Are you looking for a way to make get-togethers more fun? Or maybe you cannot image an evening with friends with no scrabble round? Find out how inhabitants of the Land of the Rising Sun have had fun for generations and get inspired by Japanese ideas of spending time together.

Traditional Japanese entertainment

Despite Japanese being hard workers, fun has been a vital part of their culture since ages. Already in the Heian period games were an important part of life at the imperial court. Traditional games did not only serve a ludic purpose. Their results often played a decisive role in determining the court hierarchy. Both agility plays and games such as kemari, archery or juggling, or intellectually demanding board games and competitions such as monoawase were popular among medieval Japanese courtiers. Teams participating in a competition had to present an item or a piece of art that would best embody a given subject. Poetry contests – utaawase – and painting contests – eawase – attracted a lot of attention from aristocracy.

History of Japanese games and plays

Some Japanese games, just as many other elements of Japanese culture, find their origin in Chinese tradition. Imported from their overseas neighbours, games were a source of entertainment for successive generations of the Japanese, who modified games’ original versions, thus creating their own entertainment tradition. Despite a growing popularity of video games and other technologically advanced entertainment forms, some of the older games are still popular among contemporary Japanese. Discover the most typical Japanese games and find out how they exemplify the culture of the Land of the Rising Sun.

Japanese board games


One of the most popular Japanese board games is called “Go”, or actually “igo”, which means a game of encircling stones. It arrived in Japan from China and soon became a beloved pastime not only of the aristocracy but also among brave samurai and ordinary folk. In the 17th century it was officially recognised as a profession and first schools were established to educate professional players. At the initiative of Tokugawa Shogun, a Go-Authority was founded. The phenomenon of the game lies in its simple rules that offer countless strategic opportunities to players. Each of the two players has pieces, the so-called stones, with one player using black stones and the other white ones. Stones are put on intersections of horizontal and vertical lines marked on the board. Each player aims to encircle the opponent’s stones and to occupy more space of the board. Even though the rules are very simple, the ability to play the game strategically requires a mastery of entire sequences of movements and many years of practice. To this day, schools provide training to this intellectual pastime enthusiasts, who come to Japan from all around the globe in order be taught tactical skills by Japanese masters.


Sugoroku appeared in Japan most probably already in the 6th century and it is also a Japanese version of an originally Chinese game. As in Go, there are two players. Each of them has 15 black or white pieces. The most important element is the board, which in most cases is a wooden table. Elaborate decorations made of mother-of-pearl and gold present in tables made in Japan during the Muromachi period (1336-1573) bespeak a special place of that kind of pastime for the Japanese elite. Fields where pieces are placed are decorated with various symbols and illustrations. One of the most distinctive versions of the game, the Fifty-three Tōkaidō Stations board, presents landscapes end route from Edo to Kyoto. Rivals roll two dice and advance pieces according to the resulting number of pips. The goal is to cover the entire scenic route as fast as possible, obviously.

Japanese card games

Shichi Narabe

To play “Sevens” you need a standard deck of cards (with or without jokers). Cards are dealt in an equal number to the players, who put all sevens on the table in the first round. In subsequent rounds players add to them cards of the same suit and in an appropriate sequence, starting from sixes and eights. If a player has no suitable card, they can pass their round 3 times during the entire play. A joker can substitute a missing card. For example, if there is a four on the table and the player has the six of the right suit. The game finishes when any of the players manages to empty their hand. The other players get penalty points for each card they still have.

Hanafuda – Japanese playing cards

Although the Japanese are well acquainted with “our” clubs, diamonds, hearts and spades, it should not come as a surprise that they also have their own card system. Hanafuda is an original Japanese card-deck, based on a Portuguese prototype, which arrived in the Land of the Rising Sun in the 16th century. It underwent many modifications that resulted from various shogunate bans issued for fear of the spread of gambling. In its final version hanafuda has 48 cards, completely devoid of any number signs. They are divided into 12 months and decorated with nature motifs. Plant and animal symbols give an impression of an innocent game, a far cry from the world of gambling. It was quickly discovered, though, that it was just a disguise and the game caught on thanks to gambling games played by members of the Yakuza (Japanese mafia), who had the game motifs tattooed on their bodies. Just like the European card deck, hanafuda can be used in various ways. The most popular games include koi-koi and hachi-hachi – a Japanese equivalent of poker.

Traditional Japanese games for children


The history of this wooden toy goes back most probably to France, from where kendama made its way to China and then, around 200 years ago, to the Land of the Rising Sun. The main body (“ken”) consists of a spike and three cups of different sizes. A ball with a hole inside (“tama”) is attached to the handgrip with a string. This skill game is about catching the ball in one of the cups. Easy as it seems, the Japanese have created at least a few hundreds of different kendama techniques, and fans of the game, adults included, work on their skills in dedicated clubs.


Koma, which is a Japanese spinning top, differs from the European version in that it is put in motion thanks to a string wound around the toy’s main body. Already the Heian period elites (794-1192) enjoyed the spinning toy and throughout the centuries it evolved into many different versions. Some of them whistle, some are used for drawing lots, some are used to play beigoma, a game where spinning tops knock one another, fighting as if they were wrestlers.

Gold-plated boards or institutions where Japanese games masters are educated bear witness to the importance of play and fun in Japan. Traditional Japanese pastimes offer something suitable for fans of riddles, lovers of card games and enthusiasts of agility games. Sugoroku or kendama – which of the Oriental games would you choose as a souvenir from the Land of the Rising Sun?

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