Issue 15.5: October/November 2012

In the Cards

Story by George Tanabe

Photo by Elyse Butler  


In the West we have gin, poker and crazy eights. In Japan they have hanafuda. The game became widely popular in the country in 1889 when a company began to mass-produce boxed sets. When Japanese immigrants came to work on the sugar plantations in Hawai‘i, they brought the game with them. A century ago it was a common pau hana scene: several men sitting on the floor of an Island plantation house, studying the small “flower cards” in their hands. There are twelve suits in a hanafuda deck, each represented by a different flower—though each deck is also filled with poetic allusions to Buddhist teachings. Players can, for example, rack up bonus points by grouping cards according to Japanese letters from a Buddhist poem on the brevity of life.


But as games and cultures changed, hanafuda largely disappeared from Hawai‘i’s landscape (though back in Japan, Nintendo still manufactures hanafuda cards). Now, though, a retired O‘ahu schoolteacher named Helen Nakano is reviving the nearly forgotten game. Nicknamed “Hanafuda Baba,” or grandmother, Nakano was inspired to bring the game back after she saw one too many children playing video games solo. Nakano is a believer that playing games communally is far healthier. She pictured the image of grandparents, parents and children all gathered around the table playing cards and liked what she saw. “Hanafuda,” she says, “can bring the generations closer together.”


She set up her own company to manufacture hanafuda cards in a Hawai‘i style. The cards have been slightly modified and redesigned and are now being reintroduced into the community by Nakano herself, who speaks eloquently about the meanings encoded in the pictures. At a recent workshop for staff members of the Lanakila Meals on Wheels program, she told the folktale of the old man in the moon who came to Earth and of the rabbit that offered himself as a meal. Instead, the man took the rabbit back to the moon. On her redesigned cards, Nakano has imprinted the rabbit in the moon. “Hanafuda teaches values like self-sacrifice,” Nakano says to the Lanakila workers. “You are all rabbits.”