At the AIP-IAP Conference 2012, held in Tavira, Portugal in November 2012, the following paper was presented.
The Japanese Writing System, as learned through the proverbial card game “Iroha Karuta”.
Today’s Japanese writing system uses characters from four sources: Kanji (adopted Chinese characters, representing complete words), Romaji (Western ‘Roman’ characters – infrequent), and two types of ‘Kana’ , being Katakana and Hiragana. These two Kana scripts comprise simpler characters, each representing a syllable with its own sound, and are combined together to form a word, somewhat as Western ‘Roman’ alphabet characters are so combined.
There are 48 Hiragama characters. Their shapes and sounds are enthusiastically learned by Japanese children by playing the popular card game ‘Iroha Karuta’. The pack of cards comprises 48 ‘written’ cards and 48 ‘picture’ cards. Each written card contains a proverb, while each picture card has an illustration of a proverb plus one of the 48 Hiragama characters. The Hiragama character on the card is the first syllable of the first word of the proverb. All the picture cards are laid out in front of a group of children. Reading from a written card another child calls out the proverb, whereupon the children race to identify the matching picture card. Through play their knowledge of the Japanese writing system and of proverbs grows.
The word ‘Karuta’ derives from an ancient Portuguese word for ‘Card’, the word having been introduces to Japan through the Portuguese Voyages of Discovery in the 15th century.
The presentation touched on the Japanese writing system and then examined some of the 48 Japanese proverbs used in Iroha Karuta. It also explored the cultural history of the game.