Two dozen people, crouched silenty in a tatami room, face each other in pairs waiting intently for their cue. The women are dressed in beautiful and often brightly-colored kimonos, while the men wear their more muted hakamas. Rows of small, white cards are neatly placed between each couple and are the sole focus of everyone's attention.
An elderly woman sits atop a cushion facing both rows of pairs. She has several cards in her hand and after a moment, begins to chant:
Waga koromode ni...
Her voice is soft but strong, lilting to a higher pitch toward the end of each line.
Yuki wa furi tsutsu...
The last syllable is barely uttered and still there is no movement in the room.
Faster than lightning and louder than thunder, the peace is suddenly broken by a maddening flurry of motion. The elderly narrator is still chanting, but the cacophony of card-slapping, exclamations, and bustle completely drown out her voice as some people fetch cards that have been tossed to the other side of the room.
If a line from an eleven hundred-year old Japanese love poem could spark such passionate and concentrated reactions, imagine 99 full poems all subjected to the same enthusiastic attention.
A card game unlike many of those leisurely performed in America, Karuta (and especially kyogi Karuta) combines Japanese history with mental and physical dexterity. Every Karuta player is expected to memorize the famous 'Hyaku-nin Isshu' or One Hundred Poems from One Hundred Poets to a nearly impossible degree, as card placement changes with every match played. Exceptional Karuta players would be able to strike away the accompanying poem card when the first syllable is read by the chanter, putting their opponents at an uncomfortable disadvantage.
Since the earliest poem written by the Emperor Tenchi in the seventh century, many different forms of Karuta are enjoyed in Japan today. The simpler versions are often used by schoolchildren as mnemonic devices while more elaborate versions are used in competitions that also serve as proud displays of Japanese heritage. Perhaps the most marvelous characteristic of Karuta is highlighted in a comparison by essayist David Bull:
"...This poem is still remembered not by scholars of ancient literature, but by normal people - people who thus have a measuring stick with which they can form in their minds an image of the long history of their country. It is difficult to think of an equivalent in Western literature. We have Greek plays from two thousand years ago, but if you were to stop your man-on-the-street and ask for a few quotations ... Perhaps the only things in the West that survive from such a long time ago in anything like such a popular form, are religious writings such as the bible. It makes an interesting contrast: one society holding up a bible as a pillar of cultural tradition, and the other choosing to remember instead, a collection of love poetry!"
Japanese Karuta is a fine example of the multi-faceted power of words—truly loved, the art of writing leads to steadfast preservation, analysis and, of course, endless enjoyment.