An Introduction to the J.K. Waite Tarot

The summer of 2019 was really atypical for me. For the first time in my teaching career, I will be teaching all the same classes this upcoming year as I did last year, so I didn’t have to spend 2 months writing curricula. In addition, my mother broke her arm at work, and was ultimately given three months off in order to recuperate. My mother and I haven’t had large swaths of time together in over a decade, so I ended up spending nearly the entire summer break with her. I’m still not out of the broom closet to her, so that meant putting most witchy things on hiatus. All I managed to accomplish was reading a couple books via Kindle. I did, however, take the opportunity to research ‘rare’ tarot decks that I’ve always wanted but never thought I’d be able to own. For me, the deck at the absolute top of that list was the J.K. Waite Tarot.

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My J.K. Waite deck…or at least the outer box of it. Look how Instagram I’m trying to be, what with the whitewashed wood, drippy candle, and assortment of crystals.

I think everyone who has an interest in tarot remembers their first reading. Mine was when I was a teenager. I used my freshly-minted drivers license to go to a psychic fair at Camp Chesterfield (a spiritualist community near where I grew up), and one of the readers was using this deck. It was the colors that drew me in. This deck is absolutely dripping in crimson, cerulean, turquoise, seafoam green, pink, lilac, daffodil, grape…well, it’s a whole Crayola box of color. While that may have grabbed my eye, it was the images that kept me interested. These cards aren’t Pamela Colman Smith’s artwork…but they are a really close clone. I quickly became obsessed with finding all the details in each image and thinking about what they could symbolize.

Not long after that, some friends and I went to a store where they sold tarot cards. The Magician on the yellow box of the Rider Tarot reminded me of the Chesterfield reader’s cards, but I was pretty disappointed when I began to flip through that deck. The classic Rider Tarot is heavy on the yellows and oranges and relies on a sky blue to keep the deck looking varied, and its current printing is downright sloppy. (The Rider Tarot is so much better in vintage decks.) It looked so flat to me in contrast with the deck I remembered that I couldn’t bring myself to buy it.

It was a while before I made it back to Chesterfield, but when I was finally able to sit with my reader again, I asked her about the deck she was using.

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The Japanese know their packaging. The green box is pretty much just a slip cover to hold this blue folder. On one side is a pocket for the guide book, and on the other an insulating package for the deck.

She showed me the card box, which was a tan one a bit like my brown snap case pictured above. Like mine, it just said “Tarot” on it, which wasn’t terribly helpful. I asked if she knew anything more about the deck, so she went back to her home after the fair and returned with the rest of the packaging she had. She showed me the green box, the blue slip cover and the red book, but sadly didn’t know anything more about the deck. She didn’t even know if it had a title beyond “Tarot Book & Cards.” All she knew is that it had been a gift from an army friend who had been stationed in Japan for awhile.

Back in 2000, the Internet had become fairly mainstream, and online retailers like eBay had gained enough credibility that people had become less afraid that using them would result in identity theft. I thought it wouldn’t take much time to track down a copy, but no matter how much I searched, I couldn’t find this deck anywhere. “Tarot Book & Cards” is hardly an identifying search term, and “Japanese Tarot” or “Green Box Japanese Tarot” wasn’t much better. Eventually I gave up the search.

Fast forward to 2016/2017. By this point, I’d developed a real fondness for Pamela Colman Smith’s artwork, and I’d begun to research the history of this deck and the Pams A, B, C, and D variations. One of the websites I referenced when learning about these different printings was Dusty White’s WaiteSmith.org. And it was during one of my visits to the site when I scrolled down a page and found something that looked like this:

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Not the page from circa 2017, obviously. The giant red arrow is my addition.

That was it! That was the deck I’d been trying to track down! Someone else actually knew what it was! Thanks to Dusty’s description of the deck, I learned that this nameless deck is often referred to by English-speaking collectors as the “Waite = J.K.” deck. Dusty didn’t mention how the deck acquired this name, and I’ve never heard anyone else call it that. In fact, most collectors I’ve seen discuss it tend to prefer “J.K. Waite.” With some additional research and searching, however, I came across one copy of the deck that included a little piece of paper, which I’ve pictured below. This paper is the only think in all the packaging that gives the deck a name in English, and that name is “The Waite – JK Tarot Deck.” I’m sure that this flyer was included in most, if not all, copies when they were new. The flyer also is a handy place that lists the deck creators: Alexandria Mokusei-ou, the man who directed the card creation and wrote the guidebook, and Seigan Nakajima, the man who illustrated them. The deck was published by Tairiku Shobou, and they kept it in print from 1975 until 1989.

Waite JK

This is just a screen shot of the flyer I mentioned above. It is the only time I’ve ever seen a picture of it, and I ended up looking at several different copies as I researched the deck.

The information on Dusty’s website finally gave me enough information to actually make good searches. Within minutes of locating Dusty’s site, I had found three listings for the deck on eBay and Etsy. I was also crushed when I saw how much people were asking for it. As time went by, I never found the deck for sale on an English site under $225, and I frequently saw it closer to $500. That is ridiculous. So I largely gave up trying to find a copy of my own.

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I mean, this is a pretty deck, but who spends hundreds of dollars on one card deck?

I did put my obsessive-compulsive tendencies to good use, though. I tried to track down as much information as I could about the deck. Sadly, Dusty White’s website has pretty much most of the information one can find in English…but I’ve got a couple very good friends who have moved to Japan and enjoy tracking weird things down. Through them I was able to learn that this deck really has no name, even in Japanese. Its creator, however, is very well known within the fortune telling scene. Alexandria Mokusei-ou is a fairly elusive figure, and he only seems to exist in the fortune telling world, where he has been a prominent figure since the early 1960s. All that is publicly known about Mokusei-ou’s life is that he was born in 1932 in Kobe, and that he still lives in Kobe to this day. In fact, he runs a shopfront there where you can make appointments to have him read for you!

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A publicity image of Alexandria Mokusei-ou.

Part of why Mokusei-ou doesn’t have much of a footprint outside fortune telling is that his name isin facta pseudonym. According to my Japanese friends, the fact that his name is a pseudonym is obvious when you see it written out in Japanese. It translates into Alexandria Jupiter King or Alexandria King of Jupiter, which solves the mystery of where the “J.K” in “J.K. Waite” came from: It is the Jupiter King’s Waite deck!

While it is difficult to learn more about the Jupiter King outside fortune telling, there’s plenty to learn about him within it.  He has been a very prolific author and deck creator: I’ve counted at least 10 other decks that he has developed (though some may be oracles), and he’s written at least 20 books. His career in Japan seems to rivals those of Rachel Pollack and Mary K. Greer here in the States. In addition, he seems very well-respected in his field, and many people laud his accuracy rate in predictions, too. Heck, he even has his own fortune telling app available on the Apple Store!

But back in the late 1960s/early 1970s, Mokusei-ou had only just begun work as a fortune teller, thanks to a journalist friend who recommended him for a fortune telling feature somewhat equivalent to the horoscope column in American papers. He fell into his tarot career by publishing some brief descriptions of each of the cards in Japanese. Few people at the time had access to such information as most of the material available at the time was in European languages, so Mokusei-ou found a very ready and appreciative audience. And many inquired as to where they could find some of these decks for themselves.

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At about this time, U.S. Games, Samuel Weiser, and Rider & Co., were starting the whole process of hashing out copyrights and publishing rights for the Rider Waite Smith deck, and importing it to Asia likely became much more complicated than it would have been just a few years prior. Therefore, Mokusei-ou took the opportunity to pull together his own version of the deck. He contracted Seigan Nakajima to produce the art. Nakajima was born in 1928 to the cartoonist Kikuo Nakajima, so he was surrounded by art from an early age. He had been in charge of the cover art for SF Magazine from its inaugural edition until 1968. He produced a lot of science-fiction related art and illustrations between the 1950s and 1970s, and may be best known for producing the cover art for the Hayakawa book series.

I think that perhaps Nakajima agreed to work with Mokusei-ou because of an apparent shared interest in Jewish culture. After he completed illustrating this deck, Nakajima went on to specialize in representing the stories and experiences of Japanese Jews, culminating in editing a book by Kawamori Eiji on Jews in Japan and how the religion had been developing in the nation up to that point. Mokusei-ou was obviously influenced by A.E. Waite and Pamela Colman Smith’s deck, and much of the art is similar. However, a brief look through the deck also shows a strong influence from Paul Foster Case. Many of the major arcana cards tend to incorporate elements of the B.O.T.A. deck in with more Waite-like imagery. Part of Case’s influence is a more explicit focus on Hebrew elements of tarot. I can imagine that this could have been a fruitful talking point between the J.K. Waite’s creator and illustrator, at the very least. Together, they took all these influences and combined them with popular mid-century colors and slight tweaks to various images to augment their meaning or to improve their aesthetic for the Japanese culture.

In the end, they created a deck that is both familiar and strange, traditional and innovative, timeless yet grounded within the 1970s. It is a genuinely fun deck to work with, for it challenges your expectations and makes you approach the RWS in a new way. I wish I could read the accompanying book so that I could learn more of why Mokusei-ou and Nakajima made the changes they did.

Alas, I don’t have the ability to record a walkthrough of the deck. But luckily for me, Angelo Nasios has already done so:

While many vintage decks are enjoying reprints today, it is unlikely that the J.K. Waite will be reprinted. Tairiku Shobou folded in 1992 after rebranding itself from an occult publisher to a short film distributor to a video software company. (Along the way, it may even have created adult material, if my auction searches for this deck are any indication.) This ties up the publishing rights, and with Mokusei-ou’s incredible numbers of other decks and books out in the market, he has no real incentive to untangle them and push for a re-print of this early deck. Therefore, if this deck interests you, you will need to track down a vintage copy.

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