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March Card-a-Month: Ukiyoe Tarot

This month, with spring around the corner, I decided to use the Ukiyoe Tarot (U.S. Games Systems, Inc.) which is full of flowers and birds and generally bright, warm colors.

The Ukiyoe Tarot is a Marseilles/Rider-Waite redesign in the Ukiyo-e style of art. Ukiyo-e used woodblock-printing to depict the day-to-day life from the fields to the Emperor's palace in 17-19th Century Japan, the Edo period. It was a time when the shoguns had solidified their power under a figurehead emperor, closed the country's borders, and the arts and culture flourished. The Edo period in Japan looms in the popular cultural imagination just about as strongly as the vaguely mediæval Eurozone you can see in the Rider-Waite deck.

The card designs by Koji Furuta are all beautiful. The most interesting trump cards in this deck are the ones that are based on Japanese analogues of the concept in the card: for instance, Death, the Devil, and Justice are all based on mythological and cultural depictions of those ideals in Japan.

Death, Justice, and the Chariot in the Ukioyoe Tarot

As such, the meanings of these cards have altered. Take a card like the Chariot: its design is based on a unique Japanese legend of a great warrior who was carted in a litter in secret to infiltrate an enemy stronghold. That's a big difference from the Chariot's original inspiration: the triumphal Victory riding back home post-battle to cheering accolades. Subterfuge doesn't really match the nature of the card as traditionally read, though the concept of a famous warrior being carted was obviously too big a temptation to pass. The card's subsequent new meaning is what makes this deck special. I appreciate cards like these over the ones that basically take a familiar design and dress it up in a kimono (the way the World, Judgement, and the Wheel of Fortune are).

The Ukiyoe Tarot pip cards appear as traditional suits, not fully-detailed scenes. It seems strange that they wouldn't have done the opposite, since Ukiyo-e was meant to depict ordinary scenes in daily life; the Rider-Waite definitely captures a sense of ordinary life, ahistorical as it may be. Imagine how scenes like this could depict the minor arcana:

"The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido," by Hiroshige. Public Domain,

In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the popularity of Edo prints in Europe didn't heavily influence Pamela Colman Smith's designs.

But back to the pips: this is another way that the Ukiyoe readings can be unique. Besides the pip number and suit, the decoration of these cards include flowers, trees, and birds traditionally depicted in Edo period art, all of which come with their own symbolic meanings. The booklet that comes with the deck is extremely helpful in this regard, and I can't remember a booklet that felt as necessary to study closely as this one.

For this month, the card that the Ukiyoe Tarot gave us as a guide was the King of Pentacles.*

March's card: The King of Pentacles

The King of Pentacles with March's signs Pisces and Aires from the Minchiate.

The living embodiment of wealth and contentment. The booklet compares this figure to the shogun Yoshimitsu, who lived in palatial splendor while all of the other shoguns were in a state of internecine violence. When everything else is falling apart, remember that meeting your needs, no matter how insignificant, can make you feel this good.

*Now, why they had to call the suit Pentacles and not Coins is not for me to say. There's nothing pentacled about this massive, Edo-period coin. Giant coin=King of Coins. This isn't even right on a geometric level, because there's a square on this coin, not a five-pointed star. The characters spell the name of the company that produced the deck in Japan, Angel Playing Cards, so we know who's getting paid.

[All original images: CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.]

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