This hibachi attests to the uncommon creativity with which the Japanese people approached and adapted things Western. The Portuguese 48-card deck arrived in Japan in the mid-16th century. It had 4 suits - cups, swords, coins, and clubs - said to represent the four classes of medieval Europe: priests, knights, merchants, and peasants. The foreign notion of card games caught on like wildfire and was subject to constant regulation by the Tokugawa shogunate, which frowned on gambling. In Japan, decks went through various permutations to get around the proscriptions and developed separately from the rest of the world also due to the seclusion policy. In due course, a revised pack was made, called Unsun Karuta - a mix of European, Chinese, and Japanese motifs – and this is what is pictured here.
The whimsical rendition of the figure combines the knight’s armour that resembles that of a Chinese, and partially-understood motifs like the beautiful bundle staves interwoven like a bamboo fence and the upside-down cups, with Japanese touches. The Japanese, not quite understanding the motif of the chalice, favoured picturing it upside down like a Buddhist jewel, with the stem sprouting from the top. The dragon motif, a feature of the original Iberian set long associated with Portugal, must have been particularly popular in Japan, even though the winged dragon suggests St. George - a Christian motif that surely would have displeased Japanese authorities.
It is possible that this eclectic amalgam of card-characters can be explained by the Japanese association of the Iberians with material bounty because of the rare and precious commodities they brought. The idea of a riches-bringing ship became conflated with the native notion of the takarabune [treasure ship], whose passengers are the Seven Lucky Gods - a common image in folklore. The message seems to be ‘good things come by sea’. Despite official disapproval, card playing in Japan came to be enjoyed by the majority of the Japanese.
For more about Unsun Karuta, see Sezon Museum of Art and Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art, eds., ‘Porutogaru to Nanban bunka’ ten: mezase toho no kuniguni [‘Portugal and Nanban culture’ exhibition : Via Orientals] (Japan, 1993), p. 216-217, 219, no. 206; and go to the Kyushu National Museum website (Japanese):