8 Traditional Japanese New Year’s Playings & Games

During new year’s holiday Japanese might play particular things and play an traditional games with families and friends. Today I introduce 8 interesting Japanese new year’s plays and games.

1. Hanetsuki (羽根つき) – a traditional Japanese badminton-like 

The typical traditional presentable Japanese new year’s game is “Hanetsuki.

羽子板の写真 a photo of a traditional Hogoita (a wood paddle)
A traditional Hagoita (racket – wood paddle) for display/羽子板
A phote of a pratical Hatoita (a wood paddle) and two yahane (shuttlecock)
A practical Hagoita and two yahane ( shuttlecock) for playing

The origin and its meaning

The Hanetsuki has a meaning of wishing for children’s health and growth (specially for girls) without having any bad luck throughout a year.

It has been said that originally it came from China. In China, around 14 centuries, the game of kicking a shuttlecock with a coin attached at the bottom was played.

The game was already played by aristocrats during Muromachi period (室町時代) (1336 – 1573) but had been generalized among population since the end of Edo period (江戸時代). Hanetsuki was greatly played during a new year festival until recently.

Later on, people became believing that they could get rid of evils by playing Hanetsuki. And then during Edo period, sending Hagoita 「羽子板」like the top photo as a gift at an end of it’s year for removing evils became traditional.

A shuttlecock (hane 羽根) has a meaning. The shuttlecock is made with soapberry seed “Mukuroji /「無患子」(Indian soapberry)and feathers. It has been thought that this Mukuroji leads to a protection for children from any sickness. The custom of giving a Hagoita to a girl, who had a first Oshougatu (a new year), was born.

How to play

Hanetuki is a traditional Japanese badminton-like game which consists to strike mutually a shuttlecock (hene) with no net. Can be played by one person, two persons or two groups to compete a game.

2. Tako age (凧揚げ)- Kite flying

正月に遊ぶ凧揚げのミニチュアの紅白色の写真 a red and white photo of two miniature kites for a new year
a traditional Japanese kite/凧

Takoage is a common activity throughout Japan in which children fly kites on New Years Day. Kites vary considerably in shape and decoration according to the locality. As in the past, kite-flying contests are still held all over Japan at this time. by Wikipedia

These kites can come in diamond, rectangular, and hexagonal shapes, or sometimes they can be in the shape of Japanese characters or various animals! 

The origin and it’s meaning

It has been said that the origin was China. Once in China, a kite was used for a battle and a divination as a tool.

In Japan, the takoage (kite flying) was a popular play among aristocrats. It has been said that during Edo period it spread into ordinary people.

The ordinary people seemed to have celebrated a first born boy by flying a kite at a new year and prayed for the boy’s good health and growth.

Also as the kite fly high in sky, it has a meaning of 「Sending wishes with the kite as high as heaven」.

3. Karuta (カルタ) – traditional Japanese playing cards

The origin and it’s meaning

It looks like there are two theories of the origin.

One is called ”Kai Ooi” 「貝覆い」that played by aristocrats during Heian perion (平安時代). The game consisted two shells, writing a first part of the poem and a second of the poem on each shell and finding a perfect match for the poem. It has been said that this game was connected to 「Hyakunin Isshu」.

Another theory is that the Karuta was introduced by a Portuguese missionary who visited Japan around 16 centuries. It was called “Nanban Karuta” 「南蛮カルタ」, which came from a Portuguese word of “Carta”. It was similar to playing cards.

At Edo period, “Iroha karuta”「いろはかるた」 was made for children to learn Hiragana and Japanese sayings.

Hyakunin Isshu

Hyakunin Isshu (百人一首) is a classical Japanese anthology of one hundred Japanese waka by one hundred poets. Hyakunin isshu can be translated to “one hundred people, one poem [each]”; it can also refer to the card game of uta-garuta, which uses a deck composed of cards based on the Hyakunin Isshu.

The most famous and standard version was compiled by Fujiwara no Teika (1162–1241) while he lived in the Ogura district of Kyoto.[1] It is therefore also known as Ogura Hyakunin Isshu (小倉百人一首). by Wikipedia

百人一首の写真 A photo of Hyakunin issho
Hyakunin Isshu/百人一首

How to play

Karuta experts will pick up the correct card the beginning of the first part.

Hana Fuda (花札)

Hanafuda (flower cards) are an another traditional Japanese playing cards.

花札 ゲーム 正月遊びの写真 A photo of Hanguda (flower cards)

Hanafuda (花札, “flower cards”)[1][2] are a style of Japaneseplaying cards. They are typically smaller than Western playing cards, only 2⅛ by 1¼ inches (5.4 by 3.2 cm), but thicker and stiffer.[3] On the face of each card is a depiction of plants, tanzaku (短冊), animals, birds, or man-made objects.[4][5] One single card depicts a human. The back side is usually plain, without a pattern or design of any kind. Hanafuda are used to play a variety of games like Koi-Koi and Hachi-Hachi. by Wikipedia

How to play

There are several ways of playing Hanafuda. In here I just explain one way [koi-koiこいこい]. Shuffle the cards and each person gets 8 cards facing down. In the center, places 8 cards facing up. The remaining cards are put at the side. Pick up one card from your cards to find any matching card. If there is no matching cards in your hand, just choose one to place in the center then take a top card from the face down deck. Continues until your cards finished. Please refer to the below video.

4. Koma mawashi (コマ回し)- Top rotation/spinning

Koma (コマ), a top, is a toy with a squat body and a sharp point at the bottom, designed to be spun on its vertical axis, balancing on the tip due to the gyroscopic effect. by Wikipedia

色々なコマの写真 a various of tops

The origin and its meaning

A top is worldwide. There seems to be various origins.

A Japanese top is believed to have came from China at Nara period(奈良時代). At the that the game was played as an entertainment at the Imperial Court.

And then it looks like the game was played among aristocrats as a just play and was established as a child game at Heian period(平安時代). After Edo period the game was play by among ordinary people.

It had been said that the top had been thought to be a good luck as the top spins independently and straightly, which implies as 「things  go quite smoothly」or 「money goes round」.

5. Fuku warai (福笑い)

a image of finishing Fukuwarai

Fukuwarai is a traditional Japanese game similar to “pin the tail on the donkey”. It is played during the new year’s holidays. “Fuku” 「福」means fortune, good luck, happiness. “Warau” means smiling.

The origin and it’s meaning

The origin of “Fukuwarai” is unknown and the reason for playing this game seems to be yet unclear.

However, according to one theory, the later day of Edo period, the game was played among people and it has been said that the game was established as a new year’s game after entering Meiji period.

How to play

The Player wears a blindfold and then place paper cutouts in the shape of the eyes, nose, and mouth on face.

A funny part of this game is that you might burst into laughing after seeing what you made. All families members share laughing just looking at the finishing face. There is a Japanese saying 「Warau kado niwa fuku kitaru/笑う門には福来る」 – Fortune comes in by a merry gate. Laughing together at a beginning of a new year is good thing to do.

6. Kendama(けん玉)- Sword and ball

けん玉の写真 a photo of a Kendama (sward and ball)

The kendama (けん玉, “sword [and] ball”)  is a traditional Japanese skill toy. It consists of a handle, a pair of cups, and a ball that are all connected together by a string. On one end of the ken is a cup, while the other end of ken is narrowed down, forming a spike that fits into the hole of the tama. The kendama is the Japanese version of the classic cup-and-ball game,  Wikipedia

The origin and it’s meaning

Many different theories exist about it’s origin as the Kendama was play in France, Greek and China. It is therefore the origin of Kendama is still unknown.

Kenddama is believed to have come to Japan via the Silk Road during the Edo period (1603-1868) into Nagasaki, the only Japanese city open to foreign trade at the time.

It had seemed to be an enjoyment at a drinking party and kendama was played by adults at the time.

A reason why Kendama was established as a new year’s game is unclear.

How to play

The Kendama is played by tossing the red ball (tama 玉) into the air and trying to catch it on the both sides and the bottom side of the wooden handle, the stick point. I have tried but it is so hard. Why don’t you challenge the kemdame. One day you might became a boy like on YouTube below.

Hiroshi Shigeki is a master of the kendama and won so many competitions apparently. I was just amazed.

けん玉1の写真 a photo of a girl playing with kendama

7.Sugoroku (双六) – a Japanese board game

Sugoroku (双六) is a similar to a western board game. The game is played by rolling dice and moving forward according to the numbers appeared on the dice. A player who first reaches to the end is a winner.

A illustration of a board game

The origin and it’s meaning

Sugoroku came from China at Nara Period (奈良時代). Originally it seemed to be a game called “Bansugoroku”「盤双六/ばんすごろく」. Bansugoroku is a board game played by two person. It was a kind of an old type of backgammon.

A main Sugoroku played currently is called “Esugoroku”「絵双六」- a picture Sugoroku. The picture Sugoroku is thought to be a Japaneses original one which was developed with the board Sugoroku influence.

During Edo period the picture Sugoroku became popular because of it’s simply rule and it can be played with many people. It has been said that the game was played even during a new year’s holiday.

8. Menko (面子) – a Japanese card game

めんこの写真 a photo of various Menko (Japanese cards)

Menko (面子) is a Japanese card game played by two or more players. It is made of a thick paper or cardboard、comes in rectangular and various size round. Either one side or both sides are printed with images of characters of manga, anime and other things.

Menko means 「small side」and also is used as a name.

The origin and it’s meaning

The origin is believed to be 「Isen」意銭(いせん)at Heian period. However , the children at the time were thought to have used a shell, a stone and a seed as a play set .

Doro Menko 「泥面子(どろめんこ)」with person’s face (men) was made of clay at Edo period. From that moment it named as Menko. Doro Menko was played by throwing the doro (clay) until it breaks or hitting other one. It had also meaning of [talisman] .

At Meiji period (明治時代), 「鉛面子(なまりめんこ)」rapidly spread. Namari Menko was made with a lead. After Taisho period (大正時代)a current paper menko became mainstream.

How to play

Menko is played by throwing down a card and trying to flip other player’s card, which is placed on the floor, with a gust of wind. If the other player’s card flipped it is successful. At the end of the game, the player who takes all the cards or the one with the most cards is a winner.

Do you know some of games or have you played before? Hope this blog interests you. Thank you for stopping by.


About mkchatinjapanese

I am a native Japanese who teaches Japanese to non-Japanese speaker as a private tutor. Teach from a beginner to Intermediate level. location in London.
This entry was posted in A Japanese Slang, Japanese Amine, Japanese custom, JAPANESE EVENTS, Japanese Language, JAPANESE LIFE, JAPANESE SOCIETY, TODAY'S NEW WORD and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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