Hanafuda – Hawaii style

A great site for novice and advanced game plans, as well as for resources and listing of locations for hanafuda card box sets with the manual vendors, is Hanafudahawaii.com, founded by Helen Nakano.



About six months ago, a volunteer group for the Food Basket at Tutu’s House in Waimea found themselves with extra time while waiting for deliveries. Ken Tsuhako, a volunteer, said they decided to spend the time doing something they all loved.

“To kill time, we would play hanafuda,” Tsuhako said.

They made so much noise laughing and talking while playing the game, that Lorraine Urbic of Tutu’s House suggested Tsuhako schedule a regular time for the group to get together. The group now meets at Tutu’s House on Mondays from 12:30 to 2 p.m.

Hanafuda, which means “flower cards,” is a traditional Japanese card game that was brought to Hawaii in the early 1900s.

“Most people who grew up here, regardless of ethnic group, we all played,” Tsuhako said.

Tsuhako said he grew up on a coffee farm in Kona and hanafuda was an important part of his childhood.

“My grandmother was Okinawan, and she would play with my mother,” Tsuhako said. “That was before I went to kindergarten. Then my grandmother started playing with my sister and my mom. They didn’t have the patience to teach me. Then, when I got a little more proficient, (I) played with my grandmother.”

Tsuhako said when he was in the Navy, a few of the officers were interested in learning the game, so they would play on their lunch break.

Eve Palang, who regularly attends the group, said she used to play as a youth, but she was too busy with work and hadn’t played for more than 25 years.

“I have been working all those years, but it just comes back,” she said.

She said the challenge of the game and the socialization makes hanafuda a fun, exciting game.

“It keeps the brain going,” Palang said. “You have to think.”

There are 48 heavy cardboard black cards, 11/2-inch-by-21/4-inch. The cards are designed in 12 groups of four, with each four-card suit carrying one dominant flower theme. The themes are all found in nature and are based on the seasons, such as a cactus theme, cherry blossoms, chrysanthemums, leaves and even the moon. The 12 sets represent the months of the year. In the sets, there are four cards worth 20 points each, 11 cards are worth 10 points each and 10 cards are worth five points each. The rest are “rubbish” in the Hawaiian-style hanafuda version.

A special Hawaiian variation goes beyond point scoring to add “yakus.” If you are able to collect the card combination that forms a “yaku,” you get 50 points. There are eight possible yaku combinations. If someone has a yaku, others lose 50 points. One important strategy, once a person moves beyond the novice level, is to prevent other players from getting a yaku.

From two to six people can play and the number of cards dealt per person depends on the number of players. The dealer shuffles the cards and the player on the right cuts the deck. Half of the deck remains in the center and half the deck is dealt. If the cards deal out evenly, the person who cut the deck gets an extra 50 points. There are a specific number of cards dealt face up in a circle around the center pile, also dependent on the number of players. A player first tries to find a match from the pile, and then chooses a card from the center deck. If the card isn’t a match, the player places the card among the face up cards. The game continues until no cards are left. The winner is the person with the most points.

Pauline Shinshiro, one of the group’s original members, recommends the instruction book, Hanafuda Hawaii Style, that comes with a boxed set of cards for $20 that also shows the point values and yakus with the suits.

“We just have fun and get carried away,” Shinshiro said. “Time just goes.”

Shinshiro said when her children were little, she taught them how to play. She made a copy of all of the yaku sets for her son that she gives to newcomers to the hanafuda group to help them.

Anita Godoy, from Paauilo, said she remembers the adults playing during wake services.

“I am Filipino and when someone died, it was our culture that you would stay up with the body,” she said.

Godoy said it was her grandfather and aunts and uncles who taught her to play. She said she is now trying to pass the game down to her grandchildren and her niece. Godoy said hanafuda is a “great way to socialize” and she said beginners and novices are welcome.

“The more the merrier,” Godoy said. “We welcome all levels. Ken and Pauline have been good about teaching the new ones.”

Gigi Macion, one of the group’s original members, also said playing hanafuda brings back happy memories of her childhood. She remembers the adults playing hanafuda in the church hall during the nine-day Santa Niño celebration.

“All the older generation would have their groups, we would play and watch,” Macion said. “They would eventually let us form our own group.”

She was friends with Godoy and Palang growing up and their parents and grandparents played hanafuda together.


“It brought me back to my old friends,” Macion said. “Anita and I grew up together (in Paauilo), but with the distance you sort of drift apart. We got back together again and it is really nice to see her every week.”

A great site for novice and advanced game plans, as well as for resources and listing of locations for hanafuda card box sets with the manual vendors, is Hanafudahawaii.com, founded by Helen Nakano.