Some of the traditional games that until the very recent past were commonly being played as part of New Year’s celebrations in Japanese households countrywide can be said to have originated in Heian period court culture. Most notable among these is the Hyakunin isshu karuta game which entails a contest of matching card pairs from a deck composed of the poems of the famous “One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each” waka anthology and therefore requires, while vice versa fostering, thorough knowledge of this piece of classical court poetry.
The earliest ancestors of games such as this, however, did not use paper card decks; rather, clamshell halves served as the substrate for lavishly executed pictures or poem parts to be matched. These games, therefore, were called kai-awase. Originally a court game with the aristocratic novel of the Genji monogatari as one of its predilect subjects, kai-awase in the course of time also became a favourite pastime of high-ranking buke or warrior families, with an expensive kai-awase set commonly forming part of an aristocratic woman's trousseau.
The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries however saw the emergence of numerous games that were similar in content, but used woodblock-printed sheets of paper as their material support and therefore were affordable to the commoner class as well. Especially the Genji monogatari served as the background for a sheer incredible number of such games. Some consisted in cut-out sheets from which karuta decks could be made, others were lotto-like games (yobidashi karuta), and yet others consisted in paper boards for either jūroku musashi, the Japanese “Fox and Geese”-variant, or pictorial sugoroku, race games that resemble the Western “Goose Game.” Through the analysis of some representative examples of such games, this paper will show how they combined, both stylistically and in content, elements of elite and of townspeople culture, thus contributing to an appropriation of the “high culture” of their country by the commoner class already in the pre-modern period.