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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, November 8, 2009

Reviving tradition, one card at a time

By Lee Cataluna

Helen Nakano is on a mission. She wants to teach 1,000 children to play hanafuda, the Japanese card game. She wants those kids to then teach adults. Her "hanafuda renaissance" is an antidote to what she's seen too many times.

"When I go to restaurants, the kids are sitting at the tables with their video games or headphones in their ears and the adults are talking around them. There's such a disconnect between generations."

It started when she took a computer class. Nakano, 72, a retired teacher and financial planner, wrote a little how-to book on hanafuda as her class project. Nakano shared the book with family and friends with a condition attached. "I told them 'I will give you a book if you promise to teach a young child how to play."

But to play, you need more than instructions. You need a set of cards.

Hanafuda cards aren't what they used to be. The graceful traditional images of flowers and seasons have been jazzed up. Nintendo distributes hanafuda cards with wild, almost grotesque manga characters cavorting around the kiku and sakura flowers. Disney makes a set that works Donald Duck, the Little Mermaid and Stitch into the centuries-old images. To top it off, these new versions don't make the right sound when a player slaps a card on the table.

Nakano eventually decided to make her own hanafuda deck. Her son designed the traditional images with subtle updates and included the point value on each card. Nakano calls it "hanafuda with training wheels."

Part of her mission is to find redemption for hanafuda. The game was popular in plantation camps, where grandparents taught grandchildren. In Hawaii, it was thought of as a family game, particularly the version played here called "sakura." But in Japan, the cards have a strong association with gambling. Almost worse, it's considered a peasant game, not sophisticated, like go.

"But I want to use hanafuda as a tool, a force for good," Nakano says.

For young children, the game teaches math, matching, art and symbolism. For the elderly, it provides mental stimulation through nostalgic play. Most of all, it provides a social activity that can bridge generations and forge connections.

Nakano has started a hanafuda club at Pohai Nani and has approached the Windward Boys and Girls Club and the Pacific Buddhist Academy about teaching kids so they can in turn play with older generations. She's willing to teach the game to groups. She's looking for corporate sponsors to help pay for the hanafuda kobako-miyage (little boxed set of cards and instructions) to give to schools and organizations. She can be reached at 927-0993 or at nakano@hawaiiantel.net.