No matter what culture you come from, you have probably played a game of tag or a similar game by a different name at least once in your life. It’s a childhood pastime that quite possibly dates well back into prehistoric times in one form or another.

In Japan it is well-loved and goes by the name onigokko (“play demon”) wherein on player takes the role of the oni (demon/”it”) and tries to touch the other players which will turn them into oni.

I say “well-loved” because in recent years the country has held the largest games of tag in the world and has currently evolved the game into “sports onigokko” an organized team-based version of the of what you may know as tag.

■ For your health!

The modern game of onigoko has been traced back to a game played in the Heian period. Going into the Edo period it took on the name kotorokotoro (“catch kids, catch kids”) and featured three roles: oni, parent, and child. Like onigokko the target is to catch the other players, but in kotorokotoro one of the other players is the parent behind whom all other players (the “children”) must stay behind in single file. Every child the oni touches then becomes and oni and the game ends when all of the children are taken.

Image: Ukiyo-e Reference Museum

While onigokko has evolved into a more individual player’s game since then the International Sports Onigokko Federation (ISOF) has brought a bit of that team spirit back in sports onigokko. It was originally started in the ’80s by Josai University Professor Yasuo Hasaki as a way to combat childhood obesity. The sport is highly competitive so requires a degree of physical activity and exercise, but the method of play requires no special equipment or training.

■ Rules

Sports onigokko is played on a 15m by 25m court with a stand on either end (see the image at the top of this page). The stands have a small cylinder on top which the players must snatch from the opposing team’s side. However, once a player enters that side they can be tagged and forced to return to their own side off-court.

There are also safety zones in the four corners of the court which offensive players can be protected from getting tagged. Tags must be two-handed and of course excessive hitting or other violent contact will not be tolerated. Every time the cylinder is grabbed a point is scored and the team which gets the most points in two five-minute halves is the winner.

■ You’re it Tokyo 2020!

The sport is constantly being reviewed for rule changes and additions to make it more entertaining under the auspices of the ISOF and Inetnational Onigokko Association (IOA). The ISOF is currently headed by Yasuo Hasaki’s son Takao Hasaki who has been hard at work promoting the sport.

Recently it has undergone what some call a “silent boom” where its popularity has increased substantially but without any major media attention. The games inherent inclusiveness and requirements for strategic teamwork and communication has made it a favorite for corporate and community building events. Some have even worked it into a group dating exercise giving you the chance to triumph over some special guy or gal with you tag skills.

All in all, it’s been reported that around 180,000 people have played sports onigokko to date. A national tournament has been established and currently there are plans to expand to an international one by 2016 incorporating some Southeast Asian countries who have taken an interest in it. The next milestone for Hasaki and the rest of the association is clear: a spot as a demonstration sport at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

Although people’s gut reaction might be to scoff at sports onigokko as a glorified kids game, but really it appears to be sports at its purest. The game has a high emphasis on physical ability and strategy and also leaves very little room for luck in the equation.

Perhaps the Olympic committee will see it that way too and give sports onigokko a shot. We may also have a good chance seeing it at the games if they decide to choose the demonstration sport by rock-paper-scissors or eeny, meeny, miny, moe.

Source: International Onigokko Association, International Sports Onigokko Federation, Yahoo! Japan News, Hachima Kiko (Japanese)
Top Image: IOA
Video: YouTube – International Onigoko Association