Cup-and-ball master turns his ‘toy’ into an art form


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.

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.