By Tina Terry
Have you heard of ohajiki (おはじき)? Where do I start with this lovely children’s game? Maybe, like me, you knew nothing about these little glass wafers until learning about them from the online beachcombing community, seeing beautiful jewelry pieces, or looking at photos posted from Japan. Having beachcombed along several beaches across Japan, it has never gotten old to look down at my feet and spot one of these little treasures in the sand. So what are ohajiki and why are they on beaches? I will do my best to share with you a few things I have learned about this traditional Japanese pastime and its game pieces.
With a little digging online and often referencing a great article on Yabai.com, I sought out to learn more about these ohajiki. The name itself is derived from the Japanese word 「弾く」 “hajiku” or “to flick.” It is believed that the ohajiki game made its way from China as early as the Nara period between 710–784 AD, where it was a popular game among nobles of the Imperial court. Later during the Edo period between 1603–1868 the game regained popularity among children—especially girls—coming from all different social classes.
As for the game pieces, unlike more contemporary glass ohajiki mostly used in the last 120 years, these early pieces would have likely been made of smooth pebbles or stones easily collected. The game was regularly played as the rules were simple enough to easily learn.
It wasn’t until the end of the Meiji period (1868–1912) to the early Taisho period (1912–1926) that specially made glass pieces began to emerge. Though mostly round and flat, some other shapes and designs can be found as well. Dating pieces has been quite difficult, but after piecing together information through several online auction websites, other Japanese Instagram pages, and personal blogs, I believe I have roughly broken out some of the periods when different ohajiki pieces were made.
Early glass ohajiki designs (End of Meiji period through Taisho Period)
These earlier pieces often had elaborate designs such as flowers and leaves, while others of the early period were solid-colored glass discs with a little hole rounded out in the center and a splash of color inside the hole.
Taisho period to early Showa period
Pieces from this period were generally more round and disc-like with numbers or other printed designs in the middle, often made in various colors of glass or milk glass with colorful swirls.
Early Showa period
Square ohajiki occasionally pop up in photos of beach finds or in antique auctions. They appear to have come from the early Showa period.
Showa period 1926-1989
The ohajiki that you mainly see in jewelry and most likely will find on a Japanese beach are Showa period pieces that are generally round, come in various colors, and are lined or have hatched grooves on one or both sides of the piece.
Modern pieces tend to be a bit thicker than the Showa period ohajiki, either completely smooth or with a one-sided grooved texture, and coming in brighter solid colors or clear glass with colorful swirls inside.
Sea glass ohajiki collection (Nicole Lind).
You can play ohajiki in several different ways and there are many similarities with marbles. For example, in a simple game you point out the ohajiki piece you want to aim for and then flick your piece to hit it. If successful you keep both pieces and whoever has the most pieces at the end wins. Or, in another variant, you first scatter ohajiki on a flat surface. A player then flicks one ohajiki to hit another piece creating a gap and then tries to flick a third ohajiki between the first two without touching any other piece. If successful, the player keeps the piece they successfully flicked between the other two. The player that misses or hits other pieces loses and whoever ends up with the most pieces wins.
Why are ohajiki on the beach and how do I find some?
Just like so many other beachcombed treasures, a lot of ohajiki made their way to the coast as trash. Whether being thrown into the sea or left on the beach unintentionally, or perhaps over time a dump eroding away from a hillside, ohajiki have also found their way to the beach. So perhaps you are wondering how you can spot one of these little treasures if you find yourself on a beach walk in Japan. Well, the best bet is to never expect it and be pleasantly surprised if one finds you. But, from my experience, the best places to find ohajiki are at mostly sandy beaches or beaches without a lot of rocks (so that those fragile glass wafers don’t get crushed up) near ports and more populated areas. A good sign is if you also see some pottery pieces and not fully rounded or smooth sea glass (again, rocky areas or spots that make for beautiful sea glass nuggets or perfectly rounded sea glass will probably break the ohajiki fairly easily). And of course, the more ground you can cover the better the odds of making a discovery.
Whether you get the chance to comb for ohajiki on a Japanese beach or get your hands on some from talented jewelry makers or another beachcomber living in Japan, hopefully we all can continue to enjoy these little treasures. Happy hunting!
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This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine July/August 2022 issue.