Juggler's World: Vol. 39, No. 1

Otaydama in Japan

by Barry Rosenberg

June 29/June 30: I'm on board a TWA jet bound for Tokyo. Although the flight is a non-stop 14 hours, I'm too excited and anxious to sleep. Tomorrow (or is it tomorrow already?) I will begin three-week's employment as a juggler in a Japanese theme park.

My partner (Kalonymus Briskin) got a call from an agency a few months ago asking if we wanted to perform in Japan. It sounded too good to be true, and I told friends that I wouldn't believe it until I was on the plane. I'm on the plane. I still didn't believe it.

July 1: I arrive at Nagasaki Airport following an overnight rest stop in Tokyo. I'm supposed to meet an interpreter there, so I put on my big black top-hat to make me easier to spot. I needn't have bothered. At 6 feet, I'm definitely the tallest person in the airport. I'm also the only westerner.

My interpreter finds me. "I am Kayoko," she says. Kayoko leads me to an air-conditioned speed boat which zooms across Omura Bay past little lush green villages and fisherman in traditional Japanese hats. This is Asia with a capital A.

After 30 minutes of riding, my interpreter announces "There it is." Ahead of the boat, rising out of tropical Asia, is a peninsula of windmills and western brick buildings. "Barry, this is Holland Village." Kayoko states in her measured delicate English.

July 4: I'm beginning to get over jet lag. I slept until 5:00 a.m. this morning, and then lasted until 4:00 p.m. before dropping into a catatonic two-hour nap. Kalonymus yells at me to wake up or miss dinner. I slip on my traditional Japanese yakata (robe) and pad on over to dinner in hotel slippers that are three sizes too small.

I take my place on the mats next to seven fellow performers, Kayoko, and our boss. We are treated like special guests and receive a nine-course meal. Kalonymus describes it as raw fish, barbecued fish, breaded fish, candied fish, baked fish, dried fish, and rice. Dinner comes, and comes, and never seems to stop.

Our boss is an avid pachinko player and has won handily the night before. He shares his luck by making a present to us, and what a present it is: raw fish heads, raw snails, raw eels, and raw squid... all beautifully displayed of course. I have eaten very little these first few days.

July 6: Performance anxiety. Our show has not been going well. In America, we depend on almost non-stop talking and joking as background to our juggling, but Japanese is not one of the easiest languages for a westerner to learn. For starters, the grammar is totally different. Then there's a little problem of accent. In addition, many Japanese believe that only a Japanese person is capable of speaking Japanese and will refuse to acknowledge the speech of fluent westerners.

And if all that isn't enough, their culture and therefore their sense of humor is so indescribably different that we are having trouble figuring out what they think is funny. We must do four 15-minute shows a day. We experiment with a different formula and different props and different words every show. We have a performance vocabulary of perhaps eight words, and we use these words over and over again in whatever order strikes our fancy.

We start with one pronunciation at the first show of the day and gravitate towards a completely different one by the fourth show.

July 7: Fireworks are legal in Japan, and today we light off a battle's worth to celebrate the Fourth of July. The time difference is still confusing us.

July 8: Our show is improving a little. It's very different than the show we started with. In the mornings, we go running to Kayoko and ask her how to say such-and-such and she writes it phonetically for us on a piece of paper. I place these small pieces of paper discretely in or near props and glance at them before using that prop. Although most people in our audience have studied English for six or so years, almost no one understands any English.

However, the people do understand American pop icons. So, we pepper our act with words like "cowboy" and "John Wayne." By the way, those people who tell you that "those Japanese can all speak English" are full of sushi. The citizens of Kyoto and Tokyo who work in tourist-related jobs can usually speak English, but outside of that, the percentage of Japanese we encountered who could speak a practical amount of English is similar to the percentage of Americans I've encountered who could speak a practical amount of French.

July 10: Today, two of our shows were presented for an audience of zero. And why not? The temperature is a humid 90 degrees, and the pounding early summer rains have dropped a good 10 inches of rain in the 10 days we've been here. To compound the problems of weather, Japanese workers earn an average of only six days vacation per year, so they have little free time for travel.

We work on a very controlled schedule. Our first show runs from 10:30 exactly to 10:45 exactly. This may not seem strange to you, but it seemed very strange to us. After all, a good street performer starts the show only when a sufficiently large crowd has been gathered. We suggested to our manager that we begin our show when tourist groups came through our area so that more people would see the show. "No," we were told politely. "Please start and stop at the scheduled times only."

July 11: We have been sent to Japan along with two Renaissance musicians, a magician, a balloon folder, and two acrobats. Which acts are going over? Surprisingly, the musicians are struggling. They are probably the most talented performers in our group. However, when they play, the Japanese audiences listen briefly and then interrupt the song with a request for a photo.

The magician, a popular Greenwich Village nightclub performer named Torkova, does a silent act and draws a moderate response. The balloon folder has the most popular act. Japanese visitors approach him with simple requests for making bears and tigers and such. He answers every request with the phrase "wah-kady-moss-en" which means "I don't understand," and then makes whatever pleases him.

The tourists love him. His colorful balloon art is a perfect target for a Nikon loaded with Fuji film.

Dora and Adrienne, two Dutch women acrobats, perform in a mixture of Japanese, English, Dutch, and Gibberish. Their act goes over quite well. In part, because it's good physical comedy, and in part because their nordic beauty is a stunning contrast to the black hair and dark eyes of every person in their audience. On an average day, they pose with visitors for 30 pictures.

Japan is not so much a country as it is a photo opportunity. Any performer planning on working in Japan should make the show picturesque.

July 13: Today is Sunday. This is our best day yet for performing. We gather good-sized crowds and the audience responds well. We are still not sure how to make them laugh, but we know how to get some response. Our audiences are shy -- street performing is not well-known in Japan and the ever-polite Japanese are not sure how to respond. (No one wants to laugh or applaud at the wrong place.)

We've solved this problem by providing a role model: when Kalonymus juggles, I applaud and laugh loudly at all the right places. This proves very effective. Volunteers are another problem. We need volunteers for our show, but the shy audiences do not volunteer. We've solved this problem through sheer force. I smilingly grab audience members by the wrist and drag them into the act. I know, I know -- how dare I pollute this gentle culture with mock-violence... But, after all, they've paid good money to get a glimpse of western culture.

July 15: Our hosts make some nice efforts to entertain us after work. Tonight they took us to a "singing bar" for a little party. In a singing bar, you put some yen into a fancy juke box and it plays a nicely arranged song complete with everything except voices. That's where you come in. The bartender hands you a lyrics sheet and a microphone and you let 'er rip. This is an extremely popular amusement in Japan. The juke box primarily contains Japanese songs, but has some British and American hits as well.

Tonight, the microphone was passed to a young Japanese man who did a dynamite version of "Hound Dog." Pretty good for a man who couldn't speak a word of English.

July 17: It's hot. When its not hot, its pouring. Either way, there's almost no one here to perform for. We try to amuse ourselves, but it's all getting old.

July 18: Our replacements arrive in force. First on the scene are a troupe of Spanish flamenco dancers. Next, comes an Indonesian gamelan, a dixie-land band from America, a troupe of Turkish dancers, and dozens more singers and dancers from around the world. Amidst the tumult of cultures and languages we squeeze in our final performances to a miniscule audience.

July 19: Tonight, Holland Village is throwing a party to welcome the singers and dancers. All party-goers are encouraged to wear their nation's indigenous costumes. We represent America in top hats and clown-wear. Holland Village has spared little expense in preparing an outrageous feast of western and Japanese delicacies. Bless their hearts, they've even cooked some of the food! Tomorrow we will leave Holland Village and I will begin ten days of touring Japan, but that's a different diary.

Otaydama in Japan / Index, Vol. 39, No. 1 / jis@juggling.org
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