1889: Marufuku Nintendo Card Company

Nintendo was first established in the year 1889, when Fusajiro Yamauchi opened a small store in Kyoto, manufacturing and selling playing cards. This was during the time of the collapse of the Shogun and Samurai systems in the old capital Kyoto, shortly before the emperor moved to Edo, which later was to become known as Tokyo.

The first store used the name “Marufuku” from the time of its establishment in Kagiyacho, Shimogyo Ward, in Kyoto.

Note the Marufuku as part of the sign seen in this very early photograph.

The Marufuku mark on the packaging and tags was originally the name of the Fukui family. Fusajiro Yamauchi was born in 1868 as the eldest son of Sosuke Fukui, before being adopted by Naoshichi Yamauchi in 1872 and inheriting the Yamauchi family name in 1881. After that, it became a registered trademark of Nintendo. Source.

The design of the logo combines the kanji 福 “fuku” (translates as good fortune/happiness) in a circle – “Maru” (丸 in kanji), or literally Marufuku (丸福).

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Pre-WWII period

Another clue that indicates cards originate from the pre-WWII period is by studying how the name ‘Nintendo’ is displayed in Kanji. Traditionally, Japanese was written in vertical columns before the Japanese script reform of the early 20th century. These columns were read from top to bottom and from right to left. This way of writing is called tategaki (縦書き) – which literally means ‘vertical writing’.

Therefore, the traditional Kanji for Nin-Ten-Do was written right to left, as shown on the packaging of these cards 堂天任, whereas the modern way to write the characters is 任天堂 .

Marufuku cards
A very early example of Nintendo’s hanafuda from the Meiji period (1868-1912).
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Post-WWII period to present day

Coming soon! Part two of the guide will focus on many of the playing card types produced by Nintendo over the last 80 years, including some of the quirkier types, such as magic trick decks, and pin-up cards!

Suntory Aslan playing cards (Top)
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