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Sunday, Nov. 18, 2007
THE KENDAMA KING
Cup-and-ball maestro turns his 'toy' into an art form
By YOKO HANI
Do you play kendama? Probably not, on an everyday basis at least, though you may well have tried it a few times if you live in Japan.
Kendama, or cup-and-ball, is a plaything comprising a T-shaped wooden stick with cups on each of its three ends, a spike sticking out at one end and a ball with a hole in it on a string. Players try to catch the ball in the cups or on the spike as many times as possible, as fast as possible and in as many different ways as possible.
Children like the traditional toy, despite — or because of — the tremendous skill it requires. At school in Japan, there may often be one or two "kendama masters" in a class, even though most players try it once or twice and then give up hopes of ever excelling in this simple-looking but difficult test of hand-eye coordination.
But that was not the case for Yusuke Ito.
Now aged 28, Ito says that he has loved kendama more and more every day since he started competing with his brother when he was 7. After that he practiced hard and won many titles in kendama championships when he was a teenager before making it into the august pages of the Guinness World Records book in 2002 after staging a 7-hour, 35-minute, 55-second nonstop performance of his moshikame act. (In this variation of kendama, players have to keep passing the ball between two of the three cups faster than 135 times per minute.)
Now a professional kendama performer, Ito says, "My biggest and latest challenge is how I can transform the traditional toy into a performing art."
In fact, though kendama is widely regarded as an age-old Japanese toy, it is believed to be based on a French toy called billeboquet, which reached these shores in the late 18th century, according to the Japan Kendama Association.
"Rather than showing off difficult techniques of kendama," Ito continues, "I would like to perform sophisticated kendama shows that would include good background music and costumes as well as a witty rapport with the audience."
Aiming toward his goal, Ito took to the "stage" one recent Saturday at a street performers' festival being held in the Ito Yokado department store in Yachiyo City, Chiba Prefecture.
Clad in a traditional Japanese happi coat, he appeared on the store's concourse, where people were still buzzing after a show by a group of four acrobats.
"Sadly some people left, but I hope your cheers will attract more people to just stop by," Ito announced as he motioned to his musical backup, who launched into a powerful and upbeat tune played on the lute-like Tsugaru shamisen. Then, after composing himself and spending a few moments in deep concentration, Ito began very quickly passing the ball between the kendama's three cups and onto the spike at the end of the so-called ken (sword).
After that, he entered realms that defy belief as he threw the kendama up in the air before catching it and landing the ball safely in a cup. But not content with that, he next began to juggle three balls without strings between two kendama sticks.
All the while, the sound of the wooden balls hitting the cups echoed around the venue, where Ito's audience had rapidly grown from around 50 to about 150 delighted onlookers of all ages, for whom his show was nothing but breathtaking.
But like his performance, Ito's route to pursuing kendama full time has been a tough challenge.
After he graduated from a Tokyo university where he studied law, he chose to take part-time jobs so that he could have plenty of time to practice and perform kendama. Back then, although Ito was already well-known for his skills, he says there was no one actually making a living from performing kendama.
Although his friends still mostly regarded kendama as a children's game, Ito says that by then he had resolved to try to perform it as his career. So a year later he quit his part-time job and set out to try to support himself on performance fees and teaching kendama.
Ito says his family was understanding. When he told his parents he would like to be a kendama professional, he recalls, his mother said she'd been expecting him to say that, and his father also supported him in seeking to pursue his own way of life.
"Because of the support from my family, I have been able to come this far," he says.
Nonetheless, he never ceases to be intrigued by the range of reactions he draws.
"I often visited local community centers to perform and teach kendama, and it was funny because people there were often surprised when they realized I was young. They expected an old man when they heard a 'kendama teacher' was coming."
Ito says that he sometimes had a hard time entertaining people who had little idea of how difficult kendama is and so didn't find his performances particularly remarkable.
But experiences like that have made this maestro think deeply about how to stage more entertaining and appealing performances that go beyond the street-performer level. That's not, however, to say he scorns that public stage, and in fact he himself is an authorized street performer, after having passed the mandatory Tokyo Metropolitan Government test in 2003.
"Despite that," he says, "I wasn't going to be satisfied being a street performer, because many people think they are amateurs. I wanted to be recognized as a pro. For that, I needed to take my performances to another level."
Ito says he is often asked if it is difficult to live on kendama. But for him, he says, it's no problem because he can at least support himself — and he is living his dream. Nonetheless, he admits it may be a while yet before the idea of people being professional kendama performers takes root in Japanese society.
"Sometimes I'm asked if I aim to perform in Las Vegas," Ito says. "But before that I have to perform more shows, and more sophisticated ones, for people in this country."
For more information about kendama, and to check Ito's upcoming performance schedule, visit, www.kendamashi.com.