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New Japan Old Japan / Kendama unites world in birthplace

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Participants show their skills in the preliminary round of the Woodone Kendama World Cup 2017 on July 22 in Hatsukaichi, Hiroshima Prefecture, considered the birthplace of the cup-and-ball toy.

By Ryuzo Suzuki / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior PhotographerThe city of Hatsukaichi, Hiroshima Prefecture, known as the birthplace of kendama, again hosted the “World Cup” of the beloved cup-and-ball toy this year.

Held on July 22 and 23, this was the fourth tournament since the event began in 2014. A record 387 participants from 14 countries and regions competed using different techniques and at varying levels of difficulty. From Japan, 282 kendama aficionados participated in the competition.

The origin of kendama is said to go back to 16th-century France, where a game that involved spearing a ball on a stick was popular. After arriving in Japan in the Edo period (1603-1868), a craftsman in Kure, Hiroshima Prefecture, added cups in 1918 to create the shape that is used today. Kendama spread nationwide after mass production began in 1921 in Hatsukaichi, which was known for its woodworking industry.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Participants praise each other’s performances in the preliminary round.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    In the championship round on July 23, competitors show their skills individually on the stage.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Spectators cheer during the championship round.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    So Kanada, who became the first Japanese champion, raises the trophy.

Its popularity has waxed and waned over the years. Kendama had mostly fallen out of the spotlight after the last major boom in the 1970s, until an American who had become a professional after learning about the Japanese toy started posting videos of his skills online. This sparked interest in kendama overseas, which led to a resurgence in popularity in Japan.

The Global Kendamas Network, based in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, and an executive committee formed by the Hatsukaichi municipal government and others began holding tournaments to promote kendama and benefit the city.

The tournament has preliminary and championship rounds, in which participants can use 100 approved techniques. Scores are based on whether a technique succeeds and the level of difficulty. In the preliminary round, the competitors are divided into groups of three, with each person performing twice for three minutes each time. The 35 people, most of whom had advanced from the preliminary round, showed their amazing skills individually on the stage during the championship round for three minutes each.

This year’s champion was So Kanada, a first-year high school student from Nagoya. He stopped the Americans’ winning streak at three consecutive championships and became the first Japanese champion.

“To be the first Japanese winner in one of the world’s biggest tournaments, held in the birthplace of kendama — to be honest I’m just so happy,” Kanada said.

Bryson Lee of the United States was going for a second-straight victory but came in second this time.

“U.S.A. is taking Japan next year,” he said.

“The joy of executing your first successful kendama trick must be universal,” said Tamotsu Kubota, president of the Global Kendamas Network. “I hope enjoying kendama can create bonds between old and young, men and women around the world.”

(New Japan, Old Japan is a series exclusive to The Japan News)

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