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Age-old card game fuels mission

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    Helen Nakano holds the hanafuda cards that her son Jason Nakano designed.
    Helen Nakano plays hanafuda with her son Jason Nakano. Helen formed her own company to produce a contemporary edition of the game.
    For Helen Nakano, it's not enough to just play the age-old card game hanafuda. She wrote a book and produced a new, colorful deck of cards to attract younger people to the game.

Most authors obsessively write, write, write and dream, dream, dream of the day they get a credit line. Helen Nakano, on the other hand, is an "accidental author," as she puts it.

"The card game I was publishing has an instruction booklet, and so the whole package is considered a book. A book!" she laughed. "I didn’t know I was an ‘author’ until the printer told me. Blew my mind."

The subject at hand for Nakano, 73, is hanafuda, the Japanese card game based on image matching in suits built around nature and the seasons. Plus, the cards are stout — the original were on wood — and players like slamming them down with a satisfying thunk.

It’s mostly played by older Japanese Americans, and that’s a shame, says Nakano. Families should play together more often instead of vegging out around the TV. A couple of years ago, she knocked out a slim how-to guide for playing hanafuda for her then-5-year-old granddaughter. Her family responded: A cousin sold copies of the book to interested friends, Nakano’s son Jason redesigned traditional hanafuda cards in a more modern style and Nakano started researching the history of the game.

"I learned so much!" enthuses Nakano. "For example, Ono No Tofu, the famous calligrapher, is the patron saint of school and learning, and there are a lot of Japanese values and ideals tied up in his story, like the time he watched a frog try again and again to get up a willow tree. Finally, he succeeded. The story is behind the game of hanafuda. Don’t give up! Ganbare! It’s the Japanese way."

Which means that Nakano isn’t just producing a new edition of an old game, she’s "on a mission."

"I really, really want hanafuda to have a second chance, a rebirth. It’s part of our culture in Hawaii. Many played it, not just Japanese. Even the cards are representative of Eastern philosophy rather than Western. Cards from Europe are all king, queen, joker — all about people. Look, the hanafuda cards are all images of nature, except for one, which we called Rain Man when we were kids. It’s a man with an umbrella watching a frog. Now I know he’s Ono No Tofu!"

Nakano created a small local company called, naturally, Hanafuda Hawaii, putting together an attractive hanafuda package that consisted of newly printed cards and her now-revised and expanded guidebook, all in a carrying box. (Original hanafuda boxes and cards were made of white cedar or bamboo, and were even carried onto the battlefield by the Japanese-American soldiers of the 100th Battalion.)

Nakano took the concept to various publishers and Japanese cultural organizations, "but no one was interested," which is why she formed her own company.

She contracted with the Madden Corp. and decided to print up 5,000 units, but the Madden folks tried to dissuade her. Way too optimistic, they felt.

Nakano is a pretty optimistic lady, however. Card sales have exceeded projections, particularly since she markets them as school fundraiser projects — insisting that the kids learn to play the game — and she also has an unofficial posse of "hanafuda sensei," enthusiasts young and old who spread the word by holding workshops.

"Kids are becoming so techy; they’re not interrelating with one another or their families," said Nakano. "Games like this bring generations together — good for the kids, and good for the older folks, too. Look, studies show that the best thing for people in care homes are social interaction and activities in which they exercise their brains. Well — hanafuda!"

Nakano, a former schoolteacher and globe-trotting Air Force wife, is well-known in Manoa as one of the founders of Malama O Manoa, the heritage-preservation organization. These days, when she’s not spreading the gospel of hanafuda, Nakano leads yoga classes.

Still, hanafuda keeps popping up. When Nakano stopped by the newspaper office, she asked photographer Cindy Ellen Russell whether she’d heard of hanafuda.

"Sure!" said Russell. "I play it with my grandmother!"

Nakano swiveled to the reporter. "See!"


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