What are the Most Popular Card Games in Japan?

You can learn a lot about a culture and its people by the games they play. Japan is a nation with a "work hard, play hard" ethic, and its people typically take their leisure pursuits and hobbies seriously.

This extends to the nation's obsession with card games, and you will find a vast number played across the country. These can range from familiar western-style games using a conventional 52-card deck to anime-based trading games to games with a long cultural history on beautifully detailed cards that you will see nowhere else in the world.

Here, we take a stroll through the complex and varied culture of card games in Japan and pick out some of the most popular.

Hanafuda cards

Colorful Hanafuda cards


Manga is rapidly becoming one of Japan's most popular exports, and the art form is an increasingly common sight across the world. Its influence is plain to see in TV, online gaming and most of all, card trading games. The name Konami might bring back memories of British football cards featuring famous players like Graham Souness and Kevin Keegan, but in Japan, the company is still going strong in the Manga sector, and Yu-Gi-Oh is the biggest of them all.

The game was launched 20 years ago in Japan and to an international audience three years later. By 2009, it had entered the Guinness Book of Records as the top selling game of its kind, with an incredible 22 billion cards having been sold worldwide.

Unlike those football cards from long ago, there is more to Yu-Gi-Oh than simply collecting cards and putting them in an album. Devotees of the game meet up for regular tournaments in Japan, and while the competition is serious, it is also good-natured.

In brief, here's how it works. Each player starts with 8,000 life points and a deck of 40 to 60 cards and takes it in turns to draw one from their deck and place it onto the "field." Players can have an optional extra deck of up to 15 cards and there's also a 15-card side deck, from which players can swap their cards. Different cards have different properties and the object is to attack the opponent with either magic or monster attacks and reduce his or her life points while maintaining their own.

The winner is the last "player standing" when the opponent has either reached zero or has no cards left to draw.


When it comes to a conventional deck of cards, there are several games of Japanese origin. However, the most popular of them all is a game you will see played the world over, and one that has been elevated almost to the level of a sport. Everyone loves poker, and thanks to the World Series of Poker or WSOP, it has a truly international following.

Japan has quite strict rules when it comes to gambling, although these could change dramatically over the coming years. Either way, the legislation has done nothing to harm the popularity of playing poker for fun. Japan is a nation of tech lovers, so players typically use all sorts of casino style gadgets during play, including shufflers, card shoes and chip organizers. If the expected loosening of the rules comes about when Japan's new integrated resorts open, expect poker's popularity to hit new heights as the nation tries the game out for real money in a casino setting.

But even if the nation doesn't go gambling crazy, poker's profile will continue to grow. One of the biggest changes over the past decade or so has been its growing fanbase as a spectator sport. This is almost certainly down to players like Naoya Kihara, who went down in history back in 2012 as the first Japanese poker pro to win a bracelet on the international WSOP tour.


The word hanafuda can be used to describe either a game or a type of playing cards with which you can play an assortment of games. The word translates to flower cards, and when you see a deck, it is obvious why.

The cards have a history that dates back to the 17th century. One hundred years earlier, Portuguese explorers led by the missionary Frances Xavier had arrived in Japan and had brought European cards with them. The locals took to the games instantly, but as they involved gambling, prohibition soon followed. In a move that would be echoed years later in the USA after the invention and then prohibition of fruit machines, locals found a way to make their own equivalent of playing cards, but used Japanese art and symbols to make them less controversial.

Incredibly, it was a certain company by the name of Nintendo that was the first to manufacture hanafuda cards on a commercial scale. They still do so to this day, despite being better known for video gaming.

A deck has 48 cards, but in a reversal of the European four decks of 13, there are 12 decks to represent the months of the year, and each deck has four cards, one for each season. The cards are designated as normals, which have a point value of one, ribbons, worth five, and specials, worth either 10 or 20. Most suits have two normal, one ribbon and one special, the exceptions being yangi (November), which has one ribbon and three specials, and kiri (December) with three normals and one special.

There are several different games that are played with hanafuda cards, each of which has its own variations. Take a look at them, and you soon see the influence of those long ago explorers, as they are really not so different to rummy, contract whist and other familiar European games, once you get your head around the 12 suits of four cards principle.


A tile-based game, Mahjong originated in the 19th century in China and since the early 20th century it's spread all over the world. This game is actually based on card games that were popular in 18th- and 19th-century China, but in the mid-19th century, the game shifted to tiles.

Mahjong plays an important role in Asian history. Specifically, after the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, there was a ban on gambling that led to a decline in playing, and during the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976 the game was banned completely. However, Mahjong quickly rebounded once the ban ended, and as of 2010, it's the most popular table game in Japan.

The rules might seem overwhelming at first, but here's a brief introduction:
To start, the game includes 144 tiles that feature Chinese characters and symbols, though different variations on the game might add extra tiles or omit some of the originals.

Players receive 13 tiles and when it is their turn, they draw and discard tiles until they have a 'legal hand'. Typically, a winning hand has four melds (a specific pattern of three pieces) and two eyes (a pair of identical pieces).

There are plenty of standard Mahjong sets, as well as decorative and collectibles, but for those looking to play for free, you can check out solitaired.com/mahjong.

Playing cards are an important part of gaming culture in most civilizations. However, there can be few places that have so many different types that draw on such diverse influences. The Japanese card-playing hobby provides an intriguing insight into the nation and its people.

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