With the blossoming of cherry trees in early April near Tokyo comes the beginning of the new academic year at Japanese universities. After students have had an opportunity to meet their professors and decide on which elective courses to take, they make their really important decision - choosing which clubs to join.
Last year students at Kitasato University in the city of Sagamihara, about 40 kilometers southwest of Tokyo, were surprised and confused to find a club for "jyagulingu" - a transliteration of the nearest approximation of "juggling" in the Japanese sound system.
But, both "jyagulingu" was incomprehensible to the students because there are no words native to the Japanese language that convey the Western idea of juggling. And if that wasn't bad enough, the head of the club was a foreigner with a name that sounded like a Spanish greeting!
The Kitasato Juggling Club was not a great success its first year. It was no one's first choice. The most dedicated members were an animal husbandry major and a pharmacology major who spent much more of their energies in the Bodybuilding Club than in the Jyagulingu Club.
This year has been different! First of all, I made sure that the posters advertising the club at the beginning of the school year were copiously decorated with action scenes of juggling and pictures of props. Although the posters only gave them a vague idea of juggling, some were fascinated enough to come to the first meeting. So 15 intrepid souls (mostly veterinary science and pharmacology majors) joined.
After a little more than a month of semiweekly practice sessions, during which every regularly attending member showed great progress, I asked the group to put their balls, rings, clubs, hula hoops or unicycles down for a few minutes and write a short essay in Japanese on what kind of image they had of juggling before they started and what they thought of it now. Here are some of their comments (translated by me).
Yuko Yamaguchi (female veterinary science major): At first, I had no idea what juggling was. I thought that it was something like bowling. After I began juggling I was surprised when I found out that the way to throw three balls was different from "otedama." It was more difficult than it looked.
Takumi Ishii (female vet science major): I'm able to juggle three balls, but I'll be happy when I'm able to master more difficult tricks. In the meantime I enjoy practicing.
Hitoshi Ono (female fisheries major): Without knowing exactly what I was getting into I blindly joined the club. Although I've only been juggling for about a month, and I still can't do much, I enjoy it. My goal is to be able to ride a unicycle while doing juggling tricks.
Takuo Katayama (male vet science major and the student manager of the club. He is also a practitioner of zazen, a rarity among Japanese youths): When you juggle you must clear your mind of all things. If you don't clear your mind you won't be able to juggle well or ride a unicycle skillfully. Juggling is a sport in which mental concentration and body relaxation are essential. You can't juggle well if you worry too much about what people watching you think. I was first able to juggle well when I stopped thinking too much. The importance of "not thinking about anything" makes juggling a lot like zen.
Now that we've got our club started, we're making plans for the year ahead. They include mastering a good repertoire of three ball tricks, a few ring and club maneuvers, passing, some unicycle and slack rope walking for those interested, and a trip to Yokohama to see the juggler performing with the Bolshoi circus from the Soviet Union.
As the university adjoins a medical school and hospital, we also hope to perform for patients in the children's ward and for residents of some local nursing homes. And I'm still dreaming of getting an act together for the university festival - an extravaganza which has no equivalent in American colleges. "Jyagulingu" has found its place, at least at one Japanese university.
My mistakes here have taught me a few things about how to organize a juggling club from scratch. I pass along some suggestions now to help people who find themselves trying to get a group started in an area of the world where juggling may not exactly be a household word.
Good luck to those who are planning, or who have already started, a juggling club in foreign lands. The joy of seeing people happily engaged in an activity that they previously hardly knew existed is all the reward you need!
Joseph Dias, a Life Member of the IJA, is a lecturer in the department of liberal arts and sciences at Kitasato University and a part-time lecturer in the department of literature at Keio University. He has lived in Japan for seven years. He and his wife, Izumi, and son, Noah Juntaro, are residents of Zama City, Kanagawa Prefecture.