Tan’kai is an ancient contest for Samurai warriors, played with two discs of razor-sharp bronze. Myself and friends – James, Ben, Rupert, Bill, and others – discovered the rules in a manuscript in the London Fields Library in 2001, and adapted for playing with frisbees.
There are two warriors and one referee. The referee is indispensable, being a conduit to the gods. The warriors each choose a disc.
The two warriors stand facing each other. They stand at a distance set by the referee, often equal to six or seven beheaded warriors laid out neck to toe, but it may be any distance. They bow to each other.
The referee stands to the side, so that the gods through their eyes can witness the entire field of play. When the gods are ready, the referee shouts ‘Tan’kai!’ and play commences.
Both warriors throw their disc at the other, both throwing as close to the same moment as is possible. They each catch the other’s thrown disc, and throw it back; play so continues.
If, in the eyes of the gods through the judgement of the referee, a warrior drops a catchable disc, or throws an uncatchable disc, then they lose the point, awarded to their opponent.
In the unusual circumstance where both discs strike each other and fall to the ground then play is briefly suspended while a goat is sacrificed* in thanks to the gods for their mercy in extending the life of the warrior destined to be the loser. No point is awarded.
The referee announces the score after each point. It is scored in the language of the gods – zero (0), ichi (1), ni (2), san (3). The warrior first to san wins. The loser is beheaded**, with a cry of Tan’kai!
*Sometimes the sacrifice is omitted, but thanks must still be given.
**Under exceptional circumstances, their life is spared and they are next to referee.
The game of Tan’kai was played, according to legend, in open ground in the space between two trees. The presence of the trees acted as a deterrent to warriors looking to throw their disc behind their opponent.
The variation of Kan’tai was played, according to legend, in open ground beside the same trees. The warriors now could choose to throw into the wind behind their opponent.
The variation of Ru’kai was invented by the warrior Ru, according to legend finding himself in the endless nights of the tundra. This variation is played in the light of a flaming torch. It may be adapted in the modern city for the pool of a street lamp.
The variation of (…)kai, some say was the original game of which Tan’kai is the variation. (…) marks a pause marking the absence of a syllable too terrible ever to be heard by human ear, therefore never uttered. (…)kai is played in pitch darkness. It is an honour for only the most enlightened to referee a game of (…)kai.