The Japan Kendama Association (JKA) was established by a kind and gentle author of children’s stories in 1975. His name was Issei Fujiwara (藤 原一生). (Issei was his pen name) The JKA has since become a large nationwide kendama organization. The internationalization of kendama, which was his earnest desire, has also been realized thanks to the power and popularity of the Internet. Now kendama events are held all over the world. This enables kendama lovers to promote mutual friendships across borders and foster strong ties between cultures.
Fujiwara became a writer because of the influence of his childhood
experiences and he decided to provide children with new hopes and
dreams. Additionally, in the 1970’s, popularizing kendama became his
life’s work. This became his mission and he poured his heart and soul into
it for the remainder of his life. He felt the cosmic potential of kendama and wanted to pass it on to children in a positive and organized manner.
He spread kendama throughout Japan utilizing strong-minded leadership while working energetically on unifying and codifying the techniques. He diligently organized promotion tests and passionately strove for the organization of national tournaments. He continued his activities not only because he hoped people would learn how to play kendama, but he hoped in his heart that through kendama people could make friends while cultivating a gentle mind that allows people to help each other. This is part of the concept behind Kendama-dō “The Way of Kendama.” His
spirit has been inherited and passed down to the JKA members.
The following is a brief biography of Issei Fujiwara. This helps to introduce the spark that became
the heart of the JKA.
Kazuo Fujiwara (May 1, 1924 - February 27, 1994) was born and raised in Tokyo. However, his
parents divorced just after he was born. He lived with his father who worked in a printing office. His
father was a heavy drinker and he turned nasty when he drank. It was not an uncommon
occurrence for Kazuo’s father to leave home for days without giving him any money to survive.
Kazuo was always lonely and never ate properly or enjoyed having enough food. Unfortunately, the
adversity made him an obstinate child who didn’t open his heart to
anyone. He used to play kendama to forget his loneliness.
Kendama was his lantern in the darkness of despair.
A Fateful Encounter
When he was six years old his father mysteriously disappeared.
Kazuo was then adopted by a nearby church. Father Ichiro Ono,
the priest he met there, greatly changed his outlook on life.
Years later in life Issei wrote an episode about the priest in one
of his children’s books. Here is the introduction to the story to
illustrate his turning point. The hero was a poor lonely boy
The story begins:
I am lonely. I don’t have a mother. I don’t know where my father has gone.
The story continues: To ease his great loneliness one day he steals some money from the church
even though he knew it was illegal and immoral. One of the kind priests noticed it and yet he didn’t
scold Kazuo. Instead, he prayed to God, “Kazuo is not a bad boy. He just wants love from his
mother.” When Kazuo saw the priest’s red eyes filled with tears he cried as well. All the deep pent
up emotions of his yearning heart came rushing out like a great flood. Kazuo learned that he was
not alone. He noticed that the priest was deeply worried about him and wanted to share in his
The Kazuo character is actually based on Fujiwara’s own childhood and the priest is Father Ono.
“We can live by believing and being considerate to each other.” Issei wanted to convey this
message to children by writing about his experience. “The Red Eyes" was published in 1976. The
book was reprinted again and again for more than 10 years. The book became a long time best
seller to be certain. This was an exceptional case for an original children’s story.
After he graduated school he found work at a printing office. While he worked he visited many
places to tell children stories illustrated with dramatic picture cards. This was an activity influenced
by his friend and mentor Father Ono. In his lonely childhood Kazuo had become absorbed in
picture stories performed by Father Ono. He wanted to give children those fantastic experiences
just like Father Ono had done for him.
After World War II Issei began working at a book store that dealt in Christian books. In his spare
time he devoured all types of books. Thus he developed an acute sense for literature in depth and
detail. He thought that performing picture stories had, until then, just enabled him to come into
contact with only a few children. With a desire to give “dreams” to many more children he began to
write children’s stories. He then quit his job to make his new path as a writer in 1952 and adopted
the pen name of Issei Fujiwara.
Among his works there is a book titled “Taro & Jiro were alive.” (タロ・ジロは生きていた ) This is
his masterpiece based on a true story from 1959 about two dogs that had been taken to the
Antarctic as part of an expedition party. Expressing the dignity of life and consideration for others
this story touched the hearts of many people and became a best seller selling over three hundred
thousand copies. It was read by one generation after another and it was even made into a
Japanese movie titled "Antarctica” in 1983. It became a record-breaking hit. Later the Walt Disney
Company acquired the rights to remake it in English. The Disney remake was released in 2006
and was titled “Eight Below.”
Inspired to teach kendama
One day Issei saw a boy among some kids holding a kendama and swinging the ball aimlessly.
Issei said to the boy, “Just give it to me son, this is the way you hold the kendama. Look. ―There!
I did it.” The boy was amazed and replied “wow, you are so good, sir.” “Of course!" he replied.
"With diligence and a stout heart anything is within your grasp!" "I have mastered myself through
kendama. So can you!" Later he recalled, “If I had just passed by the boy then I wouldn’t have
devoted myself to kendama this much.”
Feeling extremely happy and pleased with the children’s response to the situation Issei showed
them some tricks such as Airplane, Around the world, Lighthouse and so on. After a while he
found himself surrounded by many children. It had been some time since he had last played
kendama. He suddenly rediscovered how profound kendama was. The kendama was continually
challenging and interesting because with a bit of imagination you could create many new
techniques. In addition, playing kendama was a good exercise. The flowers of kendama were
beginning to bloom. Yet Issei wondered why kids had lost contact and had become disinterested
At that time children tended to shut themselves in their rooms because of the pressures of school
entrance examinations. Issei hoped to reactivate them and increase the bonds of their friendships
between one another. Therefore he initiated a drive to establish the Japan Kendama Association
as a base from which these benefits could be brought to future generations.
Issei traveled relentlessly throughout Japan aiming to develop kendama into a sport, organizing
rules, and holding national tournaments. Today, thanks to his efforts, kendama is now very
popular and well known.
Fujiwara Issei was a creative writer who wrote many original children’s stories that encouraged
and helped kids to become people with lively imaginations and a strong character. His
extraordinary efforts led to the establishment of the Japan Kendama Association on May 5, 1975.
The forerunner of the kendama, the Nichi-getsu Ball, was popular from early to mid-1900s but as
other games and toys became available began to lose its popularity becoming more of a folk craft
item sold as souvenirs. However in 1976 the Tokyo Kendama Club (TKC), run by Hideo Shinma,
and Japan Kendama Association (JKA), run by Issei Fujiwara, received much attention in the
press and it brought about another kendama boom. They were attracted to kendama because of
the unlimited potential and each established their own group to teach children. Their activities
were called the “Kendama Renaissance.”
They both were committed to promoting kendama but had different ways of thinking. Shinma
preferred spreading kendama as an enjoyable game without specific regulations. Fujiwara on the
other hand wanted to spread it as a sport with rules and teach basic techniques. Although Shinma
was at one time vice president of the JKA (1977-1979) it was difficult to bridge the differences
between their goals. Shinma eventually left JKA but continued to promote his vision of kendama.
Later on the TKC ceased their activities and JKA took the lead as the largest organized kendama
community in Japan.
In those days there was no Internet to spread information so everyone played kendama using
inconsistent rules with various models. Fujiwara aimed to establish a nation-wide kendama society.
To spread kendama throughout Japan and develop it into a genuine sport it was necessary to
unify the design of the kendama and techniques. JKA members made intense efforts to study,
create, and organize unified rules. They also improved the functionality of kendama itself and they
came up with various ideas to make kendama easier to use.
Hideo Shinma invented S model kendama (S for Shinma) and Issei Fujiwara invented F model
kendama (F for Fujiwara). It takes close collaboration between kendama players and a skilled
manufacturer to evolve kendama. Fortunately, they met a good partner. The S-Type kendama was
manufactured by Mingei Koeki from the start of the JKA. They also were the first manufacturers to
produce the F-type kendama in 1978.
In 1978 the official JKA kendama, the F16 model, was put on the market. This model had better balance than the Nichi-Getsu Ball. They also modified the sizes of cups and stick (ken). The string
of the original Nichi-Getsu Ball was attached to the stick using a metal fitting, like a staple, and
because of this the string used to break or untie easily. The F16 model adopted a clever
modification using a snap-resistant string that is attached though a tiny hole drilled into the cross
piece (saradō). Additionally a hole was drilled on both sides of the saradō making the new device
easier for left-handed players to use by allowing them to restring the kendama for left hand use.
*If you hold the kendama in your preferred
hand with the seal and string facing you the
big cup should be pointed up. If the small cup
is pointed up then the kendama is for the
In 1980 Fujiwara moved production of the official JKA
kendama to the company Hakushinsya (maker of the
Shinfuji). Even after this initial design was created the
JKA members continued studying and refining the shape
and finally they reached the ideal model, the F16-2, in
2001. The main improvement in this version is the
position of the string hole in the saradō. It is slightly
offset from the center of the saradō and it enables
players to have more control of the rotation of the ken.
The F16-2 model is both functional and aesthetically pleasing.
There are several necessary conditions for kendama to be widely approved as an athletic sport. There should be high level national competitions; above and beyond local competitions. The rules should be codified and the technical skills, knowledge, and background of judges should be standardized. JKA has supported local competitions and set up a detailed rules structure for competitions. At the same time JKA has attempted to improve the technical skills of judges by establishing a system of licensing qualifications. The rules are part of the foundation and structure upon which the JKA was built many years ago and will help carry it into the future.
Today there are ten major national competitions hosted by JKA. There are also many local events held all over Japan throughout the year. The major competitions held by JKA are:
• JKA Cup Competition (January)
• JKA Team Competition (January)
• JKA Masters Competition (January)
• JKA Junior Cup (February)
• ALL Japan Kendama Championship (May) • World Open Kendama Festa, Fujiwara Cup (July)
• The Junior Kendama Championship (August)
• ALL Japan Classified Kendama Championship (October) • Kendama Performance Competition (October)
• Moshikame Record Competition (November)
The Way of Kendama: Kendama-dō (けん玉道)
Although the JKA holds competitions annually and has successfully created a system for kendama level testing, and competition judging there is another part of kendama that is not as well known outside of Japan. It is called Kendama-dō (the way of kendama). Kendama-dō influences every aspect of kendama. It is drawn from the country’s marital arts heritage and shares many ideals with them.
Generally, the purpose of sport is competition, to determine a winner based on certain rules. In Japan there are a number of martial arts like kendo, judo, aikido, and karate which are sport but then again something more. In addition to the sport aspects of martial arts there are additional, deeper meanings contained within the teachings. In these martial arts part of one’s mastery centers around development of one’s character; to be a better person.
Understanding Dō will help you understand why members of the JKA take kendama play, testing, and competing so seriously. The kendama is not just a toy; it is the representation of all the things related to learning kendama. It becomes the physical representation of how they practice, test and compete so, for example, Japanese will not slam the kendama down or mistreat the device. Just as you wouldn’t expect a swordsman to throw his sword (device) on the ground JKA members also treat the kendama (device) with respect.
If you have ever seen or participated in a martial arts exam or competition you’ll notice many similarities to tests and competitions for kendama. Part of this is represented by the bow. At a test for example you’ll see the student bow to the examiners as a sign of respect both for their elders and kendama. In line with this the belief the JKA recommends a bow to each other at the beginning and the ending of promotion tests and competitions as a symbol and reminder of our goals.
Continuing with the progression of the test, they’ll listen to the instructions quietly and wait for the examiner’s instructions. If they pass the test they don’t jump up and down happy that they did it. They will thank the examiners/instructors and their parents for their support and time realizing that without them they would not have the opportunity to play kendama and succeed.
In a competition the contestants start and end with bow to each other and to the audience as a sign of respect for our competitor through interaction since we both have the same goal of character and skill building. We are helping each other achieve those goals by being our best and performing our best. The opponent in a match is considered an assistant to help reach your goals. The kendama is held at the side as if it was a sword; again as a sign of respect. While the competitors are performing there is no shouting from the crowd or comments to each other. The crowd also respects the contestants and the efforts they have put into learning kendama and becoming skilled and consistent.
The ability to do a trick isn’t as important as the ability to do it consistently. Those who aspire to learn the art should always remember to be thankful and respectful toward people around you, the training hall (school room, gym, etc.), and implements you use, as in our case the kendama.
Ideally the mastery of a martial art encompasses mind, body, and spirit. You contribute to society through mastering the art, training body, mind and improving your character. For example in Kendama-dō through practice you train your body and mind to move yourself higher, to become better; to be a person of not only of skill but integrity. Every activity from practicing and being taught to participating in a match are all considered training to cultivate yourself. Each moment should be treated with respect. When you are training you are always focused on the moment since it cannot be lived again. Simply completing a trick is not enough. It is equally important to perform a trick beautifully. A perfect performance flows smoothly without a hitch. Consistency is key to the development and progression through levels.
The JKA does not allow any adjustments during performance of most tricks (an example of an exception is the wrist flick for jumping stick). To complete one trick it is necessary to control the position and direction of the ken and tama precisely. Moreover you have to be careful of the movement of the string so as not to get tangled. Only with the closest attention to detail can you master the ultimate technique. In addition the JKA requires players to stand completely still during or at the end of certain tricks. In a perfect performance stillness and dynamic movement are beautifully harmonized. The contrast of two distinctly different states is viewed with appreciation of the mastery in kendama-dō. To bring to a total halt all movement, including the kendama, requires the ability to have complete control over your body, mind and the kendama. It will be challenging to stay calm even in difficult situations however it is one of the most thrilling aspects of training and execution of kendama moves; to accumulate all your efforts into a single point in time, to attain that total state of balance between mind, body and spirit.
The JKA has a slogan 焦らず、慌てず、諦めず (aserazu, awatezu, akiramezu): “Never rush, Never panic, Never give up.” Through this motto we encourage players to acquire not only good spirit, technique, and physical strength but a moral sense and good manners. We believe that we can foster positive power within ourselves that cannot be quantified and bring that vitality into the real world. This is the meaning of “Kendama-dō.”
Kendama skill levels and examination
The JKA has three established skill categories for kendama players, a basic skill level (Kyu), intermediate skill level (Junshodan), and a high skill level (Dan). Ranks must be achieved in order from lowest to highest. For example: Kyu 10→1 then Junshodan followed by Dan 1→6. For Dan levels 7-10 special considerations are required; they cannot be achieved by testing alone and are considered honorary ranks based on more than physical skill alone; for example teaching, promoting, and other activities to further kendama.
•The tests must be taken using an official JKA Kendama with either certified (Nintei) or recommended (Suishō) seal.
•Only the certified JKA examiner may perform skill level examinations (tests)
•Tricks must be performed in numerical order
•Each trick may be attempted up to 10 times but must be successfully performed at least the designated number of times shown in the table.
•Must qualify at each Kyu level before eligible to take examination for the next higher Kyu level rank
•For ikkyu (highest Kyu level rank): (1) Successfully perform trick No.1 through trick No.10 the designated number of times shown in the table.
(2) Perform Moshikame at least 50 times without failure at a rate of at least 135 times per minute. Two attempts allowed. (My personal opinion and the way I teach: Moshikame should be mandatory for all listed levels; 4, 10, 20, 30, 40. I think it gradually prepares players for the higher count Moshikame rather than their first experience being 1 Kyu and 50 count.)
Key Points: For the Kyu level, basic necessary tricks such as Big Cup, Spike, Airplane, Swing in and Lighthouse need to be learned. At this stage, we need to learn the correct way to hold the Kendama and the body movement to perform the trick. If you master these basics, you will improve your Kendama skills quicker and your body movements will be smoother.
Requirements: •The tests must be taken using an official JKA Kendama with either certified (Nintei) or recommended (Suishō) seal.
•Only a certified JKA examiner may perform skill level examinations (tests)
•Tricks must be performed in numerical order
•Trick No. 1 through No. 8 may be attempted up to 10 times each, but must be successfully performed at least the designated number of times shown in the table. •Perform Moshikame at least 100 times without failure at a rate of at least 135 times per minute. Only one attempt allowed.
Key Points: The Junshodan level was added more recently, 1991, because the skill levels gap between 1st Kyu and 1st Dan was too wide. Many of the tricks at the Dan level use combination tricks which include Kyu level tricks. For example: Earth turn has elements of Swing in, Falling Down includes Lighthouse, and Jumping Stick starts with Airplane. Tricks like Slip on Stick (also called Slip-stick), Bird, and Slip Grip Special also require the same skill to pull the ball straight up without rotating it just like the trick Spike. If you are practicing for Junshodan you need to aim consistency in succeeding basic skills to go through higher Dan levels.
•Must qualify at each Dan level before eligible to take examination for the next higher Dan rank
•Minimum time in rank before competing for next higher Dan rank:
(1) 1 Dan through 5 Dan – at least one month (2) 6 Dan and above – at least one year
•The tests must be taken using an official JKA Kendama with a certified (Nintei) seal.
•Only the certified JKA examiner may perform skill level examinations. For 1-4 Dan, three examiners with 2 Kyu license or higher (exceptions may be considered depending on the availability of the examiners) For 5 Dan, three examiners with 2 Kyu license or higher, including one examiner with 1 Kyu license at least. For 6 Dan, five examiners with 2 Kyu license or higher, including one examiner with A Kyu (A Grade) license at least
•Tricks must be performed in numerical order
•Each trick may be attempted up to 10 times but must be successfully performed at least the designated number of times shown in the table.
•Moshikame (1 Dan through 4 Dan): Perform moshikame without failure at least the number of times shown in the table at a rate of at least 135 times per minute. Only one attempt allowed. (additional detail about Moshikame: Example testing for 1 Dan and pass 1000 you never have to do MK again, MK is the starting trick for all levels that require it)
•Time trial B (3 Dan through 5 Dan): In the order listed below, successfully perform all tricks in time trial B at least once within specified time limit. (May attempt each trick as many times as necessary but must successfully complete all 10 tricks within the time limit specified.) Two attempts allowed to complete time trial B within the specified time limit. Tricks must be completed in order but you do not need to restart from the beginning if you miss a trick in the middle of the series.
6th Dan: Free trick, Instead of time trial B, successfully demonstrate two tricks of the technical level suitable for the 6 Dan ranking. No time limitation. Up to 10 attempts are permitted to successfully perform each trick. After skill examination, a board of JKA judges evaluates each candidate’s continued involvement with Kendama.
Time trial B:
1. Swing candle 2. Around the prefecture 3. Around Japan (2 times) 4. Around the world (2 times) 5. Around Europe 6. Earth turn 7. Bird – spike 8. Jumping stick 9. 1-Turn airplane 10. Falling in
Key Points: Examinee must successfully complete all ten tricks in order listed at least once within a specified time limit. Examinee can attempt each trick any number of times until they are successful, and then move on to the next trick without penalty.
Once you get to the Dan levels there are many new tricks to be learned which are derived from basic tricks. It is quite a jump from Pre-Dan to 1st Dan and if you obtain 1st Dan you should be proud of the achievement and consider yourself “pretty good” at Kendama.
Never give up!
Sourced directly From the Japan Kendama Association. By: Joshua Grove