A kendama approved for use in competition by the Japan Kendama Association
The kendama today are made from a stick with a point at one end, three attached cups, and a ball with a small hole in one end. The cups on either side of the stick are called the big cup and small cup. The ball is connected to the stick by a roughly 40-centimeter (16-inch) piece of string. At the end of the stick is a point with which the player can attempt to spear the ball. At the other end of the stick is a cup called the medium cup.
The game is basically played by tossing the ball and attempting to catch it in one of the cups or to spear it with the point of the stick. Although it may sound simple, there are a nearly unlimited number of specific techniques for doing so.
A recreation of a bilboquet based on historical documents, and a Nichigetsu ball (photo provided by Maruishi Teruki, a member of the board of directors of the Japan Kendama Association)
Many people may think that kendama was invented in Japan, but this is not actually the case. While many different theories exist, there are records indicating that kendama originated in France in the sixteenth century. There are also theories that this game was developed in Greece or China, and the absolute truth is not known.
In France, this game was called bilboquet. Bil means "ball," and boquet means "small tree." This word expresses the fact that the game involved playing with a small wooden ball. The game as it was played then was different from what we know as kendama today; there was a large cup and a small cup on either end of a stick, to which a ball was attached with a string. The player would continually toss and catch the ball, alternating between the two cups.
Kendama is believed to have come to Japan via the Silk Road during the Edo period (1603-1868) into Nagasaki, the only Japanese city open to foreign trade at the time. While it may have entered the country around the middle of the Edo period in around 1777 or 1778, the exact date is uncertain. At the time, kendama was apparently enjoyed by adults as a sort of drinking game. A player who made a mistake was forced to drink more.
As Japan entered the Meiji era (1868-1912), the Ministry of Education introduced kendama in the report on children's education that it put together in 1876, and the game gradually began to catch on among young people. In 1919, during the Taisho era (1912-1926), the forerunner of today's kendama went on sale. It was called Nichigetsu Ball (Sun-and-moon ball), because the ball looked like the sun, while the shape of the shallow carved cups was like a crescent moon. This toy became a huge hit, and from this time into the beginning of the Showa era (1926-1989), a variety of different types of kendama appeared, including a ball attached to a kind of paddle.
After World War II ended in 1945, kendama were sold in candy stores along with other popular toys, such as menko, bidama, and beigoma. In 1975 children's author Fujiwara Issei founded the Japan Kendama Association, which standardized kendama for competitive use and created standardized rules for the purpose of allowing a greater number of people to play the game together the same way.
The Fifteenth Cup of the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology, which was held in August 2003 (photo provided by the Japan Kendama Association)
With a set of rules and specifications for the equipment in place, kendama began to grow in popularity as a competitive sport. In addition to the Award of the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology, which is given to the winner of a kendama competition for elementary school students, there are tournaments for both students and adults held around the country, and kendama enthusiasts are working to increase the popularity of the game overseas.
The Japan Kendama Association is hopeful that kendama will become known around the world one day, and its members are making efforts to foster international exchange.