Playing for myself, one flower card at a time

There’s a 15-year old boy and he’s surrounded by family. That’s how this story starts, if this is actually a story.

I was at my grandparents’ house when my grandma proposed we play a card game. My brother wanted to play Monopoly because he always won. I wanted to play parcheesi or bananagrams, for similar reasons. That’s when my grandparents suggested we play Hanafuda.

It’s not a word I had ever heard before, and as I scratched my head, my grandma disappeared into the study and returned with a small deck of cards. I was fascinated.

Hanafuda translates to ‘flower cards’ in Japanese. To put it simply, that’s what they are. The game consists of 52 rectangles of paper and card painted into 12 suits of four cards. Each suit has a different plant, which symbolizes a month of the year, and each card has its own particular design. They’re beautifully made, about the size of a folded post-it.

I learned the game sitting around the dining room table at my grandparents’ house. My mother recognized the intricate drawings from when she played with her grandparents, and, of course, my grandparents knew how to play.

It’s a matching game. Depending on how many people are playing, one is dealt a certain amount of cards into their hand, which they pair with similar suits in a set of cards placed in the center of the table. That set is then replenished from the deck.

The goal is to collect cards that are worth points, each card has a value, and to build combinations of cards, or a yaku, which docks opponents 50 points when obtained. It can be played hand to hand or in a longer format where point totals are added up round after round. 

But all of that requires memory. There are no numbers written on the cards, nothing that told me the yakus of each card. As I played, though, I began to see how the cards were stitched together, a multitude of patterns that were at my fingertips.

We played late into the night, the first of many spent on Hanafuda. But what can a game of 52 cards mean to someone? 

For me, at least, it was an opportunity  to connect with a part of me that always felt tenuous at best. A toehold into a history and an identity.

It doesn’t mean much about who I am so much as what I can be. Being Japanese American is something I struggle with. Not so much claiming the identity, but being the identity. I’ll tell anyone who cares to ask that I’m Japanese American, but knowing where the path goes and walking that path are two different things.

I look white. That’s something I learned a long time ago. Wherever I went when I was growing up, I stuck out. I came of age in a world where I was often the only white person in the room. That’s not something I could ever ignore. 

Even when I was little, I saw the difference between my family and my friends’ families, between what we did, where we went, where we lived. The support I had and the opportunities that came with it. My friends who weren’t white didn’t have those same chances. I didn’t understand what white privilege was until I was older, but I saw it plenty. I lived in a world where I had a yaku over everyone else. I started 50 points ahead.

That was part of passing as white. Some could claim an identity, but I knew that I was different, that I had things that they didn’t, that they had to fight for things I took for granted. They also got to be something else, because I thought they had earned it. During my childhood, the ability to claim a non-white identity was heavily associated with socioeconomic class, and the difficulties posed by the racism and struggles that came with that identity and class. I didn’t face those same challenges, so how could I claim a similar identity?

I never got to construct an identity based on what I looked like. I look in a mirror and I see a white boy. Others had external links to an identity, a link that I don’t have. People pass me on the street and they see a white boy. An ethnic identity was a badge of pride that was earned by those who had to persevere through the trials and tribulations of being a person of color in American society, trials which I would never face.

So how does a card game full of flowers play a hand in the identity of that white boy? How did Hanafuda mean anything to me?

I’m Japanese American. I’ll tell anyone that, but how could I really be that? It was never an identity I constructed externally, so I built it internally, one card at a time.

Hanafuda, seeing the cards and the patterns, that was mine. That was something no one could take away. It didn’t matter what I looked like if I knew how to play.

It made me Japanese. It was a life line, tying me to my mother and my grandmother and my great-grandparents. When I sit down to play Hanafuda, I am Japanese, and it doesn’t matter that I’m also white. When I stand up and put the cards away, I’m back to anonymous. I look white, and that’s irrefutable. I receive the benefits of unconscious and conscious bias, even if I never asked for them.

I don’t need someone to confirm that identity. I can be Japanese and white simultaneously. When I play a pine card and take the crane, or a grass to pick up the moonrise, I am Japanese. I began to learn that on a long summer evening, and I’m still learning it. I am Japanese. I can walk that path my own way, with a Hanafuda deck in my hands and the sun rising high over head.

Jasper Kenzo Sundeen is the sports editor. Contact Jasper Kenzo Sundeen at [email protected].