Saitama: Beigoma Tops Have Spun across Generations

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Children gather after school to enjoy a game with beigoma tops at the Beigoma Shiryokan museum in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture.

“Ready? One, two, three!”

Beigoma tops, made of steel with diameters of about 3 centimeters, 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 pieces, or the one that keeps spinning until the end.

At the Beigoma Shiryokan museum in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, a city known for its foundry industry, local elementary school students gather to play beigoma.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The Beigoma Shiryokan is located on the third floor of the Kawaguchi City Cultural Properties Center in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture.

Children in downtown Tokyo began playing the game around the end of the Taisho era (1912-1926), and it became very popular through the postwar period in the 1950s and 1960s. 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 Yomiuri Shimbun
Baigai, Japanese ivory shells, said to be the origin of beigoma

The museum exhibits rare types of beigoma, including ones shaped like an ochoko sake cup that were produced in the Taisho era, and ceramic ones made during wartime when iron was in short supply. Beigoma inscribed with the names of baseball stars were particularly eye-catching, such as “Oh” (Sadaharu Oh), and “Nagashima” (Shigeo Nagashima). It is said that Nagashima was more popular among children because the kanji had more strokes, making the top heavier and therefore making it easier to win.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The surnames of baseball stars, Sadaharu Oh, left, and Shigeo Nagashima, are seen engraved on a pair of beigoma tops.

The museum was originally opened on the premises of the city’s Nissan Chuzojo, a foundry specializing in the production of beigoma, in 2009. However, due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, the company moved to a smaller office and the museum was at risk of closure.

Eventually, in 2022, the museum was donated to the city’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, a member of staff from the city’s Board of Education, who supported the relocation at that time. “A space for children to play with the tops was indispensable for the museum.”

The city made efforts to promote the game, such as by setting aside time to teach beigoma games in elementary schools. Children who learned about the appeal of the game then began to visit the museum.

Beigoma used to be thought of as a boy’s game in the past. However, children today, regardless of gender, play against each other with shouts of joy. The mix of a retro game with new players can be seen at the museum.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Beigoma Shiryokan museum

Address: 2-1-22 Hatogaya-Honcho, Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture

Access: A 10-minute walk from Hatogaya Station on the Saitama Railway

Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Closed on Mondays. Admission is ¥100; ¥50 for elementary and junior high school students.

Memo: Beigoma can be purchased at nearby Nissan Chuzojo.