[Anime Culture Monday] What is Kendama? [Definition, Meaning]

Kendama (けん玉) is a fascinating type of traditional Japanese toy with an interesting multicultural heritage and strong modern international following. The kanji in ‘kendama’ mean sword (けん or 剣) and ball (玉) respectively, which makes sense given its somewhat swordlike form and, well, ball. Read on to learn more about kendama, its history, design, sport and anime appearances!

Kendama Description / Kendama Origins

Kendama are made of wood and have a cross-shaped body consisting of 3 cups, each with different sizes. Two of the cups stick out horizontally on the sides, perpendicular to a short spike, while the largest one is at the bottom of the handle. The ball is connected to the main body by a fairly short string attached in between the two horizontal cups. The ball itself has a hole running through its center which lets it sit on top of the spike.

The origins of kendama are a little ambiguous, but it belongs to the same heritage as other ball-and-cup skill toys that may have been invented as far back as ancient Greece or China but is largely undocumented until the 16th century in France where a similar toy called a bilboquet became popular and was notably played by King Henry III. However, it quickly became obscure again after his death and did not resurface majorly until the reign of Louis XV in the 18th century.

Similar toys have popped up in England, among native American tribes including the Inuit and Mohave, and very notably in the Spanish and Portuguese world in places like Mexico, Argentina, Spain, Brazil, and beyond where they are called balero, boliche, and bilboquê respectively and remain popular to this day. While not identical, these games provided the general blueprint for the kendama in Japan which arrived in the country via the Silk Road during the Edo period (1603-1868) into Nagasaki (which was the only port open to foreign trade at the time) and were popular with adults to use in drinking games.

Modern Kendama

The prototypical kendama slowly became closer to the modern form over time and moved to become more associated with children than adults starting in the Meiji era (1868-1912). In 1919 the first commercially produced recognizable kendama was released, called the Nichigetsu Ball (Sun-and-moon ball) which became a huge hit. Many variations were produced including some with paddles and other gimmicks. After World War II, they became a common sight in dagashi shops across Japan and continued to grow in popularity as a children’s toy.

The design and rules of the game as we know it today weren’t standardized in Japan until 1975, when children's author Fujiwara Issei founded the Japan Kendama Association. This new organization let kendama become a proper sport with regulations on kendama specifications for tournament legality, a scoring system for performing various tricks, and championships.

Interestingly, starting in the early 2000s, Japanese kendamas have become something of an international phenomenon once again with the founding of similar organizations such as KendamaUSA and the British Kendama Association. Recent world championships have been dominated by American players like Bonz Atron and Nick Gallagher. Kendama are also often used as a test to demonstrate the abilities of robotic arms since it requires a variety of dexterity skills.

Kendama in Anime

While we have yet to get a proper kendama sports anime (sounds interesting to us!) the traditional toys have made appearances in many anime and manga throughout the years, usually as brief cameos as you would expect other objects of everyday Japanese life. One memorable recent feature was in an episode of Dagashi Kashi where Saya Endou shows exceptional skill with the toy, much to the chagrin of her brother Tou who is hopelessly inept. Another major appearance is Babbo, a large sentient metal kendama from the anime and manga series MÄR (Märchen Awakens Romance) who is the ÄRM used by protagonist Ginta Toramizu in his fantasy adventures.

Dagashi Kashi

  • Episodes: 12
  • Aired: January 2016 – April 2016

Based on the manga series of the same name by Kotoyama, Dagashi Kashi tells the story of Kokonotsu “Coconuts” Shikada, an aspiring manga artist who is being pressured to continue his father’s legacy in running his family’s dagashi shop, a type of store that specializes in cheap candy and toys for children to buy with their allowance. Things get more complicated when sexy weirdo Hotaru Shidare shows up to recruit Coconuts’ father You to join her family’s candy conglomerate. You agrees to join her if she can convince Coconuts to run the store which prompts her to challenge Coconuts to a series of dagashi-related battles. While kendama are only a small feature of one episode of the show, we recommend it for people interested in little facets of Japanese culture, especially if you’re also interested in snacks!

Dagashi Kashi Trailer

Final Thoughts

Kendama are toys with an interesting international history that are still a lot of fun to play with today and can even provide serious competition for enthusiasts with tournaments around the world. Practicing with a kendama can definitely teach patience and can be a fun hobby and a great souvenir from Japan.

We hope you enjoyed this cultural article! Please stick around Honey’s for more of all things anime, games, Japanese culture, and more and let us know your thoughts in the comment section below. またね!