Kokugo and Hanafuda: A Meshing of Modern and Traditional Values

picture of hanafuda cards
img source: http://pingmag.jp/2014/01/10/hanafuda/

Hanafuda is a type of Japanese playing-card deck. Kokugo is the name of the Japanese primary education system’s language and literature curriculum. One is steeped in tradition, the other in modernity. What values could these have in common? The following is a short essay I wrote for my Contemporary Japanese Culture course, attempting to analyze just one small aspect of similarity. I did not attempt to provide any “deep” analysis, only to scratch the surface. Peter Cave’s (further down) goes further into the Kokugo curriculum and its Buddhist influence. If nothing else, this was a fun opportunity to read up on and consider these two artifacts of Japanese culture. Maybe one of these days I’ll learn to play something using my tiny hanafuda deck…


If you are not familiar with Hanafuda, you might want to scroll down and look through the visual presentation I include in the “Sources” section.



How do the modern values expressed in Kokugo engage with the traditional values as expressed in the symbolic aesthetics of Hanafuda? I would propose that Kokugo engages with the symbolism of Hanafuda in how it proposes people relate to nature. Both the modern and traditional values expressed in these two media promote people as a part of nature.


picture of hanafuda cards
img source: http://forgottenantiquities.tumblr.com/post/7347760362/an-assortment-of-nintendo-hanafuda-cards-nintendo

Hanafuda, literally “flower cards”, is a Japanese deck of cards based on the aesthetics and common imagery of traditional Japanese literature. The deck traces back to the European influences in Japan from the 1500s A.D. Its legacy continues today through the Nintendo Corporation, which began as a humble manufacturer of Hanafuda in the late 1800s. Kokugo, literally “national language”, is the modern reading curriculum provided and sponsored by the Japanese Ministry of Education for school aged children. As far as literature and language arts education goes, the material of Kokugo embodies the educational intentions and goals of the current Japanese government for its citizens. Through the media of literature and language arts, this curriculum takes deliberate stances on moral and social concerns that represent modern values of society, at least as presented by the current Japanese governmental body.


Nature is the common theme of Hanafuda‘s visual presentation. The deck consists of 48 cards, which are divided into twelve suits of four, one suit for each month. Unlike Western cards, which are themed according to political offices and a hierarchy of numbers and symbols, Hanafuda are themed according to the living, natural world. Each suit showcases a plant whose blossom or leaf is associated with that suit’s month. For example, the flower for March is the sakura, or cherry blossom. In traditional Japanese literature, the mention of sakura calls to mind the long-awaited Spring season as well as the impermanence of life in this world, since the cherry blossom falls so quickly after blooming. A survey of all twelve suits and the traditions behind each floral representation suggests to the observer that the natural world carries a significance worthy of contemplation.


picture of kokugo cover
img source: http://coffeejp.com/bbs/data/attachment/album/201205/01/080242tljzo3moddmxqdmq.jpg

The natural world is also reflected in Kokugo. In his work observing the curricula and practice of Japanese primary education, Peter Cave observed, “…the predominating discourses were ones that represented individuals and their identities as intrinsically linked to the larger worlds – social and natural – of which they were a part” (Cave 88). From their earliest years, Japanese students are encouraged to think of individuals in relation to larger groups, whether groups of people or groups of all things living. While the “larger world” of society is certainly a major focus in Kokugo, nature, a “larger world” that expands beyond human society, is of particular relevance to Hanafuda. Hanafuda, a card deck designed for the appreciation and use by people, has the natural world for its subject. Likewise, Kokugo, a curriculum designed for the development and socialization of young people, has the natural world for its point of reference. For both, the natural world is primary, even paramount.


Within this natural world of Hanafuda, distinctly human elements are also present. All suits but those for August and December have a special poetry ribbon card. Poetry is one of the culturally and historically richest forms of Japanese art, and nature is traditional Japanese poetry’s primary focus. In this aesthetic framework, steeped in traditional Japanese associations between times of the year and the flora and fauna that accompany those times, the most pervasive, visible, human presence is not a depiction of nobility, as with Western cards, but a depiction of the poetic tradition that engages nature through observation and contemplation.


One of the curriculum’s poetic works, Inochi (life), describes life in terms of the various experiences that creatures share, with no distinction made between human and animal. As Cave observes, “Humans are presented as part of nature…” (Cave 91). The distinctly human elements of the Hanafuda aesthetic, then, could be interpreted as an historical precedent for the “humans as nature” element of modern Japanese education. If man’s presence in Hanafuda is seen most clearly in the poetry ribbons, and traditional Japanese poetry is usually centered on the observation and description of some aspect of nature, then, through this depicted medium of the poetry ribbon, man is a “part of nature”. Of note, then, is the observation that those Kokugo selections (at least the ones reviewed by Cave) that attempt to make connections between the natural world and human ideals (Inochi, Yuzuriha, and Ezomatsu) are all written in poetic form. These expressions of modern ideals for children and society follow well established patterns of man engaging nature and being influenced by nature through poetic reflection.

Kokugo, as a modern school curriculum, is an expression of modern values in Japan, whereas Hanafuda, as a traditional card deck, is an expression of traditional, symbolic, aesthetic values in Japan. However, some of the traditional values embodied in the visual characteristics of Hanafuda are present in the literature of this modern curriculum. Both deal with how people relate to nature as a part of nature itself. In this respect, modern Japanese values correspond, at least in part, with traditional Japanese values.



1) For the curious, here is a little introduction to some of the elements of Hanafuda: 

click the image above to view an introductory presentation of hanafuda aesthetics
click the image above to view an introductory presentation of hanafuda aesthetics

2) And here is the referenced chapter from Peter Cave’s anthropoligical work”Primary School in Japan: Self, Individuality and Learning in Elementary Education”: