Kendama is a traditional Japanese toy consisting of a ball (玉, tama) and cross-shaped base (usually made out of wood) which are connected via a thin, long string (糸, ito). In addition to the handle, which can be held comfortably with one hand, the base contains three small indented areas of various sizes (called “皿”, or plates) plus a pointy top called the “けん先” (sword tip). In Japanese “kendama” is written most commonly as “けん玉”, though there are other variations including 剣玉. The name is a combination of the words for “sword” plus “ball”.
It is said there are from 300 to 50,000 different techniques (技, waza), but the easiest and most basic is to use motion of your wrist to flip up the ball to land in one of the three dishes. This is called “皿系” (“saraito”). Though the construction and techniques are quite different, I feel there is some similarity between the kendama and the popular yo-yo toy.
Historically, there is records of similar devices made of a ball, cup, and string existing from long ago, in use by the Ainu people of Japan as well as native American tribes near the great lakes in America. Around the 16th century, a similar toy called the bilboquet was popular in France with not only only children, but also nobles and upper-class citizens.
In Japan, the first recorded evidence of a device similar to the kendama was around the early 19th century, and in the early 20th century something very similar to the modern-day kendama was said to be in existence.
The Japan Kendama Association (日本けん玉協会) maintains the current kendama rules, issues official rankings, and also helps promote kendama. There are tournaments where people come from all around the world to participate, including those who might consider themselves “pro” kendama athletes. In the video at the bottom of this article you can see the winner of a kendama event doing some very advanced techniques that would take quite a bit of practice to acquire.
Having said that, performing basic kendama maneuvers is within the reach of anyone with average hand-eye coordination, and I’ve seen videos of a 3 year old Japanese boy doing some of these. If you do decide to buy one for your young child, be cognizant of their maturity level and watch them at all times when using this toy, since the hard ball can cause injuries to both themselves and nearby people and objects.
Though at first the kendama may appear to be a simple toy, it is said that proper practice using this can train both the mind and body, increasing endurance and concentration ability. When attempting a kendama technique, the line between successful execution and failure is usually very clear, and this is said to help children learn the process of striving to achieve a specific goal, something that can be applied to sports or studies.
In recent years, kendama has become popular in many other countries throughout the world. In America, for example, it’s fairly easy to find it in toystores, and of course you can find many variants on online sites such as Amazon.
In 1998, the toy company Takara (what is now Takara Tomy) released a digital version of the kendama, called in Japanese “電子けん玉” (or shortened as dejiken). It uses sound and lights to respond to success or failure, and has several different play modes.
I own one of the simple wooden ones, and after a few hours of practice am able to execute the basic “saraito” around 30% of the time. If you find one of these at a toy store I recommend picking it up, you might find yourself addicted in no time.
Image credit: the featured image was taken from the Japanese wikipedia entry about Kendama.