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Traditional Japanese entertainment
Despite the famously hardworking nature of the Japanese, play has been an important part of their culture for centuries. As far back as the Heian period, games were an essential part of life at the imperial court. Traditional games, however, did not only serve a ludic function. Often their results were also decisive for one’s position in the court hierarchy. Among medieval Japanese courtiers, arcade games such as kemari, archery or juggling were popular, as well as board games requiring intellectual agility and competitions such as monoawase. Teams taking part in the tournament were, for example, tasked with presenting an object or a song that best expressed the given topic. Poetry contests – utaawase – and painting contests – eawase – were also very popular among aristocrats.
History of Japanese games
Some Japanese games, like many other elements of Japanese culture, have their origins in Chinese tradition. Borrowed from their overseas neighbours, games have been enjoyed by successive generations of Japanese over the years, who have modified their original versions to create their own entertainment tradition. Despite the growing popularity of computer games and other technologically advanced forms of entertainment, some of the old games are still enjoyed by modern Japanese. Learn about the most characteristic Japanese games and see how much they say about the culture of the Land of the Cherry Blossom.
Japanese board games
One of the most popular Japanese board games is go, or rather igo, a game of “surrounding stones”. It arrived in Japan from China and quickly became a popular pastime not only among the aristocracy, but also among the brave samurai and the common people. In the 17th century Go was approved as an official profession, the first schools for professional players were established in Japan, and even a special Go Office was created on the initiative of the Shogun Tokugawa. The phenomenon of the game lies in the simplicity of its rules, which offer players countless strategic opportunities. Each of the two participants has pawns, so-called stones, either black or white in colour. The stones are placed at the intersections of vertical and horizontal lines marked on the board. The participants’ task is to surround the opponent’s stones and occupy the maximum area of the board. Although the rules of go are very simple, the ability to play the game strategically requires mastering whole sequences of moves and many years of practice. Go schools still educate lovers of intellectual entertainment, who come to Japan from all over the world to learn tactical skills from real Japanese masters.
Sugoroku probably appeared in Japan as early as the 6th century and is also the Japanese version of a game originally created by the Chinese. Like go, the game can only be played by two players. Each player has 15 black or white pawns. The most important element of sugoku is the game board, which usually takes the form of a wooden table. The elaborate mother-of-pearl and gold decorations found on tables manufactured in Japan as early as the Muromachi period (1336-1573) attest to the special importance of this type of entertainment for the lives of the Japanese elite. The fields on which the players place their pawns are decorated with various symbols and illustrations. The board of “53 Scenes of Tōkaidō”, which is one of the most characteristic versions of the game, consists of landscapes found on the road from Edo to Kyoto. The rivals throw two dice and move their pawns according to the number of dice thrown. Their task, of course, is to cover the entire “scenic” route as quickly as possible.
Japanese card games
A standard pack of cards (with or without jokers) is needed to play “Sevens”. The cards are distributed among the players, who in the first round put all the title sevens on the table. In subsequent rounds, players add cards of the same suit and in the correct order – starting with sixes and eights. If a card is missing, the player has the option to skip his turn 3 times throughout the game. The joker, on the other hand, can replace the missing card if, for example, there is a four on the table and the player has a six in the correct colour. The game ends when one of the players manages to get rid of all the cards. The others receive penalty points for each card remaining in their hand.
Hanafuda – Japanese playing cards
Although the Japanese are perfectly familiar with “our” spades, diamonds, hearts and clubs, it should come as no surprise that the Land of the Rising Sun also has its own card system. Hanafuda is the original Japanese pack of cards, based on a Portuguese original that arrived on the islands around the 16th century. The modifications it underwent over the years were the result of successive siogunate bans, issued in fear of the spread of gambling. In its final version, the hanafuda has 48 cards, completely devoid of numerical signs. They are divided into 12 months and decorated with natural motifs. The symbols of plants and animals were supposed to create the impression of an innocent game, far from the world of gambling. It was soon realised, however, that this was only an illusion and that hanafuda gained its greatest popularity thanks to the gambling games of the Japanese Yakuza mafia, whose members tattooed card patterns on their bodies. Hanafuda – like the European deck – can be used in many different ways. Among the most famous games are koi-koi and hachi-hachi – the Japanese equivalent of poker.
Traditional Japanese games for children
The history of this wooden toy probably begins in France, from where kendama migrated to China and from there to the Land of the Rising Sun around 200 years ago. The hammer (ken) consists of three different-sized bases and a pick. A ball with a hole in the middle (dam) is attached to the handle with a string. The arcade game consists in placing the ball on the appropriate base. Although the principle seems simple, the Japanese have developed at least several hundred different kandama techniques, and its enthusiasts – also adults – improve their skills in special clubs.
Koma, or simply a Japanese spinning top, as opposed to its European version, is set in motion by a string wound around it. The spinning toy entertained the Japanese elite as far back as the Heian era (794-1192), and over the centuries it has lived to see many different versions. Some whistle, others are used to draw lots, and still others are used for a game called beigoma, in which special spinning tops hit each other, fighting like wrestlers.
Gilded boards or institutions training masters of Japanese games testify to the important role played by play in Japanese culture. Among traditional Japanese entertainment there is something for lovers of logical puzzles, as well as amateurs of cards and arcade games. Sugoroku or kendama – which oriental game would you take home as a souvenir from the Land of the Cherry Blossom?