Greetings, Learning Expressions Readers!
This week, we’re putting the spotlight on a toy that really has kids talking: the Kendama. Now I have to admit that when I first laid eyes on the Kendama, I didn’t really “get” it. A wooden ball, a stick, a bit of string – no lights, no sounds, no batteries required…it looked an awful lot like something children in the 1950s might have amused themselves with. Boring, right? Oh how very very wrong I was. Allow me to explain. Let’s begin by checking out this flipping fantastic video from Dama Fest 2011:
Pretty amazing stuff! Now let’s take a look at the Kendama using the three Fs of toy quality: Form, Function, and Fun. And since this toy has existed for hundreds of years, let’s take a quick look at its history too.
Form and Function:
The two extending sides of the kendama are concave cups, with one end smaller than the other. The larger cup is called the ōzara ("big cup") and the smaller cup is called the kozara ("small cup"). There is another, even smaller cup, called the chūzara ("center cup") at the bottom of the ken.
The Kendama tricks are done by variations of juggling the ball in the three cups spiking the ball with the Ken spike, and balancing both in new creative ways. Mastering the Kendama takes practice, focus, patience, and creativity.
Throughout history versions of the Kendama have shown up in many different cultures. In France there was the bilboquet, in Germany it was called Kugelfang, and in many Spanish speaking countries it was referred to as the balero. All these games were based on the same principle: catching one object with another while both objects are attached to each other with a string. It is believed that in many hunting cultures it was developed to hone children’s eye-hand coordination, which would be a necessity as they grew up and learned to hunt.
The Kendama is perhaps most popular in Japan. Believed to be imported from Europe in the 1770s, by 1876 it had become a popular toy amongst Japanese children. In 1919, a man named Hamaji Egusa applied for a patent on the 'ball and cup' style toy and it was awarded in 1920. By the 1970s, the Japan Kendama Association was formed, which established the rules for play, the grading system now in use, and organized competitions. In order to ensure that the toy was suitable for use in competition, the JKA also standardized the Kendama itself. Under the patronage of the "Japanese Ministry of Education, Sports and Culture" a national competition of elementary school children is now held every year.
So how did the Kendama become so popular in the United States? Well, back in 2006 a group of people (soon to become the KendamaUSA staff) saw their friends in Japan playing the Kendama while waiting at train stations, bus stops, and while walking around the cities. The folks from KendamaUSA picked up their very first Kendamas in Downtown Tokyo, and showed all of their friends when they got back home to the States. “Everybody’s curiosity and enthusiasm inspired us to start KendamaUSA and help introduce people from all over the world to this great skill toy,” they commented. “We love that the Kendama is a simple, productive, interactive toy that strengthens mental and physical skills while you play. In today’s world of toys bombarded with flashy lights, computers, and mainstream entertainment, the Kendama stands out with its simple design and creative new ways to have fun.” Well one thing’s for sure, Learning Express kids certainly love the Kendama.
You’ve probably heard of Yo Yo clubs, but have you heard of Kendama Klubs? Well, they’re out there – and the Learning Express near you may well be hosting one! Here’s a great video from our Alpharetta, GA Kendama Klub, featuring a visit from Kendama legend Dave Mateo.
So there you have it, readers! The Kendama is anything but a boring toss and catch game…and it goes to show that sometimes the simplest games (sans lights, batteries, and sound effects) provide the most fun of all. Here’s to hundreds more years of good old fashioned fun with the Kendama.
Talk to you again soon!