2017/10/08 What's On
Ancient Japanese Games
by Jordan Mounteer
There are a few things that are common across cultures – language, a sense of right and wrong, and personal names just to name a few – but so is the way in which our creative human minds try to find ways to entertain and challenge themselves. Since the earliest recorded civilizations, play has always been one of the constant things that define us, and as we’ve evolved so too have our games. Sometimes they are strictly for fun, other times they may serve a particular function, such as teaching basic math or literary skills, sharpening one’s strategic abilities, or helping to identify someone as from a particular social class. The same can be said for Japan which has a wide range of ancient games – many of which are still played to this day.
Developed during the Meiji period, this ‘game’ actually had much more mystical routes, and is quite similar in many ways to the Western table-turning or Ouija boards. Unlike conventional Ouija boards however, kokkuri involved writing down letters from the hiragana alphabet on a piece of paper. First a question would be posed, often having to do with the future. Then a group of people would all put their hands on a coin and allow spirits or gods (called kami) to help guide them to each hiragana, thereby spelling out the answer to the question. The actual name kokkuri is actually a combination of three different words – fox, tengu, and tanuki – all three animals which have a very important spiritual significance to the Japanese, and whose spirits were believed to be the ones manipulating the coin. This is still practiced today, sometimes by young children, but it’s also found its way into popular culture in a number of anime. Also unlike Ouija boards, however, the stakes are often much higher with kokkuri, and failing to dispose properly of the implements of the game could conceivably result in the death of the players if they weren’t careful.
Another children’s game is one rooted in antiquity called Kagome Kagome. The premise is pretty simple; one player is ‘it’ and called the oni, a word used to refer to a supernatural ogre or demon like creature. The oni sits in the middle of a circle with their eyes closed or blindfolded while the rest of the players join hands and walk in a circle around the oni while singing a song.
Kagome, kagome / Kago no naka no tori wa Kagome, kagome / The bird in the basket
Itsu itsu deyaru / Yoake no ban ni When, oh when, will it come out In the night of dawn
Tsur to kame ga subetta The crane and turtle slipped
Ushiro no shoumen dare Who is behind you now?
If the oni can guess who is standing behind them at the end of the song, they win the game. But what is interesting about this game is the song itself, which is quite cryptic and has no clear meaning – many interpretations have been given as to what it is referring to specifically, but there is no real agreement. Which kind of makes it all the more spooky.
We all the famous game of Go, which actually has Chinese roots. But like so many other things (including ramen!) the Japanese were able to assimilate it into their culture and make it very much their own. One such example comes out of the Heian period and is a variation on the game of Go called Gomoku (or “gomokunarabe”, from go – 5, moku – counter, and narabe – line-up. It is still used on a normal Go board and with black and white stone pieces, but the object of this game, as the Japanese definition suggests, is to line up five of your own stones in a row. It was such a hit that during the 19th century the name was simply shortened to its present day Gomoku and was adapted to be played in Britain where they called it Go Bang. I guess that’s the mark of a good game – not just that it’s still played today, but that it was so popular so many other countries wanted to play it too!
One of the more fascinating card games to come out of Japan was actually introduced by the Portuguese, and involved large playing decks with brightly colored patters and designs, but after Japan sealed off its borders these types of games were banned. That didn’t stop people from developing it as a way to gamble, however. But modern day karuta is quite different and has several different variants. Hanafuda, for example, is all about trying to gain points based on values of the cards. Another variant called Eawase is used for matching phrases, often times from traditional Japanese waka poetry. Such competitions involve a referee beginning to recite the first three lines of a waka poem, often from the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu which is a famous anthology of Japanese poets. The best karuta players have memorized all the poems, and the fastest person to recognize the recited poem and slap the corresponding card lying face down in front of them that corresponds to the given poem wins. If you’re curious about what that looks like, I highly recommend the anime Chihayafuru which revolves around a high school student immersing herself in the game and the culture around it.
A game which didn’t survive the test of time quite as well as the others on this list, hanetsuki was most often played by girls. Usually during New Years, they would get together to bat a shuttlecock back and forth with wooden paddles called hagoita, but unlike its Western cousin badminton which uses a net, hanetsuki was traditionally played without one. A superstition surrounding the game suggested that the longer the shuttlecock (sometimes a cherry) remained in the air the less mosquito bites the players would get – however, if you screwed up and lost the shuttlecock or it hit the ground you had to mark your face with India ink. Sometimes during New Years you can still see people playing this, and decorative hagoita are sold in tourist shops around the same time.
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