The forerunner of the kendama, the Nichi-getsu Ball, was popular from early to mid-1900s but as other games and toys became available began to lose its popularity becoming more of a folk craft item sold as souvenirs. However in 1976 the Tokyo Kendama Club (TKC), run by Hideo Shinma, and Japan Kendama Association (JKA), run by Issei Fujiwara, received much attention in the press and it brought about another kendama boom. They were attracted to kendama because of the unlimited potential and each established their own group to teach children. Their activities were called the “Kendama Renaissance.”
They both were committed to promoting kendama but had different ways of thinking. Shinma preferred spreading kendama as an enjoyable game without specific regulations. Fujiwara on the other hand wanted to spread it as a sport with rules and teach basic techniques. Although Shinma was at one time vice president of the JKA (1977-1979) it was difficult to bridge the differences between their goals. Shinma eventually left JKA but continued to promote his vision of kendama. Later on the TKC ceased their activities and JKA took the lead as the largest organized kendama community in Japan.
In those days there was no Internet to spread information so everyone played kendama using inconsistent rules with various models. Fujiwara aimed to establish a nation-wide kendama society. To spread kendama throughout Japan and develop it into a genuine sport it was necessary to unify the design of the kendama and techniques. JKA members made intense efforts to study, create, and organize unified rules. They also improved the functionality of kendama itself and they came up with various ideas to make kendama easier to use. Hideo Shinma invented S model kendama (S for Shinma) and Issei Fujiwara invented F model kendama (F for Fujiwara). It takes close collaboration between kendama players and a skilled manufacturer to evolve kendama. Fortunately they met a good partner. The S-Type kendama was manufactured by Mingei Koeki from the start of the JKA. They also were the first manufacturers to produce the F-type kendama in 1978.
In 1978 the official JKA kendama, the F16 model, was put on the market. This model had better balance than the Nichi-Getsu Ball. They also modified the sizes of cups and stick (ken). The string of the original Nichi-Getsu Ball was attached to the stick using a metal fitting, like a staple, and because of this the string used to break or untie easily. The F16 model adopted a clever modification using a snap-resistant string that is attached though a tiny hole drilled into the cross piece (saradō). Additionally a hole was drilled on both sides of the saradō making the new device easier for left-handed players to use by allowing them to restring the kendama for left hand use.
If you hold the kendama in your preferred hand with the seal and string facing you the big cup should be pointed up. If the small cup is pointed up then the kendama is for the other hand.
In 1980 Fujiwara moved production of the official JKA kendama to the company Hakushinsya (maker of the Shinfuji). Even after this initial design was created the JKA members continued studying and refining the shape and finally they reached the ideal model, the F16-2, in 2001. The main improvement in this version is the position of the string hole in the saradō. It is slightly offset from the center of the saradō and it enables players to have more control of the rotation of the ken. The F16-2 model is both functional and aesthetically pleasing.
There are several necessary conditions for kendama to be widely approved as an athletic sport. There should be high level national competitions; above and beyond local competitions. The rules should be codified and the technical skills, knowledge, and background of judges should be standardized. JKA has supported local competitions and set up a detailed rules structure for competitions. At the same time JKA has attempted to improve the technical skills of judges by establishing a system of licensing qualifications. The rules are part of the foundation and structure upon which the JKA was built many years ago and will help carry it into the future.
Today there are ten major national competitions hosted by JKA. There are also many local events held all over Japan throughout the year. The major competitions held by JKA are:
- JKA Cup Competition (January)
- JKA Team Competition (January)
- JKA Masters Competition (January)
- JKA Junior Cup (February)
- ALL Japan Kendama Championship (May)
- World Open Kendama Festa, Fujiwara Cup (July)
- The Junior Kendama Championship (August)
- ALL Japan Classified Kendama Championship (October)
- Kendama Performance Competition (October)
- Moshikame Record Competition (November)