Children’s Play in Japan, 1925-1945

This overview concerns children’s toys and games. For children’s magazines or kami-shibai (‘paper plays’), see ‘Media and Entertainment.’

Before and during the Second World War, school environments and local neighbourhood spaces shaped Japanese children’s experiences of play and games, which took place more often outdoors and among peer groups than at home with family members. Solitary play is mentioned only rarely in the interviews collected here.

Adults could influence modes of child play through commercial toys and school activities, although ‘top-down’ or adult-directed play is almost never mentioned in the interviews. During the war, Tokyo department stores displayed consumer toys with militaristic motifs, but commercial toys appear to have been too expensive or unavailable to rural children. Many interviewees have no memory of toys for sale, other than small, cheap items, such as menko cards, available at general stores or shrine festivals. Indeed, our interviews suggest clear differences between better-off children, especially in cities, who are likely to mention commercial toys and games more often, and children from households outside the urban better off, who rarely do so. Even if the vast majority of interviewees had access to commercial toys other than the cheapest, they do not seem to remember them. Certain games using commercially sold items, such as the card game karuta, are only remembered as being played at New Year.

Still, menko cards could expose children to militaristic visual imagery. At least one interview subject recalls cards with pictures of Norakuro and ‘Adventurous Dankichi’ (Bōken Dankichi),’ cartoon heroes from serials of an imperialistic and militaristic tone in the boys’ magazine Boys’ Club (Shōnen kurabu). Militarism could also seep into traditional New Year’s toys enjoyed by the whole family, as decorative motifs on kites, shuttlecocks, or sugoroku board games.

In interviews, the most commonly purchased toys include menko (also known by other local names such as pachi [Fukuoka], bettan [Osaka] or bida [Aomori]) for boys, and o-hajiki (flat glass marbles) for girls. (The commonest reported way of playing with menko was to throw the cards down on the ground, trying to win others’ cards by turning them over with the gust of air generated.) Some interviewees also mention tops (koma or beigoma) Some toys could be either purchased or made at home. Examples include o-tedama (beanbags for juggling, also known by various other names such as o-jammi), marbles sold in soda pop (ramune) bottles, and crude wooden skis or skates (called either benja or geta sukēto, in the case of clog sandals with blades attached). Very occasionally, a bicycle, a doll, or a baseball glove (also often homemade) or bat is mentioned in an interview. Sleds (sori) were typically homemade.

Children learned and played games at school, although the extent of teacher involvement is unclear. In the case of an elite Tokyo elementary school evacuated to the countryside, teachers interacted with pupils, sometimes during recess and always during physical education class, when games were played, such as kan keri (‘kick the can,’ also played in Western countries at that time). Diaries by pupils of this school mention chasing and pushing games. One example is oshikura-manju, which bears some resemblance to sumo wrestling and was played in winter to stay warm, according to one interviewee.

Among non-evacuated children, living at home in the countryside, girls commonly spent their recess hour playing nawatobi (skipping), ayatori (cat’s cradle), ken ken pa (hopscotch), gomutobi (jumping elastics), oni-gokko (tag), or dodgeball (sometimes with balls made at home and filled with rice chaff). Boys played variations of baseball, war-themed games of tag, and sword fighting (chambara gokko) using tree branches. One interview subject who lived in a military district recalled that local members of the women’s national defence association (kokubō fujinkai) would reward boys playing soldier with rice crackers (senbei).

Another way in which children’s play could be steered in a warlike direction indirectly by adults was through sewing and woodworking classes at school, inspiring children’s after school hobbies. Boys in particular, and at least one girl, according to interviews, enjoyed making model warplanes, using paper and bamboo strips (take no higo). Children could enter a contest judged by a local military reserve officer (zaigo gunjin), and fly their model planes with propellers powered by rubber bands. But not all woodwork was militaristic: a common self-made toy was takeuma (bamboo stilts).

Not many interview subjects recall how they as children might have ‘mediated’ the games played under the auspices of schoolteachers and other adults. In the case of boys, one man recalls that his male classmates would secretly arrange for play fights out of sight of the teachers who tried to prevent it.  Another describes wrestling, throwing balls of mud, or play fighting that might turn into real fights.

The majority of interview subjects recall playing freely with neighbourhood children, without adult supervision after school until dinnertime. It was common for boys and girls to play separately by gender, starting in the 3rd grade (when they were segregated at school), although some girls crossed the gender line individually as ‘tomboys’ (o-tenba). Play spaces were typically found in the precincts of a temple or shrine, around the gate of a farmhouse, or, the case of cities, in the narrow alleyways between houses. Girls were more likely than boys to stay closer to home, retreating to the engawa (external corridor) in winter. Indoor play was uncommon, perhaps because hardly any children had private bedrooms to retreat to.

Some children played with natural objects in their environments, such as mud balls (dango), gingko nuts, and plum stones. Interviews suggest that girls were more likely to engage in group games from folk tradition involving rhythmic chanting and movement, such as ‘Tōrianse, tōrianse.’ Most children in farm villages, especially boys, enjoyed outdoor exercise, such as sledding downhill, snowball fights, climbing trees, and swimming in rivers. Faced with growing wartime austerities and severe food rationing, foraging in the woods and fields became commonplace as ‘playful’ aids to survival – though it is likely that such activities long preceded the war in some fashion, given that it was difficult for many farm families to rely on a comfortable livelihood. Commonly mentioned foraging ‘games’ include fishing, gathering nuts and mountain apples, digging up yams and bamboo shoots, and catching crabs on the seashore.

L.Halliday Piel and Peter Cave

How to Cite This Source

L.Halliday Piel and Peter Cave, ‘Children’s Play in Japan, 1925-1945’, in Childhood, Education and Youth in Modern Japan [add URL and access date].