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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

WHO'S WHO

Juggler of two professions in Japan

Nation adds up to well-traveled Hungarian mathematician and performer Peter Frankl


Staff writer

"My No. 1 hobby even now is still 'learning,' " says Peter Frankl, 58, who has been juggling two professions for over 30 years. Speaking with his eyes lit up like a little boy, the mathematician and street juggler says that through learning, he feels his world is expanding.

News photo
Arithmatrick?: Mathematician and juggler Peter Frankl gives an interview at his office in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward. SATOKO KAWASAKI PHOTO

"It's such a nice experience that you don't know anything about something and you buy a book and you slowly understand a little bit. Then you speak to someone more knowledgeable and they tell you and you think "Ah, that's why it's so,' " he said.

He says it's a pity that both in Japan and in many other countries, children learn because they are forced to by their parents or teachers, or because they have an examination to pass. "Whether it be mathematics, physics or something else, if you go in (to it) deep enough, it's very interesting, and it's fun," Frankl said.

Frankl speaks 11 languages, including Hungarian, his mother tongue, and English, Japanese, French and Chinese, to the point that he can give a university lecture in those languages. He says that he has learned most of these languages at school or by reading many books.

He finds a connection between learning math and learning languages. "Mathematicians are good at explaining things short, in a very concise way. That's something that can help you learn foreign languages to some extent — to the extent that you can communicate with . . . others," he said.

"As a mathematician, you try to look at the essence of things. What do I really want to tell the other people? What is the exact message I'd like to convey to others? Without putting all these beautiful clauses, sentences, that's enough to make each other understood," he said.

He has traveled to over 80 countries and lived in some of them, but chose to settle in Japan in 1988.

"I like Japan and Japanese people. Otherwise, I won't live here," he said with a smile, giving three reasons why he chose this country.

First, he says he likes the fact that Japanese people don't quarrel in everyday life. "I wasn't patient as a young man, so in many other countries, I was always having some friction (with others)," he said.

However, he says he has never gotten into quarrels in Japan, as he says the Japanese make an extreme effort not to even touch others in a crowded train.

Second, Japan "is probably the only country in the world that I feel that religious freedom really exists," he said.

Being raised in Hungary while it was under an antireligious communist regime, he says it feels comfortable to live in a country where people don't talk about religion and don't care about other people's religion.

The third and biggest reason, which he says is partly disappearing, is that he is fond of the way in which Japanese judge others not by how much money a person has, but by human values such as whether the person is hardworking, honest or friendly.

Frankl lived in the United States for three years and says he didn't like the overcompetitive American way of judging others by "how many digits you have in your bank account or how expensive your house is."

"With too much competition, you don't have much time and energy left for enjoying life," he said.

He adds that in Japan, anyone can be successful. "By successful, I don't mean that you have a billion dollars. I mean that you're respected and accepted by people around you. If you're judged by the way you think or the way you work, then anyone can be a successful person," he said.

Born in 1953 in Kaposvar, Somogy county, Hungary, to Jewish parents who were both doctors, Frankl was always learning something as a little boy, whether it be physics, history, literature or math. But math has always been his biggest love "for sure."

He graduated from Eotvos university, Budapest, with a doctorate in mathematics. Frankl also studied at University Paris Diderot in 1975, and exiled to France in 1979. In 1987, he gained French citizenship.

While in Hungary, he had also gone to a circus school and obtained a national qualification as a stage performer.

Since then, he has juggled in many countries. Lately, he often juggles in schools, orphanages and refugee camps in developing countries such as Ethiopia or the Philippines.

Frankl says that nobody really appreciated the fact that he was studying math, so that is how he came to juggling.

"(Learning math) was like being married to a person who most people think is a very bad person, ugly, and unfriendly, and most people would think 'why did you get married to that person?' In my hometown, they always kept telling me, 'Your mother and father are both doctors, why didn't you become a doctor?' But I liked math much more," he says.

He says he felt juggling was something that he can show to anyone.

"I can't expect an average person to make the effort and read what I wrote about math, but most people would be glad to stop and look at me juggling. For me, it was some what a tool of communication," he said.

Between 1980 and 1988, he traveled to England, India, the then West Germany, Sweden and the U.S. to do mathematical research.

His first exposure to Japan was in 1982 when he was invited to do research at the University of Tokyo. Having fallen in love with the country, he returned to Japan in 1988, and has lived here since.

His activities in Japan include writing books, giving lectures at universities and at different locations in Japan, juggling on the streets, and appearing on television.

Although Frankl says he speaks Japanese better than English now, he says he found learning kanji difficult. But it was also an enjoyable and interesting experience for him.

"When I came to Japan, I fell in love with Japanese cuisine the next day. I didn't have much money, so I often went to kaiten-zushi. There, I was learning the names of fish. I found them very inventive," he says.

"For example, sardine is a weak fish, and in kanji, iwashi is written with 'fish' on the left and 'weak' on the right. Hirame (flatfish) is written with fish on the left and 'flat' on the right," Frankl explains with excitement.

As a message to children of elementary school age, he says that first of all, he wants them to know that life is wonderful. Second, he says, "Studying is fun! Japanese say 'suki koso monono jozu nare.' If you start liking something, it's more likely that you're going to make progress, and you actually learn it."



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