Otedama: Traditional Japanese Juggling

Children these days use online games and applications as a form of entertainment. Gone were the days when things used to be simple and children played with actual, tangible materials to pass the time and enjoy themselves. Back then, it was common to see children outside their homes playing with other children their age. There were several outdoor activities that they would join as they build relationships with other children. Some games date back to centuries when technology was not yet advanced and children had to make do with what materials they had. In Japan’s history, one of these games was known as otedama.

History, Songs, and Other Basics of Otedama in Japan

There were many children’s games played back in the day in Japan. Probably one of the most well-known ones was otedama. It is basically a traditional Japanese juggling game that children, usually girls, used to play. The main component of this traditional game is a small beanbag. The juggling pattern of these beanbags is somewhat similar to that of jacks.

Generally, otedama is considered a social game. However, one can also play the game alone. Unlike some games that are highly competitive, otedama is typically played for fun alone. Traditionally, the game is also accompanied by songs sung by the children while playing. While it reached its peak during the olden times, its popularity seems to be in decline these days.

Many believe that the origins of otedama hail from China. Apparently, this concept of a game was only brought to Japan during the Nara period. The height of its popularity could be seen during the post-Second World War in Japan. Its fame back then may be attributed to the fact that during those times, other toys were hardly available for the enjoyment of the children.

The beanbags used in otedama are known as ojami. Ojami is basically composed of azuki beans contained by strips of silk cloth sewn together. During the war, these beanbags were also used to feed children. Women would store food inside these beanbags and sneak them in so they could feed the young ones.

Because this was done by several Japanese back in the day, almost no beanbags were left in the country. The traditional game was almost extinct because its main component almost ran out. Thankfully, a small group of people located in Niihama established a club in the early 1990s that focused on the restoration of otedama throughout the country. Annual conventions were even created to cater this goal.

Otedama was especially popular among female children. It was said that the knowledge of otedama was traditionally passed down from the previous female generation to the next female generation. Certain game plays may differ depending on the region. Each region incorporated its own unique characteristic of some sort into the game.

On the other hand, most children usually play this game with five beanbags. Players of otedama would each take his or her turn when it comes to throwing, as well as catching, the beanbags. The level of difficulty in the game increases as the game progresses. It incorporates several balancing and juggling tricks.

Aside from game plays, the songs that accompanied the otedama were also passed down from grandmother to granddaughter or mother to daughter. This tradition was done for hundreds of years. However, today, there is little left of the otedama tradition.

One can rarely see a child playing this traditional juggling game. On the other hand, the word “otedama” became more of a general term that translated to juggling in this modern age. The practice is also now typically done by both men and women.

Initially, the toys used in otedama were just small drawstring bags. However, the material used to play otedama developed after some time. It started to incorporated several shapes and designs to further encourage children to play the game. Such shapes include pillows, fish, dolls, balls, birds, and even fruits. Some Japanese toy websites still offer these toys until today while the most basic one is the pillow-style, which began sometime in the 15th century.

There are two basic forms of otedama, namely, nagedama and yosedama. Nagedama is the form of otedama that is very similar to western juggling with the use of tiny beanbags. On the other hand, yosedama is the form of otedama that is more similar to jacks but with the use of beanbags.

Variations of this Juggling Tradition

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Otedama is not supposed to be a confusing game. For beginners, learning how the game works is rather easy. First, spread the five beanbags on the ground. The game starts with a player picking one beanbag tossing it into the air. Using the same hand to toss the first beanbag, pick up a second beanbag and toss it to the other hand.

This procedure shall be repeated until the player finally has four beanbags in one hand. Then, use the other hand to catch the thrown beanbag. After which, the player must spread out the beanbags on the ground again. Start the next round by picking up two beanbags to toss to the other hand, and the procedure continues.

Basically, otedama is a traditional Japanese juggling game that is highly similar to jacks. People who know how to play jacks would surely also learn how to play otedama easily. It is just a matter of how well one is able to balance the beanbags. People who enjoy playing jacks would surely also find playing otedama quite fun.

As a last step of the game, the player must throw all five beanbags into the air. The challenge in this last round is to catch as many beanbags as one can on the back of the same hand that tossed the beanbags. The beanbags caught on the back of the hand must be thrown into the air again. The final step in this round is to catch as many beanbags as one can in the palm of the same hand.

To make this game a bit more challenging, some variations have been made through the years. One of these is done by first throwing a single beanbag into the air. Pick up another beanbag and put it between the fingers of the same hand that threw the first beanbag as fast as the player can just in time to catch the first beanbag. If successful, the next round would be wedging another beanbag into a pair of fingers while the original beanbag is again up in the air and so on.

Another variation is throwing a beanbag up in the air and trying to catch on the back of the throwing hand. Some games are played based on the number of throws and catches that the player can do in a single round to win. To make it more challenging, one hand shall throw the beanbag while the back of the other hand catches it.

The Different Patterns and Levels of this Juggling Game

By James Heilman, MD at en.wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons

There are several levels and patterns in playing otedama. Young girls typically played this game either alone or in groups. Children who played this game were usually from age 5 to age 17. At the bottom-most level, this Japanese game is more similar to jacks than it is to just juggle. The main focus is not exactly to juggle but more to balance the beanbags at a fast speed.

Patterns and levels include wedging the beanbags between the fingers of the throwing hand. The challenge to this lies in the weight of the beanbags already in one’s hand while still constantly throwing the original beanbag. Furthermore, it is also about balancing all the beanbags wedged between the fingers of the throwing hand. Lastly, it is also about the speed that one can wedge the ojami between the fingers before the beanbag thrown falls to the ground.

Another level in this game is when players are to throw the beanbags using only three fingers. These beanbags must be caught balanced on the back of the hand that threw them. The more beanbags there are, the harder it is to catch all of them. It is said that only the best players are able to accomplish this perfectly.

Another pattern developed for otedama is the shower pattern. This is usually played in a follow-the-leader style. Two beanbags are used by a single throwing hand and played in a front-to-back fashion. To make it more difficult, some players may also do three beanbags in one hand.

One needs to practice in order to be good at this game. While it may seem like a competition on who can accomplish the most challenging level, otedama is actually more of a sociable game than a competitive one. In fact, it is not seen as appropriate to outshine one’s peers, especially in traditional Japan.

Because the game is slowly becoming extinct with less and less people becoming interested in this tradition, even the songs that used to accompany this game is slowly being forgotten. The best source of information regarding otedama would definitely be Japanese grandmothers who used to play this game when they were kids. However, due to old age, they may not necessarily remember all the lyrics anymore.

Even though one can still watch Western jugglers being featured on Japanese television, the native ones are actually decreasing in number. At present, probably the most popular one that is Japanese is the Osame brothers. The Osame brothers are composed of Sometaroo and Somenosuke.

However, these brothers are already near the age of retirement. They are not as agile and balanced as they used to be. What is sad about this is that they are now commonly ignored by the younger generation. With no one seeming interested to take their place, it is saddening to see such an art disappear.

One can opt to go to parks in Japan and bring some lightweight beanbags. Old ladies in the park would surely recognize this traditional game of juggling. A little bit of encouragement and practice is needed in order to learn and master the art of otedama.

A Tutorial on How to Make Otedama Plushes (Ojami)

The primary component of otedama is the ojami. These are beanbags that one can easily make at home. A great thing about this is that one need not buy expensive materials in order to make ojami. Moreover, one would also be able to practice one’s sewing when making these beanbags.

The first step in making ojami is to cut five rectangles from one’s fabric of choice. The size of these rectangles must be 6.4 inches by 4 inches each. The fabric that one can use may be of various designs and colors catering to one’s liking. One can get the same pattern for all beanbags or different fabrics for each beanbag.

Match the short edges of the rectangles by folding it in half. The printed side of the fabric must face inward. Pin the fabric and stitch the sea together. The type of stitch does not matter as long as the stitches are considerably small to avoid the beans from falling out. Create a knot at both ends.

The next step is to stitch along the upper edge of the cloth. As one stitches, gather the fabric together and pull tightly as one finishes stitching. Turn the fabric inside out. Hold the clumped edge of the fabric at the base. Pour in 2 ounces of beans or lentils inside the beanbag. Gather the edges of the opening tightly and stitch them together.

The making of ojami is complete. However, to make sure that none of the beans would fall out, it is highly recommended to add extra stitches on the sides of the ojami. After which, one can already gather up five of these beanbags and play otedama. Try playing with the beanbags to check if any adjustments to the stitches must be made. Most importantly, practice with these beanbags in order to master the art of otedama.