The Kendama


Kendama is a Japanese skill toy. It is similar to the French bilboquet, Spanish balero, or what's known as ball-in-a-up. Despite the many variations, the principle of these games is the same: catching an object with a stick or a cup. What's special about Kendama is that there are many more ways to play Kendama, an almost infinite number of trick-combinations.

It consists of a sword-like handle ("ken"/ sword) to which a ball ("tama" or "dama" / ball) is attached by a string. The ball has a hole in it so it can be spiked with the "sword". The two extending sides of the Kendama are concave cups of different size. The bigger one is called Ôsara (large dish) and the smaller one is called Kosara (small dish). There is a third, smaller cup called Chûsara (middle dish) at the bottom of the handle.


The history of Kendama

The Inuit traditional "Pommawonga" (spike the fish) is one of the oldest known versions. The Inuit made their version from the bones of hunted animals. They were probably used in hunting rituals as ceremonial objects, for example to tell about the outcome of the hunt. Among the Indians of North America, a game of skill similar to Kendama was popular as some sort of gamble. There are many theories about the origin of today's Kendama, but historical research has not come to a definite result to date. However, it is proven by historical sources that the Kendama was already a popular leisure activity in France in the 16th century. Under the name "Bilboquet", at the court of Henry the 3rd. In the diary of a nobleman, for example, it says that "in the summer of 1585, children were having fun in the streets with the bilboquet." Today, it is assumed that in the course of history, based on the "bilboquet", today's variety of kendamas has developed. In Europe, Kendama experienced its first heyday in the second half of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries.

The Japanese Kendama

Although the Ainu, natives of Northern Japan, had already invented their own variant of Kendama, today's Japanese version probably goes back to a European import. It is believed that around 1777/78, during the Edo period (1603-1868), Kendama came to Nagasaki via the Silk Road, the only Japanese city open to foreign trade at that time. Kita Muranobu describes the game of Kendama in his "Outline of fun and enjoyable games" from 1830. With the so-called "sukuitamaken" (spoon Kendama). You had to catch the ball in the plate at least once within five or three attempts to win . Such games were popular as drinking games in the joyous neighborhoods of the Edo period (1603–1868) in Japan. In turn they tried to catch the bullet and those who couldn't make it had to drink.

In the Meiji period (1868-1912), Kendama was a popular pastime, especially among women. In 1876 it was mentioned in the "Girls' Own Book of Amusement" as "sakazukioyobidama" (sake bowl and ball). The book reported on the latest trends from Europe. In the same year, the Kendama also appears for the first time in a report on raising children from the Ministry of Education. In the Meiji period, it became increasingly popular among young people and developed from a drinking game for adults to a game of skill for children.

The modern Kendama

Kendama in its current form goes back to the so-called "nichigetsuboru" ("sun and moon ball"). It appeared for the first time during the Taisho period (1912-1926) and the name is derived from the red ball, which is reminiscent of the sun and the plates for catching the ball, which resemble a crescent moon. Between 1919 and 1920, Mr. Hamaji Egusa from the Hiroshima area further developed the Kendama of the Meiji period, improved it and registered his new design under the name "nichigetsuboru". It consisted of a stem with a pointed end to which a ball was attached, as well as a small, medium and large container to catch the ball. The template for today's Kendama had thus been invented. In those days, each Kendama was handcrafted in small numbers with a foot-operated lathe. With the introduction of motor-operated lathes, production increased rapidly and the "nichigetsuboru" quickly became known across Japan beyond the local level. Already at the end of the Taisho period in 1926, you could buy a red and a white lacquered version in toy shops in all major cities. As an advertisement, competitions for children were held in public places, in which over-sized Kendamas could be won as trophies. Many of the tricks developed at that time are still typical for playing Kendama today, such as "uguise" (little bird), "hikôki" (airplane) or "tôdai" (lighthouse). They are still part of the standard repertoire of every Kendama player. To the rhythm of the "moshikame" (a trick in which the ball is caught alternately in two plates in quick succession), children used to sing Kendama songs. Although the term "tamaken" (ball sword) appeared as early as the Edo period, the current term "Kendama" (sword ball) only became established after the First World War. After the Second World War, Kendama was initially forgotten, but remained an integral part of most Japanese households as a traditional children's toy. In the mid-1960s it was rediscovered as a game of skill and this time it was spread again by adults who organized themselves into Kendama clubs. They raised the technical level of the game, developed new tricks and thus created the basis for a new Kendama boom in the late post-war period. For the first time Kendama was approached in a professional, sport-like manner.


Today's Kendama

As time went on the number of players, tricks and different forms of competition increased. Therefore, in 1975, Issei Fujiwara founded the Japanese Kendama Association, JKA. He standardized size, form and shape of the Kendama and had licenced Kendama produced to these norms. Furthermore he defined a group of standard tricks and developed a set of rules for attaining graduations, like in Judo or Karate. He also created the regulatory framework for official competitions on a local and national level. Due to his professional background as a children's book author he also was determined to make Kendama popular among younger people. These innovations quickly made Kendama a game people from all age groups enjoyed and kept on playing throughout their lives. Since then graduations and annual competitions are held up to national levels. Under the patronage of the "Japanese Ministry of Education, Sports and Culture" a national competition of elementary school children is held every year. The official championships for all age classes are organized by the JKA once a year and are open to Kendama players from all over the world. Because there is a large variety of trick-combinations, the freestlyle-scene has been getting larger and larger and is developing new tricks and integrating tricks from other games, like juggling. That's why there is a continuously increasing number of Kendama tricks. In Asian countries this relatively young form of Kendama is spreading quickly as a trend-sport. In Europe and America the Japanese version of Kendama only became known recently but since then is getting increasingly popular. An ever growing international community exchanges Kendama tricks over fun-sports websites and Youtube, where a great number of Kendama-Edits can be found. In 2008 and 2009 the British Kendama Association, BKA, held the first European Kendama Opens. Looking at the recent developments one can surely call it an international boom! This shows that, in times where children first learn to play football on a PlayStation, the Kendama is a welcome change.