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att. Japanese Culture - Traditional Japanese games
att. Culture - Traditional Japanese games
You are here: att.JAPAN > General Information > Traditional Japanese games
att.JAPAN Issue 41, July 2008

Traditional Japanese games

Continuing where the May issue left off, we are introducing traditional Japanese games.
We thank Edo-Tokyo Museum (http://www.edo-tokyo-museum.or.jp/), Tokyo Toy Museum (http://goodtoy.org/), and Japan Kendama Association (http://www.kendamakyokai.com/).

 Spinning top

Japan is famous for its spinning tops. There are tops of various sizes, materials, designs, and methods of spinning. You can spin a top with the fingers or with a string, and spinning with a string is rarely seen outside Japan. So let’s spin!

1. Beigoma
First, tie two knots at one end of a piece of string. The distance between the two knots should be about 0.7 cm. Using the knots as a core, coil the string around a top. Hold the top with your left hand, and lay the knots of the string on its thinner end, which becomes a pivot for spinning. Circle the top with the string. Utilizing the two knots as the top’s core, tightly coil the string clockwise from the thinner end to the thicker end. (If you are left-handed, coil the string counterclockwise.) After coiling, hold the top with your right hand (assuming you are right-handed), rapidly move your right arm forward, quietly remove the top, and quickly return your arm to your side. The top will spin clockwise. Aim to hit an opponent’s top with your top in a ring; when your top knocks down the opponent’s, you win. Children enthusiastically played beigoma in the street until around 50 years ago. 


2. Spinning time competition
Start spinning at the same time. If your top spins longer than your opponents’, you win.

3. Enjoy watching
Spinning is only fun if a top is designed well. Spinning tops are available in a variety of colors and patterns, so you’ll never tire of watching them. Naruko Onsen in Miyagi Prefecture is famous for kokeshi, or traditional wooden dolls, and artisans make tops using the same skills they employ to produce kokeshi. Their tops are elaborate and beautiful. Some tops look like Mount Fuji when spinning.

4. Acrobatic performance
Throw a top and spin it on your hand, or on a string between both hands. Alternatively, throw a spinning top between two persons without the pinning motion coming to a stop, or let a top move up a string. Some performers spin a top on a fan, while others even move it rapidly along the blade of a Japanese sword.  

Menko is a hand-sized circular or rectangular pasteboard card. A picture or a pattern is often printed on one side. Menko was usually played on the ground outside, but it can also be played on a table or on a floor inside. First, mark a battle area by scratching or using a string. Scatter an equal number of cards between players inside the area. Slap one card near an opponent’s card to make a draft and attempt to thereby flip it over, move it outside the area, or slip your card beneath it. If you succeed, you are awarded the opponent’s card. You can repeat the process until you fail to affect the opponent’s card. The person who acquires the most cards is the winner. Children used to fight desperately so as not to lose their favorite cards.

 Paper sumo wrestling
Sumo is said to be Japan’s national sport. You can even enjoy sumo with paper. Prepare a square of fancy paper. Make each wrestler with paper, drawing a face and writing the wrestler’s name. Make a ring using shoebox lid or a similar material. Put two wrestlers into the ring and start fighting by patting outside the ring. Not only luck but clever patting is necessary for victory. This is a simple but energetic game.

Ohajiki, or marbles, are usually played in a room. Scatter some 20 marbles on a table or on the floor. Announce your selection of two marbles by drawing a line between them with your finger, being careful not to touch them. Shoot one of the two marbles to hit another. If it meets the target without touching any other marbles, you can obtain the two marbles. If you cannot hit the target, or if you touch other marbles, it is a failure and you must wait a turn. The person who acquires the most marbles is the winner.

 Paper balloon
Children blow air into balloons and hit them into the air. In the past, Toyama no kusuriuri, sellers in Toyama Prefecture who delivered household medicine all over the country and regularly visited each home to supplement medicines and receive payment from families, used to give children paper balloons as a sales incentive.

Otedama is a juggling game using small cloth bags. Juggling two bags is normal. Many girls used to be able to juggle three or four bags while singing. They competed in various techniques: juggling two bags in one hand, or picking up several bags while throwing a bag with one hand and catching the another bag in the same hand.

 Kendama (a cup and ball)

Kendama is a game, but it is also enjoyable as a sport. The Japan Kendama Association promotes kendama, providing information on basic posture and movement. The Association holds official contests, including the All Japan Kendama Championship and other events, as well as running kendama training classes. 

There is a kendama technique called Moshikame, in which a player repeatedly puts a ball on an ozara (big cup) and chuzara (central cup) in turn. Advanced players can keep this going for longer than ten minutes, or more than 100 times. According to Mr. Maruishi, managing director of the Japan Kendama Association, members of the Association ascended Mount Takao while playing Moshikame. One day, we visited the class. Students were enjoying a Moshikame obstacle race. They were walking, sitting on chairs, and picking up material from the floor in their left hand, all the while continuing the Moshikame action with their right hand. The objectives in performance were speed as well as the number of times they could move the ball without dropping it. There were some 15 participants of all ages and gender, including elementary school pupils, junior high school students, a school teacher, housewives and a woman in her 70s. Depending on each level, they cheerfully but seriously practice different techniques. Certificate tests took place at the end of the class. Participants nervously took each test depending on their level and performed overwhelming techniques one after another, which was really breathtaking to behold.

 Tokyo Toy Museum
The Tokyo Toy Museum opened in Yotsuya, Tokyo, on April 20, 2008. It is located in an old elementary school building, a building with high ceilings and a modern atmosphere that was constructed in 1935. The museum, operated by NPO Nihon Good Toy Iinkai, houses several tens of thousands of toys from home and abroad, and some of them are available to be played.

Japanese traditional and vintage toys are exhibited in the Omocha no machi aka (Red toy town) room on the third floor. Visitors can play with paper balloons, kendama and otedama in a tatami-matted corner. There are also rooms where toys from other countries are on display, as well as a room where visitors can experience hands-on activities related to the making of toys. The Omocha no mori (Toy forest) room on the second floor has a hinoki cypress floor and you should enter only after removing your shoes. In this room there are a wooden pool full of 20,000 balls made from four kinds of wood (including beach and oak), a tree house, and xylophones and wooden toys, all combining to give the impression of actually being inside a forest. Toys selected by Nihon Good Toy Iinkai from the past 20 years are on display in the Good toy tenjishitu (Exhibition) room, including wooden quoits and toys made using Japanese artisan skills. Some staff are able to explain these toys in English.

Mr. Tada, director of the Tokyo Toy Museum, taught us about an unfamiliar game called Tosenkyo. It looks like a Japanese version of darts, which became popular during the Edo period (1603-1867).

Stand a small ginkgo-leaf-shaped target on a box about 20 cm high, crouch on your heels about one meter away from the box, and throw an opened fan at the target. If the fan hits and the target drops, you are awarded a score. Each position in relation to the fan, target and box has a unique name and the score is different depending on its difficulty and rarity. For example, when the three items scatter, the result is called Hanachirusato, meaning falling flowers, which is often seen and merits only one point because it is not so beautiful. If the target successfully stands on the fan on the floor, the result is called Ukifuhe, meaning a sailboat, and this is rewarded with a score of 30 points.

These elegant result names are based on the Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji) or the Hyakuninisshu (an anthology of 100 famous waka poems). The fan flies in an elegant fashion; nevertheless, this game can be enjoyed casually. 


Even though these are games for children, winning demands practice and thinking. In olden times, every country or every area had its unique toys, and most toys were made using local materials, which were cheap and easy to prepare. How and what one played with must have had an influence on shaping a person’s character, so it’s fair to say that the world of toys and games is a profound place.




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