Better Know A Sport Feature

Better Know A Sport: Jokgu

For those of you either politically disillusioned by the NCAA this time of year (March Sadness, as John Oliver described), or just too lazy to follow the frenzy, I present you with an extremely slow-paced, unofficial, and low-stakes alternative: the Korean sport known as Jokgu.

The word jokgu is derived from the Chinese characters for foot (“jok”) and ball (“gu”), and considering how many versions of “football” are already vying for global dominance, it may be more easier to remember in Korean.

Jokgu is basically tennis played like soccer. It incorporates elements of volleyball and sometimes expresses the style of various martial arts. Played either on a tennis court or any flat surface with a low net, the two teams use only their lower legs (below the knees) and their heads (above the chin) to volley the ball to the other side. The general rules of tennis and/or volleyball follow, with the team that reaches an agreed-upon number first, winning. It’s a casual game for most, and though there are strict rules set out by the National Jokgu Association of Sport for All, they are often modified or swapped out depending on people and environment.


The origins of jokgu remain unclear. One theory is that it was created in the 1960s, by bored air force soldiers who came up with the game while wasting time on airplane runways. Another theory is that it was imported from soldiers who served in the Vietnam War and learned the sport of sepak takraw. The third (and my favorite) theory is that it is a wholly and purely Korean sport, and can be traced back at least to the 1300s. This camp would argue that jokgu inspired sepak takraw, and not the other way around.

Whatever its origins, jokgu is currently a sport tied closely to Korean military service and thus a raging patriotism and masculine performativity. After service, men continue to play, in what I can only understand as a type of Stockholm Syndrome. For young men, it is a sport that divides the men (who have served their time in the army) from the boys (who have yet to serve). In their eyes, it probably looks like this:


Martial arts?


Or fly b-boy moves?

As a college student in Korea, I would see male colleagues play for hours on end, more boring to me than watching golf on TV, which George Carlin once famously compared to watching two flies fuck. For straight women, it is a sport that divides old, dingy dudes back from military service from fresh, cool ones yet untainted by military brainwashing. To these women, jokgu players look like this:

That’s the former president of S. Korea, by the way.


The popularity of the sport in Korea is partly due to the fact it can be played on any small surface. More importantly, jokgu is a sport related directly to the idea of killing time. It is an idle sport, something to do when a bunch of men get together and have nothing better to do, which is most of their time served in the military from what I can discern. Jokgu is usually played for small stakes, such as cigarettes or snacks bought by the losing team for the winning team.

There is, however, a strange stigma attached to jokgu, as both a point of pride (masculinity) and a point of shame (waste of time). Being called an excellent jokgu player is a backhanded compliment of sorts, as it attests to all the time you’ve invested in the barely-sport. It’s like someone complimenting you on being a fantastic Candy Crusher. Some boys’ schools with small fields often have to resort to playing jokgu instead of soccer as their team sport, and not without a hint of shame.

But that’s the one thing I do love about jokgu, this sense of pride-shame. It reminds me of low-stakes beer league softball, when being sober and actually good kind of defeats the point of the game. Jokgu is a casual game you play for fun, and if you are anything like me, it’s really just an excuse to get together and drink in the middle of the day, masquerading as a sport.

So while the NCAA revs up once again this March to exploit the crap out of hundreds of “student-athletes,” I raise a frothy to all the barely-sports players of the world, like jokgu stars, who keep it casual and irrelevant.

About heesjoo

I'm an educator, thinker, spectator sport fanantic, and nacho enthusiast. I grew up in the Deep South, which explains everything. My body currently resides in Winnipeg, Canada.

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