Tensho Karuta [天正かるた] is the term used for karuta (playing cards) made in Japan, which were faithful copies of Portuguese playing cards (Nanban Karuta [南蛮カルタ]), except they were smaller in length and width than their Portuguese counterparts.
Originally, they were simply known as Karuta, which is a Japanese pronunciation for carta, the Portuguese word for cards. Nowadays, to differentiate them from the other types of karuta, they were named Tensho Karuta due to the speculation that these karuta started to be locally manufactured in Japan sometime during the Tensho Era (1573-1592), in the town of Miike in Chikugo Province (Now the southern part of Fukuoka Prefecture. During this time, card decks from Portugal were also being imported to Japan.
The name may have also come from the game Tensho, which was a predecessor to the games Mekuri and Hana-awase; however, decks named in this context, named Tenshofuda [テンショ札], did not always have designs faithful to the Portuguese counterparts, and such decks are classified under Mekurifuda.
During the Sakoku (1603-1868), The Japanese Shogunate severely limited trade between Japan and other countries, in order to eliminate any colonial and religious influence of primarily Spain and Portugal, after they have learned that the Philippines was colonized by Spain after its people were converted to Christianity.
Moreover, Christianity was formally banned in Japan in 1612 and was subject to persecution. During this time, a Tensho Karuta deck hidden in a Buddhist altar would be a cause for people to accuse its owner of being Christian and have him executed.
Eventually these card decks would be subject to several bans, both due to their association with gambling, and due to their foreign iconography being a possible cause of religious persecution. In the case of the latter, some card manufacturers changed the iconography to suit the Japanese tastes. Eventually, to save time and money, card manufacturers transformed the court card designs into abstract shapes, and overpainted them with thick black (or blue) and red paint. These types of cards would be given various names based on the games played with them, such as “Tensho Karuta”, “Yomi Karuta”, “Mekuri Karuta”, “Kingo Karuta”, “Kabu Karuta”, etc., but because of the similarities in their structure and design, they are now all classified as Mekurifuda.
Just like a Portuguese playing card deck, there are 4 suits in a Tensho Karuta deck - clubs, swords, cups, and coins. There are 12 ranks of cards: Dragon, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, Maid, Horse, and King.
Some Mekurifuda patterns have gold and silver overprints to differentiate which card is which suit and to identify the point values of cards when playing Mekuri.
|Clubs||Paus||Hau / Pau|
|Cups||Copas||Koppu / Kotsu|
|Coins||Ouros||Oru / Ouru|
|1||Dragon/Ace||Pin/Tsun/Un/Aza||Pin is the kabu term for ‘one’, and likely has Portuguese origins.
Tsun also likely has Portuguese origins.
Un from Portuguese Um meaning ‘one’.
Aza from Portuguese As meaning ‘ace’, refering specifically to the Dragon of Clubs.
|10||Maid||Juu/Tou/Sota||Juu/Tou means ‘ten’ in Japanese.
Sota is exactly the Portuguese term meaning ‘servant’.
|11||Horse/Knight||Uma/Kaba||Uma means ‘horse’ in Japanese.
Kaba is a shortening of Portuguese cavalo (‘horse’) or cavaleiro (‘horseman’).
|12||King||Kiri/Rei||Kiri is likely a shortening of Latin Christus.
Rei is exactly the Portuguese term meaning ‘king’.
Since Tensho Karuta is structurally and visually identical to a 48-card Portuguese deck, any game that uses a 48-card deck (such as a Spanish playing card deck) can be played using Tensho Karuta.
It is thought that trick-taking games like Triunfo or Ombre were played when the Portuguese introduced card games to Japan. Unfortunately, no evidence of those particular games being played in Japan exists. However, a similar trick-taking game called Hachi-nin Meri was played on an expanded Tensho Karuta deck called Unsun Karuta.
A lot of Japanese card games played using other types of cards were originally played using Tensho Karuta. For a list of Japanese games that can be played using Tensho Karuta, see Mekurifuda Games.