Kumamoto Koma Tops
“No matter how tough it is, I just enjoy making my products.”
Tomonobu Kumamoto, 6th Generation Top-maker
"隈本コマを続けるために大切なことは どんなに厳しくても楽しんで作ること" - 隈本知伸 6代目
Top of the Century
Kumamoto Koma (“Kumamoto Tops”) is a family-run business established in 1899 in the historical craft town Yame. Yame (still) is famous for its concentration of highly skilled craftsman in a range of crafts: lanterns, wood altars, bamboo weaving... etc. There is never a lack of lacquer, gilding and wood artisans in town.
According to Mr. Tomonobu Kumamoto, 6th generation owner, his predecessors produced wooden parts for lanterns and buddhist altars. Eventually, their workshop started producing hand-held sparklers in the summer and wooden tops in the winter. It takes 10-20 years of lathe experience to become a top-making artisan.
In the early 1900s, before television and Nintendo, koma kenka top was one of the popular leisure activities in Japan among the elite class.
"KENKA" KOMA - the Fighting Koma
Tops exist throughout the country of Japan, each with slight variations in profile and design. Kyushu is the only region that makes koma tops with metal tips called Kenka Koma, used for battling. Koma-top profile is unique per its origin. Koma from Yame region, produced by Kumamoto, has a signature "belly button" bulge on the surface. The body is made of heavy hardwood. Kenka koma game evolved into battles when the players have to smash the opponent’s top and to break it. This explains the “heavy-duty” make with the pointy metal tip that acts somewhat like a drill bit.
In Kyushu, this “sport” has become so elaborate that different prefectures have developed their own top profile. Even now, there are tournaments in Kyushu where participants would battle each other.
Japanese also give these koma as lucky charms, wedding presents or house-warming gifts.
The metal base tip is unique to Kyushu region's koma. Overtime, as the tip becomes rounded, it stablizes the top even more. It looks as if it is stationery while spinning.
Banning of Top-playing in Japan
Similar to the folk toy taketombo bamboo propeller, koma tops had been documented in Japan as early as Heian / Nara period (7th – 8th century). It is also believed there were Chinese and Korean influences in the game.
Before it became a children’s play, tops used to be an activity for grown-ups (perhaps like a leisure sport) that involved action-packed battling. It was popular among the aristocrats. According to Mr. Kumamoto, in Japan history, tops were banned TWICE by the shogunate. Reason? The kenka koma game became so addictive that all the aristocrats stopped working and spent all their time battling and gambling.
Tools & Material
Traditional koma tops are made with a specific native hardwood named マテバシイ(Japanese stone oak Lithocarpus edulis). This oak is solid and heavy, best for top-making as the weigh provides stability and power. But for 4-5 years now, there has been insufficient supply of this lumber. Currently, Mr. Kumamoto engages 2 person to roam the forest looking for this oak tree. When a stone oak tree is spotted, he will negotiate with the forest owner, get permission from the forestry association and procure the tree.
However, last year, 70% of the wood procured were not useable due to the high water content. They do not meet the standard to make good quality tops.
Japanese Stone Oak
Mr. Kumamoto's wife is now in charge of the decorating division. Each koma is hand-sanded and hand-painted by skillful artisans. It took 2 artisans, one holding 3 brushes, the other holding 2, to paint the vibrant signature color rings, all 5 colors at the same time. Just like a century ago, paint-work is usually done in the winter.
Top-makers use colors to brand their tops so users can identify which koma shop it came from. Blue and Green are Kumamoto's brand colors.
Mr. Kumamoto recalled about 30 years ago, their workshop would produce 100,000 kenka tops in any given year. Currently, they are making about 3000 units a year. Every year, only 10 designated days are scheduled to produce traditional kenka koma. It is becoming a rare craft.
Someone has to do it.
Making traditional kenka koma is becoming more challenging, but Mr. Kumamoto firmly believes he has to continue to produce koma tops. This is the origin of Kumamoto family business, and a unique traditional craft of the region. There is an obligation to protect this craft and continue the legacy. As long as someone still plays this traditional toy, someone has to produce it.
“Up to my generation, I am still able to continue making traditional koma tops with original material and tools, but maybe the next generation will have to evolve.”
Kenka koma now makes up only a very small percentage of the production. And Kumamoto is the only remaining maker of traditional Yame-style kenka tops in the region.
Play is an important learning experience in a child's life.
With koma tops, kids experience physical exercise, receive dexterous learning while winding the strings.
They watch and imitate others to master skills,
they interact with other children, teach each other, and find ways to spin better and challenge others.
It builds patience, sportsmanship, social skills and problem-solving skills.
Time to put down the smartphone and game console?
Be a part of the journey and evolution of Kumamoto tops