Lessons from a student life spent following the path of kendama

So you’ve got into university and that’s great, but somehow you feel as though you’re passing your days in a haze of uncertainty. What is it you actually want to do? Quite a few people feel that way at some stage after starting university. Fueled by a burning desire to make the most of his four years at university, Daisuke Koyama has made kendama—a traditional Japanese wooden skill toy with a ball attached to the end by a string—an integral part of his student life. So what lessons has he learned as he comes to the end of his time at MGU?

Daisuke Koyama Fourth-year student in the International Business Department, Faculty of Economics In the summer of his third year at high school, he began practicing kendama after showing off his skills to his host family in the U.S.A. Mr. Koyama joined MGU in 2017 and founded the university’s Kendama Club in July the same year. He captained the team until September 2020 and has competed in the Tokyo Kendama Grand Prix and the Kendama World Cup, as well as taking on various other challenges, such as Guinness World Record attempts. While studying in Ireland between September 2018 and March 2019, Mr. Koyama gave a demonstration of his kendama skills at the Embassy of Japan in Ireland. As of 2019, his favorite phrase is “When in doubt, give it a go.”

Wanting to make my mark

Straight after enrolling at the university in April 2017, I joined the Athletic Association’s Basketball Club. I’d played basketball through junior and senior high school, so I had no hesitation about joining the club. However, I quit three months after joining. Part of it was to do with where I was living at the time and finding time for my studies—I just couldn’t keep going with it. For a while, the only thing I did was go to classes each day and go home again. There was a kind of haze in my mind for quite some time and I felt anxious and on edge. But I decided that if I was going to spend four years at MGU, I wanted to make my mark and leave some kind of proof that I’d been here. I thought about studying abroad, volunteer work, starting a social basketball group, but none ofthose ideas quite hit the spot. I wanted to do something that nobody else was doing, something that only I could do. And that’s when I hit upon the idea of really mastering kendama. In the summer vacation in my third year at high school, I did a homestay in Iowa in the U.S.A. and gave a kendama demonstration to my host family. I remembered that everyone there had really enjoyed it. To start with, I just watched my kendama-mad younger brother at home, but when I tried it for myself, I found I really enjoyed it. I got hooked on it straight away.

Without any particularly profound consideration of the reason why, I went around telling people that I’d decided to become a professional kendama player. It might sound good if I said that I wanted to put myself under pressure by telling everyone about my ambition, but that never even crossed my mind. I get the feeling I just wanted to be noticed. And so my life as an MGU student restarted. In my usual clothes, with my usual bag. But this time with a kendama around my neck.

Eating, sleeping, and breathing kendama

I was probably the only one of Meiji Gakuin University’s 12,000 or so students who attended classes with a kendama around their neck. I would practice for up to six hours per day. While kendama relies on movements of the wrist alone, effective use of the knees gives the transition between each technique a more dynamic feel, making it more interesting to watch. It might not use the whole body in the same way as soccer or basketball, but you still get pretty tired if you practice properly. I’d get up and practice kendama. I’d practice kendama again after getting to the university. And there would be more kendama practice between classes. I was practicing desperately, because I’d declared my intention of becoming a kendama pro. Then other students who’d seen me doing all this approached me, telling me they wanted to have a go at kendama too. In that case, I thought, why not enjoy kendama with them all? I started up the Kendama Club with a few others, most of whom were in my introductory seminar class. We’d practice kendama while eating our lunch. Members were allowed to belong to another club or society as well. The Kendama Club started slowly with just five members, but our numbers had swelled to ten a month after our launch (July 15, 2017), reaching 25 by three months later and 50 by April 2018. We held regular practice sessions in Building 5 at the Yokohama Campus, interspersed with events such as training camps, Halloween parties, and sports days.

Gaining joy from the joy of others

At the December 2017 Tokyo Kendama Grand Prix, what gave me even greater pleasure than placing third in the Advanced Division was the fact that one of our members triumphed in the Beginners Division. This member, who’d become interested after seeing me practicing kendama, was so happy that the intensive practice they’d put in had paid off. This was someone I’d only become friendly with because I was involved with kendama. I’d really come to care about them after watching them work so hard at kendama. Thanks to the Kendama Club, I experienced mental growth that would not have been possible if I had just practiced kendama alone.

In 2018, I participated in the Kendama World Cup as an individual competitor. I came 142nd out of 540. Partly because I had wanted to test my skill in a tournament for the first time, I was overjoyed to do better than I’d expected. At the 2019 Kendama World Cup, my goal was to place in the top 100. In the end, I came 160th out of 600. It’s one step forward and one step back when you’re trying to improve as an individual. Participants compete to score the most points by performing for a total of six minutes (1 set lasting 3 minutes, performed twice) a continuous routine of skills set in advance. My failure at this tournament might have been due to trying to go for too many high-scoring skills. At that contest, other club members ranked higher than me. I’m sure that if I hadn’t had the experience of a club member winning the Beginners Division at the Tokyo Kendama Grand Prix, I'd have felt nothing but disappointment. But as it was, I felt disappointed, but still happy. Looking back, I was astonished by such a change in my mental attitude, to the extent that my joy at our growth as a club outweighed my feelings about my own improvement.

A Japanese student who’s good at kendama

I spent the period from September 2018 to March 2019 studying in Ireland at Dublin City University. I had no problems with everyday English conversation, but classes were one long struggle. Every day was full of discoveries and new lessons to learn. Naturally, I took my kendama overseas with me. And not only the local students, but also the lecturers showed an interest. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to demonstrate kendama at the Embassy of Japan in Ireland, showing the audience—who included various countries’ ambassadors to Ireland and Irish rugby internationals—how much fun kendama could be.

An e-mail from the Japanese embassy to Dublin City University was the catalyst: “We’ve heard you have a Japanese student who’s good at kendama. We’d like them todemonstrate it for us.” Someone at the university immediately asked me if I was the one the embassy meant.

Practicing kendama is as natural to me as eating. Even the routine work of everyday life that I’d accepted as a matter of course has great insights to offer when one’s environment changes. This was the big lesson that kendama taught me.

Using kendama to create smiles

I plan to go into the real estate business after graduation. I’m sure people will ask why I’m not going to turn professional. The fact is that my definition of professional has changed over the course of my four years at university. It’s true that I’d restarted my student life after deciding that I wanted to make a living from kendama in the future. However, I realized that I really enjoyed connecting people through kendama and watching my friends smiling as they enjoyed kendama. And that led me to the realization that using kendama to create smiles was actually what I’d had in mind and what I’d been seeking in my definition of professional. Whatever you do, you should engage with it wholeheartedly. And what I saw at the end of it all was my friends’ smiles. I plan to continue fully engaging with kendama, so that it creates smiles on the faces of as many people as possible.