The origins of the game are disputed. It has been described as a variation French ball-and-cup game bilboquet which dates to the 16th century. It is generally agreed that Kendama dates to the late 17th or early 18th century.
The kendama arrived in Japan from the West in around 1777, at which point Nagasaki was the only port open to foreign trade. Reportedly, kendama was initially a sort of adult’s drinking game — a player who made a mistake was forced to drink more.[The game gained popularity during the Edo Period (1600-1868).
In the early 20th century, the toy had two side cups and was called a jitsugetsu ball (日月ボール?). This translates to ‘sun and moon ball’, named so because of the ball’s representation of the sun and the cups’ likeness to the crescent moon.
In 1919, Hamaji Egusa applied for a patent on the ‘ball and cup’ style toy and it was awarded in 1920. The size and proportions of the toy were later altered. Hatsukaichi City in Hiroshima Prefecture is considered to be the birthplace of the modern Japanese Kendama. The current competition design descends from Issei Fujiwara‘s model, which featured string holes in the crosspiece. Little deviation has been made from his basic design, with the exception of the ken becoming more rounded to reduce wood chipping. It was also Fujiwara who established the Japan Kendama Association, which established the rules for play, the grading system now in use, and organised competition. To ensure that the toy was suitable for use in competition, the JKA also standardised kendama itself.