Japanese Culture and Daily Life

Traditional Games Making a Comeback

traditional game Children’s cries of delight echo through the gymnasium of an elementary school. During the periods set aside for integrated study at this school, elderly neighbors are invited to interact with students through traditional games, such as kendama (cup and ball), koma (tops), and otedama (beanbag juggling). Many kindergartens and nursery schools, as well as elementary schools have recently been holding such activities. Changes that have recently taken place in children’s environments led to the active integration of such games in schools.
“Oh, this is hard!” “Look, I did it!”
© Sato Hiroaki

Children’s Environments

What Japanese children do for fun has changed dramatically in the past 20 years. When Nintendo first started selling famikon in 1983, it became an instant hit. Subsequently, portable digital games have gone on the market one after the other, and by now even computer and cell phone use has spread among young children.
      According to a study conducted by Benesse Educational Research and Development Center,* elementary school students play video games after school for an average of one hour. While over 20 percent of elementary school students play video games hardly at all, another 20 percent play for two or more hours. If we were to include other digital games, the figure would be even higher. Over 60 percent play in their own home or in a friend’s home. Video and digital games are not the only things that have influenced the change in where children play, from outdoors to indoors. The number of places where children can safely play has decreased, it is said, as a result of urban development and crimes perpetrated against children. Furthermore, we see a decrease in cross-generational communication and the undermining of the local community due to an increase in nuclear families.
      There is a heightened sense of crisis concerning children’s environments. We often hear about the decline in children’s athletic agility and strength because of little time spent actively playing outside as well as the deterioration of children’s communication skills from spending so much time playing alone.

where japanese children play after school
* Dai-ikkai Kodomo seikatsu jittai kihon chosa hokokusho [Report of the 1st Basic Survey on Conditions of Children’s Daily Lives], 2005.

Merits of Traditional Games

Many traditional games require physical activity. These games help develop children’s physical agility and strength, foster perseverance and concentration, and develop balance without them even knowing it. For example, kendama appears to require the use of just the fingertips, but in fact, one must bend and stretch the knees, and maintain balance using the entire body. Learning to wrap the throwing cord around a koma top and tossing it correctly, or getting a small top to spin on the palm of your hand demands hours of practice.
      In addition, traditional games can be enjoyed across generations, allowing people of different ages to interact. Elderly neighbors can be invited to join in, thereby fostering a sense of local community. One of the main aims in adopting traditional games in the schools is to create opportunities for children to interact with different kinds of people.
      Many local governments run programs to provide children with safe places to play, and traditional games often make an appearance in these programs. Local communities also hold traditional game events. However, this means that traditional games are no longer played on a daily basis. They were originally passed down from parents to children and grandchildren, but today, with growing numbers of nuclear families and society overflowing with toys, traditional games are not easy to pass down. Nevertheless, more than a few children have become fascinated by the special appeal of traditional games, which offer pleasures digital games lack.

Traditional Games Common Around the World

Since kendama, koma, otedama, takeuma (stilts), tako-age (kiteflying), ayatori (cat’s cradle) are often introduced as traditional Japanese games, many children think that they are unique to Japan. However, similar toys and games can be found all around the world. Some may have been invented in one place and spread to other areas, while others may have coincidentally been invented in different places. It is no surprise that similar children’s toys made from readily available materials are seen around the world, though the materials may differ from place to place. Traditional toys that are almost the same, but are somehow different: it can be interesting to compare the various toys of the world. Here we introduce traditional toys that are widely popular in Japan.

Cup and Ball

Playing with kendama (lit., “sword and ball”) begins by swinging the ball onto the small, medium, or large “plate (cup),” or making the ball, where it has a hole on one side, fall on the tip of a shaft at one end, called the “sword” (ken). The first challenge is to get the ball to land on the large plate, then on the medium and small plates. The next trick is to make the ball fall on the shaft. This covers the basic moves of the game. After that, everything involves combining the different moves. Many people create original moves, and there are said to be over 1,000 tricks in all.
      The roots of kendama are said to be found in the French bilboquet (see right side in left box below), a game played in Europe during the nineteenth century. In France, it was played by aristocrats, while in England, it was a game for girls.
      Kendama is said to have reached Japan from China via Nagasaki during the Edo period (1603-1867). At the time, it was comprised of a straight stick and a ball. Kendama as we know it today, with three plates and a sword tip, was invented in Hiroshima during the Taisho period (1912-1926). It was an instant hit among children, and was commonly played until the early Showa period (1926-1989).
      To promote the spread of kendama as a sport, the NPO Japan Kendama Association founded in 1975 created a standard kendama for competition (kendama with approval stickers are used at competitions), and a rulebook. Today, competitions and grade (kyu, dan) certification meets take place around the country. Skill is ranked in ten kyu (rising from 10 to 1) and six dan (rising from 1 to 6).
      The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology is also focusing on games as a way to improve children’s physical strength. Since kendama is recognized as a game that requires balance and helps exercise the entire body, including the back and knees, “caravans” comprised of people well-versed in kendama are set to tour elementary schools starting in the 2007 school year.

kendama championship <- The All-Japan Young People’s Kendama Championship Tournament takes place every summer. An elementary school boy and girl who advance through a regional block play in the tournament with their counterparts from other regions. There are ten regional blocks in the country.

Kendama Around the World

kendama around the world Photos from Kendama, 2003 Published by BUNKEIDO Co., Ltd.
© NPO Japan Kendama Association, Teruki MARUISHI, Ichiro SUZUKI & Yuji CHIBA

Japanese Kendama

japanese kendama <-© NPO Japan Kendama Association, Teruki MARUISHI, Ichiro SUZUKI & Yuji CHIBA


There are many types of koma—those spun with the fingers (hinerigoma), with the palms of the hands (temomigoma), by pulling a cord (itohikigoma), by throwing the top using a cord wrapped around it (nagegoma), and others. The kind often introduced as a traditional toy is the “throw top” (nagegoma). Some are made of wood, and some of cast metal (beigoma).
      Beigoma are steel tops that have no stem. They are spun by throwing with a string about sixty centimeters long wound around the base. One game is played by spreading a sheet over the bottom of a barrel and pressing it down in the middle to create a playing surface, on which two players spin their respective tops until one flicks the other off the surface. It is difficult to wind the string tightly since the top has no stem, and spinning the beigoma requires considerable skill.
      It is said that koma came to Japan from China, but the details are unknown. Koma were already popular among the common people in the Kamakura period (1192-1333), but it was during the Edo period that they flourished. The best known were the beigoma made by filling whelk shells with sand or lead and then sealed with wax. This was the beginning of the beigoma. The production of beigoma we now know, made by pouring steel into moulds, started in the late Meiji to mid-Taisho periods. Beigoma etched with the names of professional baseball players and sumo wrestlers were very popular among children in the shitamachi (“low city”) area of Tokyo from the 1920s to the early 1930s. Since steel was collected during World War II for the war effort, beigoma during that time were made of china or glass instead.
      After World War II, from 1945 to the early 1960s, beigoma was the most common game among children. There were many factories manufacturing beigoma, but today, there is only one left in Kawaguchi, Saitama prefecture. Still, there are many beigoma fans, and every week, competitions, both large and small, take place in parks and various other locations.

beigoma the 7th all-japan top-spinning contest
(left) Beigoma imprinted with names of people or places. © TJF
(right) In 2006 the 7th All-Japan Top-spinning Contest was sponsored by the Japan Spin a Top Association.
© Koma no Sato

Children and adults of all ages enjoyed beigoma in a festival in the old shitamachi area of Tokyo. <- Children and adults of all ages enjoyed beigoma in a festival in the old shitamachi area of Tokyo.

Acrobatic Tops
Kyokugoma きょくごま

In addition to children’s toy tops, there are beautifully shaped and colored tops used for acrobatic displays. Performers delight audiences with various tricks, such as making a spinning top slide along the blade of a sword or move along a slender cord, and balancing a spinning top on the edge of an open fan (see photo below; Mimasu Monya’s performance). These feats, which require years to master, are often performed at celebratory occasions such as New Year’s.

kyokugoma  kyokugoma2 © TJF

Japanese Tops

japanese tops
<- © Koma no Sato


Otedama are fabric bags filled with red azuki beans, kernels of rice, or plastic pellet which one plays with juggling, throwing and catching several simultaneously while singing a traditional ditty. The names of the game, pellets used to fill the bags, shape of the bags, and the ways they are played with vary from region to region.
      The origins of otedama are said to go back to a game played by nomads living near the Black Sea around 1200 B.C. which spread all over the world via the Silk Road. In Japan, it has been passed down from mothers to their daughters from about 1,200 years ago, but since around 1970, it has not been so commonly played. Nowadays, otedama are still sold, but they seem to be more for decoration than for play.

Juggling Toys from Around the World

Juggling Toys from Around the World <- Photos and captions from Otedama, 1997 Published by BUNKEIDO Co.,Ltd. © NIHON-NO-OTEDAMA-NO-KAI & Denichirou OHNISHI


Takeuma are stilts made by fixing crosspieces near the bottom of bamboo poles one to two meters long. One stands on the crosspieces and walks while holding onto the poles at the top. The origin of the word takeuma (lit., “bamboo horse”) comes from an ancient Chinese game in which people rode bamboo contrivances made to use like horses. It is said that takeuma as we know them today became widespread from the Edo period onwards.
      Today, takeuma made from plastic are the norm. Playing with takeuma is said to be useful in fostering balance, and it is a common fixture of play equipment, along with unicycles, at elementary schools and children’s recreation centers. There are some elementary schools that invite grandparents, parents, and children to make their own takeuma; students help one another in making their stilts in class, and hold competitions in which footraces and relay races are all done on stilts.

5th National Takeuma Contest
5th National Takeuma Contest sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce of the city of Muko, Kyoto prefecture, in January 2007. A takeuma workshop for parents with their children was also held.
© Muko City Society of Commerce and Industry

Japanese Otedama

japanese otedamaPhotos and captions from Otedama, 1997 Published by BUNKEIDO Co.,Ltd. © NIHON-NO-OTEDAMA-NO-KAI & Denichirou OHNISHI ->


Modern Versions of Traditional Toys

Some traditional toys have been revamped by toy manufacturers to appeal to children of today. For example, there is Beyblade, which is a spinning top modeled on the beigoma, as well as DIGI-KEN (dejiken), a digitalized version of kendama, with flashing lights and sounds.
      What they all have in common is the ease with which one is able to acquire the skills to enjoy them, compared to traditional toys. With Beyblade, one attaches the top to a special device that anyone can spin. Another characteristic is that many of these games are tie-ins with manga, video games, and anime. Beyblade, which went on the market in 1999, became popular after characters in manga played with it and its anime version was aired on television. Its popularity rose to the extent that national competitions were held, and in the first half of the fiscal year 2001, over 15 million were sold.
      The popularity of such modern versions of traditional toys is fleeting, and both Beyblade and DIGI-KEN are no longer on the market. However, the popularity of Beyblade led to renewed interest in beigoma, and an increase in beigoma playing population. These modern versions of traditional toys, which provided people a shortcut to enjoyment, in fact led to a renewed interest in traditional toys that offer the pleasure to be gained when you take time to polish your skill.

modern versions of traditional toys (left) DIGI-KEN
This photo is from Kendama, 2003 Published by BUNKEIDO Co., Ltd.
© NPO Japan Kendama Association, Teruki MARUISHI, Ichiro SUZUKI & Yuji CHIBA, 
© 1998 TOMY
(right) Beyblade
© HUDSON SOFT/ TAKARA, Beyblade Project, TV Tokyo


Original text : Takarabako No.11 “Japanese Culture Now” March 2007.
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