Popularity of ‘kendama’ abroad spurs trend at home

by Masaaki Kameda

Staff Writer

The traditional cup-and-ball game “kendama” is back, thanks to a new “cool” image mostly nurtured overseas and imported back to Japan.

“Definitely, people who had never been associated with kendama, especially young people (in their 20s and 30s), have become hooked for a year or two, with fans forming kendama-playing groups across the nation,” says Tamotsu Kubota, head of the Global Kendamas Network, or Gloken, which promotes the game.

Kubota says kendama used to be enjoyed mainly by Japanese children and grandparents, while people outside of those age groups considered it “old and uncool.”

“Kendama can be enjoyed by anybody, regardless of age, gender and nationality. But preconceived notions discouraged people from enjoying kendama,” he says.

Interestingly, the current boom was spawned by new kendama tricks developed overseas.

“Many people began to rediscover the appeal of kendama after watching videos uploaded online from the United States, which introduced impressive tricks,” notes Kubota, 32, who has been playing the game for about 14 years.

He says Americans who saw kendama toys in Japan took them home, practiced with them and eventually developed original tricks. This trend started around 2007, Kubota estimates.

“In Japan, the conventional playing style for many people has been to perfect the same basic tricks (such as catching the ball on the spike) until they can achieve them 100 percent of the time,” he says.

Overseas players, meanwhile, tend toward “freestyle” tricks of their own.

Kubota says kendama has also become more social in recent years. It used to be the norm for people to play in an insular setting, such as alone at home or at kendama “schools” taught by specialists.

“Now kendama is enjoyed in open places such as parks and streets, and people share the joy of successful tricks, doing high fives,” he says.

One popular venue is located in Harajuku, the capital of youth culture in Tokyo, where kendama novices and fans alike get together.

Decade, a clothing and bicycle motocross (BMX) shop in the area, began selling a wide range of kendama around two years ago, according to owner Nobuaki Komoto, who says his store has become a hangout for aficionados.

Komoto, 36, took to the game 3.5 years ago and enjoys playing it with fellow BMX riders.

“I was moved by the fact that, if the ball is controlled properly, it would go into the spike,” he says. “I got hooked and started creating original tricks.”

Komoto started selling the toys in his store after he told the president of a kendama-maker in Yamagata Prefecture that young people who were into street sports in Tokyo, such as BMX and skateboarding, were becoming addicted to the game. The company chief was intrigued and asked him to start stocking kendama.

“At first we had three or four kinds in the shop, but gradually the number of people who enjoy kendama increased,” he says.

Decade now stocks 30 to 40 different models, including U.S. and Danish brands.

The kendama come in various colors and types of wood, with prices ranging from around ¥1,600 to ¥7,000. Komoto’s store also distributes imported kendama to other BMX and skateboard shops across Japan.

Komoto says that the number of people coming in looking for kendama has increased drastically over the past year or two.

“Our shop, including online, sells about 200 to 300 kendama per month, compared with around 10 a month when we started stocking them,” he says.

Komoto also notes that the people buying them are a diverse lot.

“Our main customer base is men in their 20s to 30s, but elementary school students, families and grandmothers have also visited our shop. We also had customers from Hawaii and South Korea. A customer from South Korea bought 20 kendama in one go.”

Kubota of Gloken, the promotion organization, says the kendama it sells over the Internet have also become quite popular.

“A limited edition kendama with an orange ball, made by a craftsman in Hiroshima, went on sale in February on our website. We stocked 300 kendama, but they were sold out in just three minutes,” Kuboda says, adding that some of the buyers were from overseas.

What is the appeal of the simple wooden toy? Komoto says the most fun comes from successfully performing tricks with the toy.

“The more you fail certain tricks, the more pleasure you feel when you succeed later,” he says. “It is good that both the player and the spectators can share that feeling.”

Kubota agrees, saying the toy can also be a tool to connect people.

“We’d like to rejuvenate the kendama community further and provide an environment that enables kendama novices to have fun,” he says.

In July, Gloken plans to host a kendama “World Cup” in Hiroshima Prefecture, inviting enthusiasts from Japan and abroad. He expects about 200 participants will compete, including around 50 non-Japanese.

Meanwhile, shop owner Komoto plans to host a kendama competition in Tokyo in September.

“It’s going to be a freestyle kendama tournament, in which players will show off a combination of tricks they have created themselves,” he says. “Motivation is very important for practice and competition can be a good motivator.”

He also plans to release an instructional DVD in July.

“There are many people who say they don’t know how to play kendama. I’d like people to enjoy kendama. . . . If they play it once, I’m sure they’ll experience the pleasure of it.”