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Kendama – Playing with a Sword and a Ball

Date Published: Last Update:2015/05/18 Traditional Culture , , , ,

Like any other culture, the Japanese have also traditional toys which children used to play and is now slowly being forgotten due to the rise of modern and high-tech toys and gadgets. One of these toys is the kendama.

The Kendama

Kendama (けん玉, can also be written as 剣玉 or 拳玉) is a Japanese traditional toy consisting of a ken (けん, literally means a sword) and a tama (玉, means ball). They are connected to each other by a string. The ken has three cups and of different sizes and a spike (剣先, kensaki) which fits to a hole in a ball. Some of the basic tricks of kendama includes throwing and catching with the cup or fit it into the spike.

kendama

The kendama is made up of a ken (sword) and a tama (ball) which is connected to each other by a string that is 38 – 40 cm long. (Photo by Rhona-Mae Arca on Flickr)

The three cups of the kendama differ in sizes and they are named accordingly. The large cup is called the ōzara (大皿, literally means big cup) and the smaller cup is called the kozara (小皿, small cup). The other cup which is at the bottom of the ken is called the chūzara (中皿, literally means center cup). Each cup has a rim that is only enough to balance the ball on. The string that connects the ball to the ken usually measures 38 to 40 cm.

History of Kendama

The history of the kendama is not fully well known but it is known that it did not originate in Japan. There are different theories regarding its origin. In France, there is a “cup-and-ball” game known as the bilboquet. It is believed to have come to Japan then via the so-called Silk Road during the Edo Period (1603 – 1868) into the only Japanese city open to foreign trade at the time, Nagasaki. Before it evolved into a children’s game, it is played by adults during drinking sessions and the one who makes a mistake is forced to drink more.

kendama bilboquet

Kendama (left) is compared to a bilboquet (right). While the kendama has three cups and a spike, the bilboquet has only a cup at the top of the sword. (Photo by Damien Clauzel on Flickr)

Playing the Kendama

The basic rules of playing the kendama is to hold the toy, pull the ball upward and catch it with a cup or with the spike. Advanced tricks include more complicated moves like juggles and balances. The Japanese Kendama Association has made a criteria on how to categorize kendama players. It has three established skill categories namely the kyu (basic), jun-shodan (middle-level) and dan (high) skill levels. The basic skill starts from the lowest 10th kyu level to the 1st kyu level. To move to the next category, you must able to perform 11 basic tricks.

On our next post, we will talk more about kendama tricks and how it is now played nowadays.

References:

1. Kendama. Web-Japan.

2. Japanese Kendama Association

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