The game known as Kendama refers to a Japanese game of skill. It is made up of a wooden ball (Jap.: dama) which is attached to a wooden handle (Jap.: ken) by a string.
It has three cups of different size to catch the ball and a a spike to spike up the ball.
Kendama is much like a combination of similar games from many cultures. Almost everywhere on earth there were at some point in time similar games. For example in France there is bilboquet, in Britain cup-and-ball, in Germany it was called Kugelfang or in many Spanish speaking countries there, for hundreds of years, has been a game called balero.
All these games are based on the same principle: catching one object with another and both object are attached to each other with a string.
The origins of Kendama
The direct origins of Kendama can not be traced back to one singel origin. The basic principle is so natural and universal that from the very beginning of mankind there have always been similar games in all hunting cultures as skills for hunting animals were vital the eye-hand -coordination had to be trained from early childhood onwards.
E.g. the Canadian-native people called Inuits' game called Pommawonga (spike the fish),this is one of the oldest known version. They made their game from animal-bones. Presumably the game was first used in hunting rituals, for example to ask an oracle about the outcome of a hunt.
With some of the native peoples who were living in the area which is now part of the USA a Kendama-like game was popular as some sort of gamble as well as training tool for hunting skills.
The more recent origins which are prooven go back to 16th century France, where a game called bilboquet was a popular past-time enjoyment at the court of Henri III. In an aristocrat's diary it says: "in the summer of 1585 the children were enjoying themselves in the streets by playing bilboquet". It is assumed in course of history the variety of Kendama we have today has developed from bilboquet. In Europe "Kendama", or its European forerunners had its heyday in the latter half of the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century.
The Japanese Kendama
Even though Japan's native people, the Anui, already had invented their own Kendama-type game, the Kendama version we know today probably goes back to an import from Europe. It is assumed that the Kendama came to Japan at about 1777 during the Edo-dynasty (1603-1868),via the Silk Road it got to Nagasaki, the only town open to foreign trade at the time. In his "essay on pleasureable and fun games" Kita Muranobu described the game of Kendama in 1830. Back then the game was called
„Sukuitamaken“ (spoon-kendama) and to win a player had to catch the ball with 5 or 3 tries.
Games like that were wide spread as convivial drinking games in Japan's entertainment districts at the time of the Edo-period. One player after the other tried to catch the ball and who failed had to drink.
At the time of the the Meji-period (1868-1912) Kendama was especially popular with women as a past-time. In 1876 it was mentioned in the „Girls’ Own Book of Amusement“ as „Sakazukioyobidama“ (Sake-cup and balll). As the name suggests it is a translation of the English term "Cup-and-Ball" , because the Dutch translator obviously didn't know the term „Sukuitamaken“ (spoon-kendama).
The book was about the latest trends in Europe. So in Japan the Kendama had its revival thanks to the West. In the same year the Kendama, for the first time, was part of a report on child-education by the Japanese Ministry of Education.
During the Meji-period the game became more and more polpular among younger people and the drinking games for adults became a game of skill for children.
The modern Kendama
Today's Kendama comes from the so called "Nichigetsuboru"(Sun-and-Moon-Ball). It first appears in the Taisho-period (1912-1926) and its name derives from the red ball which remindes one of the sun and the cups looks like a sickle moon. Between 1919 and 1920 Mr Hamaji Egusa from the Hiroshima area refined the Kendama from the Meji-period, improved it and registered his new design as "Nichigetsuboru". It has a handle with a sharpened spike to which a ball was tied as well as a small, medium- an large cup to catch the ball. This was the invention of the modern Kendama. At the time every Kendama was made with a foot lathe and by hand, so only small numbers could be manufactured. After the introduction of the motor lathe the Kendama's production capacities kept on growing rapidly and "Nichigetsuboru" fast became popular all over Japan. At the end of the Taisho-period , in 1926, toy stores in all bigger cities were selling red and white versions of the game. To advertise the game competions for children were held in public place and the winners got over-sized Kendama as trophies. 25 different tricks were judged and who out of a group of 5 or 10 players scored the most points with a predetermined number of tries won. Many of the tricks developed back then are still typical tricks, like "Uguise" (sparrow), "Hikôki" (airplane) or "Tôdai" (lighthouse). Until today these tricks are part of the standart repertoir of every Kendama player.
At that time it was also common for children to sing songs to the rythm of "Moshikame" (a trick where the ball is catched in two cups alternating quickly).
Though the term "Tamaken" (ball-sword) alread was phrased in the Edo-period, today's term "Kendama" (sword-ball) was only commonly used after WWI.
After WWII Kendama first fell into oblivion as there wasn't much time to play, but it remained a part of most Japanese households as a traditional children's toy. In the mid 1960s the game of skill was rediscovered, this time by adults who were forming Kendama-clubs and spread the Kendama another time. They elevated the technical level of the game, developed new tricks and layed the foundation for a new Kendama-boom in the late post-war era. For the first time Kendama was approached in a professional, sport-like manner.
As time went on the number of players, the number of differnet tricks and the number of different forms of competition increased.
Therefore in 1975 Issei Fujiwara founded the Japanese Kendama Association, JKA. He standardised size, form and shape of the Kendama and had licenced Kendama produced to these norms. Furthermore he defined a goup of standart tricks and based on them he 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 masterships for all age classes are organised 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 trendsport.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 funsports websites and Youtube, where a great number of Kendam Edits can be found. In 2008 the British Kendama Association, BKA, held the first European Kendama opens and in in 2009 they did it again. Looking at the recent developments one can well call it an international boom, there are Kendama websites springing up like mushrooms all over the world: China, Taiwan, Russia, Poland, Czechia, USA, UK, France just to name a few. This shows that in times where children learn to play football on a PlayStation before they actually learn to play football,people see the Kendama as a welcome change.
All pictures on this page are property of Kendama.de or are taken from the book けん玉歴史.