Read CHAPTER VII - National games and amusements of Sketches of Japanese Manners and Customs, free online book, by J. M. W. Silver, on

Notwithstanding the industrious habits of the Japanese, they are great lovers of pleasure, and much addicted to sight-seeing; theatres and wax-work exhibitions are very numerous, and jugglers, top-spinners, and tumblers, are regular habitues of the streets.

Though they do not allow pleasure to come before business, they do not hesitate to associate it with religious observances; and on solemn festival occasions, the vicinity of even the most sacred temples is occupied by a variety of shows and common stalls, for the sale of sweetmeats, toys, and coloured pictures.

Their principal athletic amusement is wrestling, which may he regarded as the national game of the country. It is very generally practised, and pairs of ‘brawny fellows’ are to be frequently met with of an evening in the outskirts of towns and villages, either crouched down in the preliminary attitude, which resembles that of angry fighting-cocks, or dragging one another to and fro like frogs struggling over a choice morsel. The game is necessarily a dragging and pulling one, its grand object being to force the opponent beyond a certain boundary.

So popular is it, that in addition to public performers, who travel about the country exhibiting their prowess, the Daïmios keep private bands: each district has some especial champion; and every Japanese a favourite ‘smoo’ as they term the wrestlers, whose exploits are canvassed with an enthusiasm totally at variance with the stolid indifference which usually characterises the people, when any subject is broached that does not directly concern their ordinary vocations.

The professional wrestlers are generally men of herculean proportions. From constant practice they attain a muscular development that would eclipse that of our prize-ring champions; but their paunchy figures and sluggish movements render any further comparison impossible, as they neither practise nor appreciate what we call training. Size and weight are prized more than activity in the limited arena to which their performances are confined: so, instead of walking down superabundant flesh, they endeavour to increase it, dieting themselves on rice and fish, which is far from productive of any Bantingite result. The illustration of the Great Wrestling Amphitheatre at Yeddo conveys a fair idea of the estimation in which athletic games are held by the Japanese. The enclosure is capable of containing several thousand spectators, and is always filled when a match of importance takes place.

In the centre is the ‘docho,’ or ‘boundary-ring,’ which is about eighteen feet in diameter. The game is generally decided by one or other of the combatants being forced against this boundary; for, although a fair throw counts, it rarely decides the mastery, as the great weight and the crouching position of the wrestlers necessitate dragging, pushing, and even carrying; and the tenacity of their grasp is such, that any other results are almost impossible.

The price of admission to these exhibitions is very low; and, like everything else of a public nature, is regulated by the government Officials are appointed to superintend the arrangements, and to see that no accidents arise from overcrowding. For this purpose they are provided with a box that overlooks the whole building.

The lofty scaffolding outside the enclosure is a time stage, from which the commencement and duration of each match are intimated to the audience by a certain number of strokes on the drum that surmounts it.

Before each wrestling-match commences, the ‘geogee,’ or ‘judge,’ who superintends it, shouts out the names and exploits of the contenders, who, after kowtowing very ceremoniously to one another, rise to the preliminary attitude.

At a signal from the judge the combatants commence. At first they move cautiously about the centre of the ring, watching a favourable opportunity to close, which they presently do with deep guttural exclamations. Then great working of muscle and tugging and straining follow, the spectators cheering on their respective favourites, until the fall of the geogee’s fan which is the moment depicted by the artist proclaims the victor.

Thundering plaudits greet the hero of the occasion, who presently strolls about among the assembled multitude, attended by his ‘coegi,’ or ‘servant,’ who collects the offerings with which they liberally reward his exertions. When money fails, articles of clothing are frequently bestowed and sometimes too freely, as it is by no means unusual for both sexes to half denude themselves at these exhibitions; and it is a favourite joke with the women to send their male friends to redeem the articles from the wrestler.

Although fencing is a military exercise, it is so commonly practised by the Japanese ‘yaconinierie,’ or ‘soldiery,’ who comprise a large portion of the population, and is entered into by them in so spirited a manner, that it deserves to be classed as an amusement.

The woodcut is a very faithful representation of yaconins fencing. The masks cover the whole of the head; and the arms, breast, and hips, are protected by cuirass, petticoat, &c. of leather ribbed with bamboo.

The fencing sticks are of the same length as the ‘obi-todee-auf-catana,’ or ‘great fighting-sword.’ They are made of split canes, bound tightly together, and are used with both hands.

The Japanese fence well, and deliver their points with great precision, especially an awkward downward thrust at the breast.

They deliver their cuts and points with fierce guttural exclamations, which are peculiarly disagreeable to European ears; especially when the listener is located in the vicinity of a guard-house, whose occupants notify their employment at daybreak with such cries as ‘Hie-e! Ah-h! Atturah-h!’ (’That’s at! that’s into you!’) and continue this information, accompanied by the clashing of their sticks, and occasional chuckles, until late in the afternoon.

The Japanese are great frequenters of the theatres, of the interior of one of which the illustration is a very good representation the exterior is generally very like that of the temples; and in some, the ground-floor is laid out with miniature lakes and bridges, the audience looking down on the performance from lateral and opposite galleries.

The stage is a little smaller than ours, but sometimes has a promenade through the centre of the theatre, which facilitates by-play, to which the Japanese attach great importance. The body of the house is divided into boxes, which are generally taken by family parties, who bring their provisions with them and remain all day, as the performances begin about 10 A.M. and last until late in the evening. Their plays are very tedious, although enlivened by a good deal of smart repartee and telling jokes, but the morality even of the most correct is very questionable. Love, of course, is the prevailing feature; and the adventures of the principal heroes contain enough bloodshed and murder to satisfy the most ardent admirer of sensation dramas. In their hand-to-hand encounters they cut and slash at one another with naked swords, which they manage very skilfully, never permitting the blades to come into contact. The female parts are performed by boys and young men, who, with the assistance of paint and powder, make admirable substitutes for women, though singing and dancing-girls are frequently introduced as divertissements.

Kite-flying is also a favourite amusement; and old age and childhood may frequently be seen side-by-side, tugging at soaring monsters, in the construction of which great ingenuity is displayed.

The Japanese often play with cards, which are about a quarter of the size of ours; and they are much given to gambling, although it is strictly prohibited, and, when detected, severely punished. But the most popular in-door game is & sort of combination of draughts and chess, which frequently engrosses the players for hours at a time.