TOKYO >> At the Beigoma Shiryokan museum in Kawaguchi, a city known for its foundry industry, local elementary school students gather to play beigoma, a game using special spinning tops.
Beigoma tops are tiny tops, about an inch in diameter and made of steel. They spin after being released onto a platform called a “toko,” sometimes emitting sparks as they collide with each other. The winning top is the one that pushes out all the other tops, or the one that keeps spinning until the end.
Children in downtown Tokyo began playing the game around the end of the Taisho era (1912-1926), and it became popular through the postwar period in the 1950s and ’60s. It is said to have its origins in the Heian period (794-1185), when a baigai, a Japanese ivory shell, was stuffed with sand and spun on a string. The name “baigoma” — which combined the name of the shell with “koma” (spinning top) — apparently became “beigoma” after it was introduced to the Kanto region.
The museum exhibits rare types of beigoma, including some shaped like a sake cup that were produced in the Taisho era, and ceramic beigoma made during wartime when iron was in short supply. Beigoma inscribed with the names of baseball stars are particularly eye-catching, including “Oh” (Sadaharu Oh), and “Nagashima” (Shigeo Nagashima). Some say the Nagashima beigoma were most popular among children because the kanji had more strokes, making the top heavier and harder to beat.
The museum opened in 2009 at the city’s Nissan Chuzojo, a foundry specializing in the production of beigoma. But during the pandemic the company moved to a smaller office, and the museum was at risk of closure.
In 2022 the museum was donated to Kawaguchi’s Board of Education and reopened in the Kawaguchi City Cultural Properties Center.
“Beigoma is not something to just look at, but to play with,” said Yuji Ide, an Education Board staff member. “A space for children to play with the tops was indispensable for the museum.”
The city has made efforts to promote beigoma, setting aside time to teach the game in elementary schools. Children who enjoyed playing then began visiting the museum.
Beigoma was once thought of as a boy’s game, but today boys and girls are drawn to spinning the tops — and the museum is now a place where new players of the retro game can be heard competing with shouts of joy.