The Enduring Appeal of Japanese Toys

There is so much one can learn about a culture by the way its children play, and for hundreds of years Japanese toys have marked Japanese identity from its first steps. Although Japan has a thriving modern toy industry, surprisingly simple traditional toys like dolls and spinning tops continue to be favorite staples in every child’s toy box. Learn how to play a few of our favorites below, and use them to brighten your desk or household once you're done. 


Koma are traditional wooden spinning tops consisting of a circle or cone shape with a short rod running through the center. The rod forms the axis upon which the top turns, and one quick twist of the rod can keep a koma spinning for an absurdly long time. They were originally used by noblewomen to pass the time, but they caught on widely in the 18th century. Special features make these toys an exciting modern activity for kids: often they will make a distinctive sound as they spin or play an amusing trick. Our own komas, for example, stand upright on their rods as they spin so that they look like little dancing trees.  


Photo by Chris Setty

Kendama is a tradition cup-and-ball game consisting of a stick-like ken (sword) and tama (ball) connected by a string. The ken looks like a mix between a stick and a double-faced hammer: it has two cups and a protruding spike (known as the kensaki), which fits into a hole drilled into the tama. To play, try to catch the tama on any of the cups- bonus points if you can land the tama through the kensaki! You can also play different tricks and juggle the tama back and forth between the cups: in our version, it's all about catching the apple. Kendama has become one of Japan's most popular children's games, with tournaments awarding top competitors across the country. Even so, kendama is not just about fun and games- its ability to test agility is such that it is even used as a measure of dexterity in testing robotic arms.  


The closest thing to western juggling, otedama is a game traditionally played with small cloth beanbags. The standard game features a player juggling four to five beanbags, although some variations (like performing tricks, or multiple players taking turns to catch and throw the balls) are common. Their lightness and texture of our Nakagawa Linen Juggling Balls make them a challenge even for experienced jugglers- and that’s also what makes them so fun!

Though these games may have originated as children’s toys, there’s no reason to bid them farewell after a certain age.  Keep a small T-Lab animal at your office desk to cheer you up when deadlines creep in, use our apple kendama in your science class to explain Newton's theory of gravity, or challenge yourself to take up juggling. In their simplicity and charm, traditional toys are a great way to add a little whimsy to your life (and your desk!) no matter your age.