Kendama Origins

A Brief History of Kendama

According to historical literature it is believed that Kendama grew out of Cup & Ball type toys.  Included in this group are the cup with a ball on a string type and the other type is a wooden spike with a ball or barrel shaped piece of wood and a hole connected by string.  The first type is known by a variety of names world-wide though in many English speaking countries simply as “Cup & Ball.” In Germany, for example, it is known as “Fang die Kugel.”

This second type was popularized in 16 century France and is called as “Bilboquet.” In Spanish and Portugese speaking nations it has been known as Boliche, Balero, Bilboquê, Emboque, Coca and Perinola.  The Kendama is believed to be a combination and refinement of these two types of Cup & Ball devices.

Biboquet type (left) and Cup & Ball type (right)

There is no clear evidence when the Cup & Ball devices were introduced to Japan but it is first mentioned in the encyclopedia “Kiyusyoran” around 1777-1778.  The only trading port during that period was in Nagasaki so it was likely introduced there. At that time Kendama was not children’s toy but a drinking game for adults in a bar. However, according to the child education guide “Dojo-sen,” published in 1876, Kendama was introduced as the “Cup and Ball.” It is believed that during the following 100 years kendama changed from a device for adults into a children’s toy.

Cup & Ball in an old Japanese literature (Kensaraesumaizue)

The “Nichi-getsu Ball” (Sun and Moon Ball) was invented in Hiroshima.  A patent application was made in 1918 and registered in 1919.  It is from this design from which the modern Kendama is derived. It was based on the shape of Bilboquet type Cup & Ball with an added cross piece called a “Saradō.”  This ingenious modification allowed the introduction of a world of new tricks continuing to this day.  This helped capture people’s hearts and imaginations creating a kendama boom. (photo circa 1930s)

For those interested, a re-released (retro) edition of the “Nichi-getsu Ball” is sold in Hatsukaichi City, Hiroshima.

The table below shows tricks and scores used in that period. You will see familiar tricks referenced.  It might come as a surprise but we still practice tricks invented 100 years ago. “Moon Landing” and “Slip Grip Special” are listed as having high-scores and it shows how difficult these tricks were considered.

As time progressed new toys and games spread widely among children and “Nichi-Getsu Ball” boom passed. Eventually kendama was sold primarily as folk craft with painted designs for souvenirs not for performing tricks. These souvenir kendama can still be found today in gift shops across Japan.

Folk and Souvenir Kendama