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Newsletter: Delivery Of Japan's Seasonal Tradition

Delivered on January 27, 2020
Delivery Of Japan's Seasonal Tradition [Issue 110] January 22, 2020

Delivery Of Japan's Seasonal Tradition [Issue 110]
January 22, 2020
Japanese Traditional Culture Promotion & Development Organization


1. Seasonal toy:
Originally used for fortune-telling : Spinning tops

:: 1. Seasonal toy

This is a Haiku written by Takahama Kyoshi.
"Tatofureba Koma no hajikeru gotokunari"
(Translation: You and I were like competing spinning tops.
The hot arguments we had would have never happened without the
relationship of mutual trust.)

Time flies, January 2020 is going to be over.
How did you spend the New Year's holidays with your friends and families?
Some years ago, Japanese children used to play traditional games in New
Year's holidays. Tako-age (flying kites), Hane-tsuki (Japanese badminton
using battledore and shuttlecock), Koma-mawashi (top-spinning), Karuta
(card games) and Fuku-warai (game like "pin the tail on the donkey")
were special New Year's amusements. But now, we rarely see children
playing those traditional games. This month, we would like to see the
history of "Koma (spinning tops)".

The oldest spinning top in the world was found in the remains of ancient
Egypt. Archaeologists estimate cone-shaped spinning top was made around
B.C.2000~1400. Not only in Egypt, spinning tops were also found in the
remains of ancient Indus civilization, Greek civilization and almost
all historic remains in the world.
In South America, Africa and Island countries of Pacific Ocean, spinning
tops were made of different materials unique to those countries. It is
not clear whether those unique tops were originally made or introduced
from other countries.
Anyway, it may be human nature that adults or children, regardless of
age, we find ourselves absorbed in top spinning.

The oldest spinning top in Japan found in the remains of Fujiwara-kyou
(The capital of Japan in the 7th century) is called "Buchi-goma" (or
"Tataki-goma" which has a whip to throw the top to give rotation).
Its tip is thin and sharp so that the rotation axis can keep stable.
The Japanese name "Koma" for spinning tops is first seen as the word
"古末都玖利(Koma-zukuri)" in "Wamyoshou", Japanese dictionary edited
in the mid Heian period (early 10th century).
The word, "古末(Koma)" is also written in Chinese character as "高麗",
that indicates the toy was introduced through Korean Peninsula. "Zukuri"
(都玖利),also called "Tsugumuri"that means circle, became the original
name for spinning tops. A spinning top introduced from China called
"Koma-Zukuri" has a hole in the body, which is thought to make whir
sound while rotating.
In "Wamyosho" dictionary, spinning tops are classified as toys, however,
the ancient Japanese people spun tops as fortune telling at the
opportunities of Buddhist services, Shinto rituals and Sumo wrestling
matches which was deeply associated with Shinto rituals in ancient Japan.
It is said that in those rituals, special fortune-tellers called "Koma-
byoshi" used to tell the year's fortune by the whir sound the spinning
tops made. And it is also said that the sound kept devils away.

As time passed, the ceremonial meaning of spinning tops became less
intense, and top spinning as amusement became popular among people from
the imperial courts to towns.
We can see an expression "Koma mawashite asobikeru warabe" (A child is
having fun spinning a top) in "Taihei-ki" (Japanese historical epic)
written in the period of Northern and Southern Courts (14th century).
"Koma", abbreviated name of "Koma-Zukuri", was first found in a
documentary record, and this shows top-spinning was played as children's

In the Edo period, the way of playing and variety of spinning tops were
diversified in a short period.
In the end 17th century, "Happo-goma", hexagonal or octagonal prism tops
carved from woodblocks and decorated with drawings and writings on the
surface became popular. These types of tops, originally introduced from
China, were mainly used as a dice in a traditional Japanese board game,
"Sugoroku" rather than top-spinning.
For enjoying rotating, Hakata-goma was excellent. Its iron core and tall
body can make the rotation stable. For this reason, it is easy to set
in motion and everybody can enjoy tops' rotating for a long time. On
one's palm, on the top of a stick, on a tightrope and etc., Hakata-goma
can rotate on anything.
In the Edo period, playing Hakata-goma was banned because it was played
in disorderly area , such as gambling places. However, the highly
elaborated performances using spinning tops named "Kyoku-goma" has been
handed down until today as traditional Japanese art.

Chikuzen Hakata Spinning Tops (designated as intangible cultural heritage
in Fukuoka)
(*Video with sound is available)

In the Edo period, not only the way of playing, various types of spinning
tops were also developed in various areas in Japan. Each area has unique
spinning tops with unique local features . That is why Japan is called
"Treasury of spinning tops".
In snowy Tohoku region, children play spinning tops called "Zuguri-goma"
on hard-packed snow.
In Kanto area, trick tops called "Edo-goma" were made. Dolls set inside
the tops start moving along with the tops' rotation. With their beautiful
colors and refined shapes, "Edo-goma" tops are collected in the Louvre
museum and are being received high evaluation.
In Western Japan, children used to play with "Takenari-goma" (sound
tops), which keeps the ancient form of tops. The top makes high-pitched
boon sound with its rotation. In Kyushu area, "Kenka-goma" (battling
tops) which smash competitors' tops with their strong iron cores and
"Chongake-goma"(A kind of diabolo), which is spun in the air using
strings, were popular among children. "Chongake-goma" was strongly
influenced by Chinese tops.

【Attraction in Aomori】 Top-spinning on snow, Tsugaru Zuguri-top
spinning - All Japan Zuguri-top spinning tournament in Kuroishi City
(*Video with sound is available)

Higo Chonkake top-spinning is demonstrated at Kumamoto Castle
(designated as intangible cultural heritage in Kumamoto)
(*Video with sound is available)

Spinning tops are regarded as lucky items for the coming year because
of their powerful rotation last for a long time. This is why top-spinning
became a conventional game during New Year's holidays.
The Haiku in the beginning of this article written by a Haiku poet,
Takahama Kyoshi, was dedicated to Kawahigashi Hekigodou's death.
Kawahigashi was his good friend since childhood as well as his predestined
rival as Haiku poet.
When their discussion heated up, they clashed like two competing spinning
tops. However, clash would not have happened without their good relationship.
Whether you already enjoyed it or not, we hope you have fun with top-
spinning with your close friends and families.

Translation by: Naoko Yamashita, reviewed by Chan Yee Ting

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Development Organization (JTCO)- All Rights Reserved.

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