KANAZAWA, Ishikawa Pref. A glimpse of the giant tent reveals that a traveling circus is in town.

Among the group of performers under the big top is a 12-year-old Russian boy who, when not helping his parents, serves other compatriots as an “interpreter.”

Gosha Shemushur’s presence in Japan’s Kigure Circus speaks of the fact that foreigners are very much part of the people and animals who travel across the country performing feats of skill.

He has been in Japan for five years with his parents. His father, Victor, 52, was a longtime member of the Bolshoi Circus as a bear tamer and acrobat; he won the grand prize in the 1976 world circus festival in Monaco.

Gosha didn’t study Japanese in school; he became fluent naturally while moving from place to place with the circus. He is sought after as an interpreter by his parents, who speak only a smattering of Japanese, and other Russians in the group.

When he first came to Japan, there were no other Russian children in the Kigure Circus. Children of Japanese members reportedly bullied and beat him and Gosha cried alone at home.

“They teased me and called me a fool, but I didn’t know what they meant at the time,” he says. “I was really frustrated.”

In the town of Itano, Tokushima Prefecture, the sun is setting on the Russian “village,” part of about 30 prefabricated dwellings where 11 Russians live, on a graveled plot next to the tent.

Plates of fruit and salad are placed on outdoor tables in celebration of the 13th birthday of Kristina, the daughter of a Russian circus member and Gosha’s friend. Three men roast chicken over a charcoal fire.

Gosha busily explains to another Kristina, the 5-year-old daughter of a Chinese member of the circus, and Yuki Kigure, 10, how to play musical chairs.

“You circle around and sit in a chair when the music stops,” he explains, gesturing broadly.

Gosha learned to speak conversational Japanese in three years after his arrival in Japan, thanks to the help he received from Yuki, whom he considers his best friend.

He now can read and write some Japanese. She has even taught him ways to talk back in a scuffle with other kids.

Gosha’s father was fascinated by a traveling circus that visited his hometown in Ukraine when he was 16. With his parents’ permission, he enrolled in the Moscow Circus School, after passing an entrance examination in which only one in 400 could make it.

His specialties were acrobatics and taming bears. However, opportunities to appear in the Bolshoi Circus’ grand shows in Moscow decreased noticeably in the 1990s when a younger generation of performers took to the ring.

A Kigure Circus executive who watched a Bolshoi performance in Kobe at that time asked the senior Shemushur to join the Japanese group. He readily accepted.

Japanese circuses faced difficulties as other forms of entertainment stole their audiences and the nation’s birthrate fell rapidly. Kigure’s members were originally all Japanese, but its manager decided to go “international” to stay in business.

Toshikazu Kigure, 38, the scout for the circus, said: “We are going to actively bring in new blood and energy; otherwise, we won’t be able to present wonderful (shows). Japanese members can learn excellent skills from foreigners.”

There were more than 30 circus groups in Japan in the late 1930s. But with the increasing popularity of movies and the later advent of television after the war, fewer people came to see their shows. Now only four circuses are active.

Kigure Circus has 30 foreign members, including Russian and Chinese acrobats and Thai elephant tamers, making up nearly half of the group.

The circus traveled from Tokushima Prefecture to Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, on Aug. 16. It has attracted many children and parents during the summer holiday.

The audiences applauded when the bears trained by Gosha’s father rode small bicycles. The bears also charmed the crowds by bowing their heads and waving their paws. Some spectators thought the animals may be stuffed.

Gosha entered a Japanese elementary school for the first time after watching the Japanese national soccer team beat the Russians in the World Cup finals in June. The scene of him crying and Yuki patting him on the shoulder was televised nationwide from the circus village in Tokushima Prefecture.

Local teacher Sokichi Yoshioka, who had seen him on television, asked Yuki the following day, “What is that boy doing during the day?”

Later he was admitted to the school. But he will go back to Moscow at the end of September to attend school there.

Victor Shemushur believes his son, who likes animals, will want to succeed him as a circus performer. But Gosha said he wants to become a veterinarian because “I won’t be able to be as good as you.”

“He’s all right,” the father said. “He has the qualities and I will persuade him.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.