Photos by Shoji Kudaka

Photos by Shoji Kudaka ()

Growing up in the 70s and 80s, I had a lot of fun playing with traditional Japanese/Okinawan toys, including kites and spinning tops. Stashing some toys in my schoolbag, I could not wait for a fun time with friends in the schoolyard.

However, once Nintendo’s takeover took place in the mid-80s, the age of analog faded away.

By the time the 90s were approaching, we would rather meet at a friend’s house to spend hours on the video game console than play outside.

Now, those old toys are almost always talked about in the past tense. But they are not completely gone. Some of them are still available at toy shops and 100-yen stores, while others continue to be sold online.

Why not give them a try and get the taste of Japan’s or Okinawa’s nostalgia?

1. Menko/Patch

These are cards with illustrations (often characters of kids’ TV shows) drawn on their front and back. There are round ones and square ones. There are several variations as to how you play with them, but the one I was familiar with goes like this. First, you lay several of them on the ground. Your opponent will do the same with his or her cards. Then you pick one of your cards from the ground and slam it against the ground, aiming at a spot close to some of your opponent’s cards. If opponent’s card flips due to the impact of the card you throw, you get to keep it.

2. Koma (spinning top)

Although spinning tops are associated with New Year celebrations, we used to play with them all year.

The most common ways of playing with tops are so-called “battles” and trick shots. In the “battles,” we would spin our tops in a close area and let them collide with each other to see which one would be the last one standing. As for tricks, me and my friends used to let a spinning top land on our hands once unleashing it from a cord.

3. Kite

Flying kites are associated with the New Year celebrations. Once January came around, I would purchase one at a bunbouguya (local stationary store) and fly it in a park. In Okinawa, there is also a hand-made kite called “Kaabuyaa”, which means “bat” in Okinawan dialect. My fun almost always ended with my kite hanging from electric wire or stuck in a tree. (Now flying kites is prohibited at some locations, including those around flight routes, for safety reasons.)

4. Biidama (glass beads)

According to Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, the history of the glass bead game in Japan can be traced back to as far as the Heian era (794-1185), when a type gambling called “zeniuchi” was played with coins. In the late Edo era, an illustration of foreign kids playing with glass beads was drawn in Yokohama.

Back then, according to Asahi, glass beads were expensive imports. So, they were substituted by tree fruits and balls of clay for local Japanese. But glass beads became commonly available when bottled ramune (soda) came to be domestically produced in Meiji era (1868 – 1912). A glass bead was contained in each bottle of the beverage, which was reused as a toy for kids.

There are several ways to play with the beads, but the one I often played was to aim at a bead on the ground with another one. If you can hit your target bead, it becomes yours.

5. (Coca Cola) Yo-yo

Of course, the yo-yo is not a Japanese toy. But my list would not be complete without mentioning it, for several reasons, starting with “Coca-Cola yo-yo.” Introduced as a promotional item of the beverage company, this yo-yo was one of the most sought-after items when I was a kid. Once I obtained one, I spent hours just trying to complete tricks like “Walk the Dog” and “Around the World.” Of course, I ended up breaking it. Replica Coca-Cola yo-yos are now available online and at select stores.

According to the Japan Yo-Yo Federation, the yo-yo boom has taken place several times in Japan, the first of which came with the Coca-Cola yo-yo. The second wave was introduced by “Sukeban Deka,” a TV show based on a manga of the same title where a high school girl fought villains by utilizing a red-colored yo-yo. “Sukeban” means “delinquent girl” in slang. This word is outdated and hardly used now, but every time it is mentioned, I remember the time I recklessly swung my yo-yo like Saki Asamiya, the heroin of the show.

The third boom came around 1997 with “hyper yo-yo”, a new brand of yo-yo launched by the Japanese toy company Bandai. About 27 million hyper yo-yos were sold worldwide.

The federation notes that the yo-yo continues to be popular in Japan. There have even been more than 30 world champions of competitive yo-yo from this country. Thanks to improvements in materials and designs, high-performance products are being introduced into the yo-yo world, helping the toy stay up-to-date, according to the federation.

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