Tokyo, May 8th, 1889
Among the Japanese dances of olden days that were performed on the 11th of last February at the Imperial Palace in the Castle of Tokio, and described by me at the time, was one called the Dakiu-raku, or Polo dance, composed in the reign of the Emperor Jinmei, about 1,040 years ago.
Japanese Polo itself dates a good deal further back.
In Mr. Basil Hall Chamberlain's "Classical Poetry of the Japanese" there is an ode from the ancient Man-yo-shu or "Collection of a Myriad Leaves," referring to a game of Dakiu that was played in 727 A.D., in the fields near Nara, at that time the capital, by the nobles and courtiers of the period.
And antiquarians hold that it was certainly not later than in the seventh century - more probably in the sixth - that polo, along with many other good things, first found its way into this country from China.
It is no small event then, in its way, to see a performance of Japanese Dakiu - for at least twelve centuries the favourite outdoor pastime of the oldest aristocracy in the world.
Happily the game still flourishes, amid the crumbling ruins of so much of the picturesque and interesting in Japan's past.
It languished for a decade or so, during the convulsions that accompanied the extinction of the feudal system twenty years ago.
But it never quite died out; and it has latterly been revived with marked activity, as well in the capital as in other parts of the empire.
I first saw it played in 1881, at an entertainment given by Prince Higashi Fushimi to our own young princes Albert Victor and George.
I saw it again last week, as a guest of the Japanese Polo Club in this city.
Persia, if I mistake not, is said by Dr.Tylor to be the birthplace from which polo originally spread to other lands.
But the pastime has assumed in Japan a very different form from that with which Englishmen are familiar in India and at home.
Though its name, Dakiu, means literally, "strike the ball," there is no such striking in the Japanese game.
Here, lifting and throwing take the place of striking.
The arena is a flat, grassed rectangle, 216ft. long and 60ft.wide, enclosed by railings, or, better, by low banks 3ft.or 4ft.high.
At the far or goal end, beneath, it may be, an arch of evergreens, is a wooden barrier or screen, 8ft. high, 12ft.wide, and draped with flags; and in the middle of this screen, at a height of 6ft. from the ground, is a circular hole 1.2ft.in diameter, which opens into a bag-net falling into a basket behind the screen.
Right and left of the screen are stretched two horizontal wires, each carrying a row of large conspicuous scoring-balls, usually from seven to ten in number.
The wire on the right has red balls for the Red side; that on the left white balls for the White side.
Behind are stationed two scorers, whose duty it is to attend to the scoring-balls for either side, as well as to proclaim each point made in the game by loud strokes on a taiko, or drum, for the White side, and on a gong for the Red side.
In front of the barrier, at a distance of 18ft., is a padded railing 3ft. high, stretching across the course, and marking the limit up to which the players may approach the screen.
At the opposite or starting end of the enclosure, another railing, 18ft. from that end, also stretches across the course; and behind it two heaps of balls are piled on the ground, one red, the other white; together with two smaller heaps, one of red balls hooped with white, and the other of white balls hooped with black.
An attendant tosses these balls, as required, into the arena for the riders, which, owing to the deduction of 18ft.at each end as above explained, measures 180ft. by 60ft.
All the balls are made of paper, with a core of very small pebbles and bamboo fibre.
Their diameter is 1.7 in., and they weigh very neatly an ounce and a quarter.
For playing the game, each rider carries a light wand, called kiu-tsui, of tapering bamboo, only about 1/2in.in diameter at the thick end, and 3ft.8in.long.
To its extremity is bound a flat, narrow strip of bamboo, bent over so as to form a semicircle, of 1.5in. radius, the outer end of which is held in position by a silken stay passing obliquely down to the bamboo shaft, 2in.from its head.
The little space thus bounded by the shaft head, the semicircle, and the stay is filled in with light open network, just loose enough to sink into a saucer-shaped hollow when weighted with the Dakiu ball.
Thus though kiu-tsui, being interpreted, means, "ball hammer," it is really a "ball-scoop."
And, as the words Dakiu and kiu-tsui are both of Chinese origin, it would seem fair to conjecture that the change from striking to lifting and throwing took place on Japanese soil, the original terms surviving in spite of the altered practice.
Among the first lessons a recruit has to learn are the tricks not only of scooping up a ball deftly from the ground with his kiu-tsui in all the hurry-scurry of the game, but of keeping it when he has got it.
There is a knack in these things, as in most feats of manual skill - easy enough when mastered, but very far from easy to master.
Even after a successful pick up, it seldom happens that a player is long allowed to carry a ball tranquilly goalwards resting in the cup of his kiu-tsui.
His enemies take care to prevent that.
His only chance is to have acquired by long practice the art of retaining the ball in all sorts of positions.
This necessitates an expert and incessant brandishing of the kiu-tsui, effected by rapid twistings of the fore-arm, in such a manner as to keep the ball under all circumstances pressing, centrifugally as it were, against the saucer-shaped mesh, and so prevent it from falling.
I find it as difficult to describe this ingenious handling as I have found it tedious to learn it.
But the dexterity with which the ball is thus held by good players in the full career of the game is quite the most curious feature of the whole performance.
Now for details of the play.
On each side, Red and White, there is an equal number of riders, usually from six to eight, distinguished by the red and white colours of their head-dress; and the object of each side is to be the first to get a certain number of balls into the net at the goal.
Seven is the ordinary number of plain balls for a side, and in that case seven scoring-balls of either colour are strung out on the wires at the right and left of the screen before the beginning of the game, the signal for which is given by the umpire, and echoed by a brisk peal from the gong and drum.
The riders, previously drawn up in readiness at the starting end, now press forward with the balls as thrown in to them, by the attendant behind the rails.
Carrying, passing, casting, - any means, providing that the kiu-tsui only is used - are allowed for getting the balls forward, until they are finally pitched into the net from the hither side of the goal railing.
Obstructive tactics are of course a prominent feature of the contest.
To steal away or throw back the balls belonging to the other side; to dislodge them from the enemies' kiu tsui by striking the latter; to put them out of play by driving them over the boundary; to hustle and hinder a dangerous foe; and especially to thwart him at the moment of attempting a cast into the net, by shouting, brandishing your kiu-tsui before his eyes, or, better still, by arresting his weapon with your own - all this is lawful, and is not less important than successful casting on your own side.
One or two skilled players of each colour generally hover about at the goal end for these purposes, as well as to shield their friends from being baulked by the adversaries.
A ball once out of play cannot be touched; a fresh one must be taken from the starting point; but there is no limit to the number that may thus be taken by either side until its required number has been thrown into the net.
At each successful cast the scorers deal two blows on the drum or gong, for white or red as the case may be, at the same time withdrawing out of sight one ball from the corresponding scoring wire.
At the seventh ball there is a merry peal of blows.
Then the greater struggle begins.
For, after succeeding with its seven plain balls, either side has yet to cast one striped ball into the net; and, as victory rests with those who first accomplish this, the skill of every player, for and against, is now exerted to the utmost.
There are generally, of course, some ineffectual tries.
To pitch a ball from horse-back with the kiu tsui into a hole a foot across, even from the minimum distance of 18ft, and with no interference, is a feat not readily learned.
To make a good shot in the thick of fray and movement, from the greater distances often necessarily attempted in the game, and with yelling foes doing their worst to prevent you, is a feat to be proud of indeed.
Sooner or later, however, success is achieved, whereupon a joyous crash from gong or drum proclaims the triumph of Red or White.
Two wins out of three generally constitute a set unless the steeds tire earlier - a point on which the umpire decides.
Such are the broad outlines of Japanese Dakiu.
Into the rules, which are few and simple, it is needless to enter.
At the contest which I had the pleasure of seeing a few days ago, some sets were played on pigskin saddles and in foreign jockey dress, which doubtless give the riders more freedom of movement than do the uncomfortable saddles and picturesque garments of the past.
The latter, however, are more attractive to an onlooker, and are certainly more in keeping with the hoary age of the game and the nationality of the players.
The teams on this occasion consist of members of the nobility and upper gentry, with one old grim and grizzled sensei, or teacher, of the samurai class.
Seven Whites and seven Reds enter the arena in single file, and draw up facing one another on the left and right of the starting point.
They are mounted on eager-eyed ponies, somewhat rough and ungainly to look at, but clever enough at their work, as we soon find out.
They wear robes of many hues and patterns, voluminous dark silk hakama, or trousers, blue-cloth foot-gear(tabi), and low-crowned hats of plaited and glazed bamboo, respectively red and white, with wide turned-up brims, and fastened to the head by an odd-looking system of thick white padded bands.
They ride on peaked, lacquered, and caparisoned saddles, with heavy stirrups of inlaid metal work.
The bridles and reins are of silk and tasselled, and attached to plain snafflebits by an ingenious arrangement of steel rings.
Between the players is the umpire, who happens on this occasion to be Vicount Matsudaira, the President of the Club.
Except that his attire is of sombre black, he is arrayed and mounted like the rest.
He waves his flag, the gong and drum are beaten noisily, and away the riders dart, one by one, after scooping up the balls in their kiu-tsui.
All are soon in the full ardour of the struggle.
White at first falls behind.
When Red's scoring string is empty and the Reds are already at work with their striped ball, White has yet four plain balls remaining.
Gradually and cleverly, however, the Whites make up their lee-way, and in ten minutes from the start are again on even terms, each side now putting forth tremendous efforts to secure victory with its final ball.
The game waxes fast and furious, and the ground shakes again as the knots of riders dash to and fro.
There are not a few unsuccessful shots at the hole, and there are a dozen instances of an expectant winner being foiled at the instant of casting, or of one ball or the other being thrown out of bounds by the enemy, or pitched back over all heads to the far end of the course.
It is very pleasant to watch the skill and quickness of the offensive and defensive tactics.
It is not less pleasant to witness the admirable good humour of the players.
Each one of them is full of fun, and the most aggravating rebuffs, collisions, and crushings call forth naught but jokes and laughter, in which none join more heartily than the victims themselves.
There is another fifteen minutes of this gallant and well balanced contests.
At last, a Red horseman is seen hurrying up by the right hand boundary gaily brandishing Red's ball, which had been hurled back a moment before to the starting end.
Two or three White combatants await him on the hither side of the goal railing.
But he pulls up just in time and makes his cast at the hole, some 40ft.away.
In vain does a White rider rush at him and strike his kiu-tsui so quickly that, as the staves meet in the air, we fancy the ball must surely drop.
Alas for White, however, their man is a fraction of a second too late to frustrate that splendid shot!
The deed is done, and a mad clang from the gong declares a victory for Red.
It has been a longer struggle than ususal, and the ponies are blown.
So the umpire decides that this game is ended.
The Reds ride off in triumph, headed by the umpire, and led by the hero who has made the winning cast.
But the luckless Whites have to follow the rule for the defeated.
They dismount and lead their ponies away, sad, vanquished, and crestfallen, yet assuredly nothing daunted.
The Times - Jun 22nd.
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