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The kendama (けん玉, "sword [and] ball") is a traditional Japanese skill toy. The ken has three cups and a spike which fits into the hole in the ball. The kendama is a variant of the classic cup-and-ball game, and the Hispanic world toy known as boliche or balero. The principle of these toys are the same: catching one object with another, where both are joined by a string. However the modern kendama style takes influences from a diverse range of skills including yo-yo, diabolo, and juggling.
Structure and terminology
The kendama comprises the following parts:
- Main body ken (剣).
- Spike kensaki (剣先).
- big cup ōzara (大皿).
- bottom cup chūzara (中皿).
- Small cup kozara (小皿).
- Ball tama (玉).
- Hole ana (穴).
- String ito (糸).
- Cup body saradō (皿胴).
- Small cup edge kozara no fuchi (小皿のふち).
- Big cup for lunars ōzara no fuchi (大皿のふち).
- Slip-stop or slip grip suberidome (すべり止め).
- Back end kenjiri (けんじり).
- String attachment hole ito toritsuke ana (糸取り付け穴).
- Bead (not pictured)
Origins, precursors, and parallels
The origins of the game are disputed. It has been described as a variation of the French ball-and-cup game bilboquet, which dates to the 16th century. It is generally agreed that Kendama dates to the late 17th or early 18th century.
The kendama arrived in Japan from the West in around 1777, at which point Nagasaki was the only port open to foreign trade. Reportedly, kendama was initially a sort of adult's drinking game — a player who made a mistake was forced to drink more. The game gained popularity during the Edo period (1600–1868).
In the early 20th century, the toy had two side cups and was called a jitsugetsu ball (日月ボール). This translates to "sun and moon ball", named so because of the ball's representation of the sun and the cups' likeness to the crescent moon.
In 1919, Hamaji Egusa applied for a patent on the "ball and cup" style toy and it was awarded in 1920. The size and proportions of the toy were later altered. Hatsukaichi City in Hiroshima Prefecture is considered to be the birthplace of the modern Japanese Kendama. The current competition design descends from Issei Fujiwara's model, which featured string holes in the crosspiece. Little deviation has been made from his basic design, with the exception of the ken becoming more rounded to reduce wood chipping. It was also Fujiwara who established the Japan Kendama Association, which established the rules for play, the grading system now in use, and organised competition. To ensure that the toy was suitable for use in competition, the JKA also standardised kendama itself.
Today, kendama is popular in many parts of the world. Kendama is particularly well loved in Japan, where national tournaments are held and Japanese employers recognise applicants who have attained the higher dan rankings as "persistent, patient and determined potential employees".
During the 2000s, kendama surged in popularity outside Japan. In 2006 KendamaUSA and the British Kendama Association were founded. They began to promote kendama in North America and Europe, particularly throughout the juggling and rollerblading communities. Also, in 2010 Sweets Kendamas was founded. Sweets Kendamas, KendamaUSA and another company named Kendama CO. began to sponsor certain players, typically young men, who using their creativity began to set a standard for the many ways kendama could be used. These players included Zach Yourd, Collin Sander, Jake Wiens, Keith Matsumara, Cristian Fraser, William penman, Max Norcross, Bonz Atron and Jake Fisher. As players worldwide began to put videos online, kendama continued to grow and has branched out forming its own global community. Many of those videos can be seen on Downspike, a forum and media hub for international kendama play.
To play with a kendama, one holds the toy, and pulls the ball upward so that it may either be caught in one of the cups or land with the hole on the spike. More advanced tricks include sequential balances, juggles, and catches. There are eleven prescribed moves on the kendama trick list for achieving a kyu ranking and several more for a dan ranking. A 10-kyu rating (the lowest beginner grade) is attained by simply catching the ball in the largest cup. A book published by the Japan Kendama Association lists 101 different tricks for the toy and there are supposedly tens of thousands of trick variations. Different stances and grips are required to perform different tricks.
While most people play with kendamas for personal satisfaction, competitions do take place, especially in Japan and North America where many kendama matches are held. Participation in such competitions entails performing lists of tricks in sequence or completing particular tricks repeatedly for as long as possible. Additionally, tricks may be performed head to head with a rival to determine a winner. The first competitor to fail a trick loses.
In the trick moshikame (もしかめ), the ball is juggled between the big cup and the smallest cup at the bottom repeatedly. A Japanese children's song of the same name is often sung to help with timing.
The Japanese Kendama Association has held kendama contests since 1979. The British Kendama Association was the first group to hold a formal kendama contest outside Japan in 2008 at the British Juggling Convention in Doncaster and has been staging a British Kendama Open and European Kendama Open every year since. These contests have taken a variety of formats including trick ladders, speed battles, freestyle, and the head-to-head world championship style.
Kendama World Cup
The Global Kendama Network (Gloken) held the first Kendama World Cup in 2014 in Hatsukaichi, Japan, utilizing a new format whereby players choose 5 tricks from a list of 120 and attempt to complete tricks within a time limit. These tricks are classified according to difficulty into 12 different levels and the player receives points corresponding to the level of the completed trick i.e. a level 7 trick is worth 7 points and but a more difficult level 12 trick is worth 12 points. This year's Kendama World Cup (KWC 2018) will take place in Hatsukaichi again, on 21 and 22 July.
Gloken Kendama World Cup Winners
2014 - Bonz Atron / USA / Kendama Co (at the time)
2015 - Wyatt Bray / USA / Kendama USA
2016 - Bryson Lee / USA / Sweets Kendamas
2017 - So Kanada / Japan / Sweets Kendamas
2018 - Nick Gallagher / USA / Sweets Kendamas
Catch & Flow
Catch & Flow, Freestyle World Championship was first held in September 2014 in downtown Tokyo, Japan. Using a new format to determine the best freestyle skills in the world, the Catch & Flow defined a new way to perform freestyle kendama and to judge such style. Players from around the world apply to participate listing their achievements. The top approx. 60 players are selected to perform for 90 seconds one by one. Judges determine 16 finalist who will go head to head with 2 x 45sec for each player in 1 on 1 battles towards the final.
Catch & Flow - World Freestyle Winners
2014 - Thorkild May / DENMARK / KROM Kendama
2015 - Bonz Atron / USA / KROM Kendama
2016 - Jake Fischer / USA / KROM Kendama
2017 - Bonz Atron / USA / KROM Kendama
2018 - Bonz Atron / USA / KROM Kendama
Dama Fest is North Americas original and first large scale Kendama competition, hosted by Kendama USA. The first Dama Fest was in 2011, and the second was in 2013. Kendama players traveled from all over the North America, Europe, and Japan. Players competed in a single elimination head to head bracketed format.
2011 / Sebastian Orrego / USA / Unsponsored
The Minnesota Kendama Open
The Minnesota Kendama Open is put on every Fall since 2013 by MN based Sweets Kendamas. MKO is the largest Kendama competition in N. America with many players traveling in from around the US and the rest of the world. MKO utilizes a few different types of competition to make sure everyone can get involved. Beginner and Intermediate players race through "speed ladders" where a predetermined set of tricks must be completed in order in the fastest time. Advanced/Pro players can compete head-to-head in the Open division where trick cards are pulled at random and players must prove how consistently they can land the tricks. If one players makes the trick and the second misses, the first player gets a point. Rounds are played to 3 points, except for the final round which is played to 5. MKO also showcases a freestyle competition.
Minnesota Kendama Open Winners
2013 - Max Norcross / USA / Sweets Kendamas
2014 - Lukas Funk / USA / Sweets Kendamas
2015 - Zack Gallagher / USA / Sweets Kendamas
2016 - Nick Gallagher / USA / Sweets Kendamas
2017 - So Kanada / Japan / Sweets Kendamas
2018 - So Kanada / Japan / Sweets Kendamas
Minnesota Kendama Open Freestyle Winners
2015 - Jake Fischer / USA / KROM Kendama
2016 - Bonz Atron / USA / KROM Kendama
2017 - Nick Gallagher / USA / Sweets Kendamas
2018 - Bryson Lee / USA / Sweets Kendamas
Battle at the Border
Battle at the Border is the longest running annual kendama event in the United States held by Kentucky-based kendama company, Sol Kendamas. The very first event was held in Clarksville, TN by a group of players that went by the name The Kendama Squad consisted of three players; Chad Covington, Nicholas Bellamy, and John Ross Rudolph alongside The Kensession Stand (Tyler Marshall). While the competition continued to occur annually, the name Battle at the Border wasn't implemented until the 2014 competition. In 2015, the competition reached its largest attendance with over 150 people. Battle at the Border 2015-2016 was held in Nashville, TN on the first weekend of the year at Rocketown. 2015 was the year that Sol Kendamas officially took over the event coordination. Battle at the Border 2017-2018 was also held on the first weekend of the year at The Foundry in Nashville, TN.
Battle at the Border Open Winners
2012 - Christian Fraser / USA / Sweets Kendamas
2013 - William Penniman / USA / Sweets Kendamas
2014 - Jake Fischer / USA / Krom Kendama
2015 - William Penniman / USA / Sweets Kendamas
2016 - Kevin DeSoto / USA / Sol Kendamas
2017 - Liam Rauter / USA / Sol Kendamas
2018 - Bonz Atron / USA / Krom Kendama
2019 - Liam Rauter / USA / Sol Kendamas
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