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Goin’ Japanesque!

4 Traditional Japanese Games Making a Comeback

Like countries all over the world, Japan has several traditional games that people have enjoyed since forever. These games have died away but since 2010 they’ve been making a comeback. The differences in culture lead them to being thought of as strange overseas. There are also ones that have taken on a modern flair so we will talk about each of them. Maybe there’ll be one you like!



Hanetsuki was a game primarily played by girls during New Years, rallying a shuttlecock back and forth. It’s said to be over 500 years old. It’s similar to modern-day badminton. A famous version in Japan is where the person who fails to return a rally with the shuttlecock gets punished by having things written on his or her face in ink.

You use a hagoita (racket). Unlike the ones used for playing, there are also ones nowadays with gorgeous designs. These are a traditional work of art worth a fair sum and there are some that go for over 100,000 yen/racket. It’s possible to see them in Asakusa.


Karuta/ Hyakunin Isshu

These games are surprisingly exciting. In both games there’s a person in the neutral zone who reads aloud cards called “yomifuda,” and then the matching battle begins. But there are 2 slightly different versions.

Karuta: 48 cards with Irohanihoheto… + the character for capital (京). Like you see in the picture, there’s a character in the circle and that letter (one of 48) has no pair. These characters are called hiragana. And on the cards are Japanese proverbs. For example, on the first “い [i]” card, there’s a proverb that goes like this: inu mo arukeba bou ni ataru (a dog on a walk may find a stick). Once this is read aloud, you’d take the dog picture on the upper left. It’s simple but it’s both for children and for learning proverbs.


Hyakunin Isshu: These don’t have proverbs but rather poems. The first part of a waka poem (called the kaminoku) is read and you fight to match the second part (called the shimonoku). There are about 200 cards in total. Unlike karuta, which sometimes has the first character, it’s a more complicated game.

Hyakunin Isshu is played by many foreign players as competitive karuta. It’s been turning heads.



Kendama is overwhelmingly more popular overseas than it is within Japan. I expect there are many of you who know about kendama and there’s no need for an explanation. Right now it’s growing as more of a performance than as a game.




The Japanese spinning top (koma) had a huge boom with the begoma in the Showa period (1926-1989) from among all the tops found throughout the world. The begoma is a top made from metal, wrapped in cord, and given a good spin. The game is to knock your opponent’s koma out of the ring. When I think of it now, it feels a bit like sumo wrestling.



And thanks to the Beyblade toys made with modern tech, it’s become a game enjoyed throughout the world.

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