Page 16                                              January 1982


And How They Were Invented.


(From "Strand" magazine, December 1914)


When people talk to me about Japanese jugglers I generaly have to answer this question: "How is it that all you Japanese jugglers do the same things?"


Well, I do not agree that all our performances are exactly alike, but I will confess to a good deal of "sameness." It is inevitable, because all the feats of real Japanese jugglers were originated in Japan by the Japanese, and no juggler of my country would care to perform any other feats.


Some of our most effective feats are very old, and a kind of tradition attaches to each of them. Take, for instance, the familiar balancing feat performed with blocks of wood (Fig. 1). I build up a pile of these blocks ten or eleven feet high, and place a glass of water on the top.   Then I push the bottom block very gently on one side with my fan, but before the whole pile can fall I slip my fan under the bottom block and balance the pile on my fan. Then I throw up the pile of blocks and catch the glass without spilling a drop of the water.


This is only one of very many feats performed with these ordinary blocks of wood. I am able to perform with these blocks for two hours; as a rule, the feats I present to English audiences last for five minutes.


These feats are based on those devised by a Japanese prisoner in the 17th century.  In those days the Japanese wore their hair long, and, to protect it during the hours of sleep, very high pillows were used. Even the occupants of the jails had to be provided with pillows; plain wooden blocks, similar to those used today by Japanese jugglers, served the purpose.


The particular prisoner to whom jugglers will always be grateful probably suffered from insomnia; at any rate, he amused himself by throwing up the blocks in his cell and catching them. Then he devised various simple little balancing feats with the blocks, and the exercise he obtained in this way improved his physique.


His appearance became too good. The authorities could not understand how a man living on a little food could contrive to put on flesh. The juggling prisoner was watched, and, being caught in the act, was taken to the governor of the prison.  The prisoner was commanded to perform, Tradition does not say what were the actual feats he presented, but they impressed the governor, who had the man taken to the civil authorities of the town. In the end the prisoner was released, because he was appointed Court Entertainer to the governor of the State.


I believe this story to be quite true, for juggling is certainly one of the finest forms of exercise any man can take - until he becomes proficient.  All the time he is learning a feat he drops things on the floor, and I understand that the beneficial exercise is obtained by stooping down to pick up things.


Feats with an umbrella - of the Japanese kind - are very common.  The juggler throws up a ball, catches it on the top of an open umbrella, and, by twisting the handle rapidly, causes the ball to run round the edge of the umbrella. A similar feat is performed with curtain rings and with coins; the smaller and lighter the coin, the more difficult the feat.


All these feats were originated by a street performer in Japan. One day, while passing under the walls of a castle, a small audience collected on the top of the wall and playfully dropped some tangeries onto the comedian of the company of strolling jugglers. (No such company is complete without a comedian.) The next day the comedian was treated in the same manner, and so he put up a paper umbrella to shield himself. The shower of tangerines broke through the umbrella. Then the leading juggler of the company saw his opportunity. He took the umbrella, twisted it quickly, and, by making it revolve, caused the tangerines to fly off it. While he was doing  this he was helped by a lucky accident. One of the tangerines rolled round the umbrella once before dropping on the ground. The juggler picked up the tangerine and caught it once more on his revolving umbrella, and thus the feat I have described was invented. The hardest feat of all with the umbrella is done with a Japanese coin which is lighter than an English farthing.


The oldest juggling feats in the world are those known by the title" Ball and Stick" (Fig. 3). Some performers will use two balls and all of them will use two sticks, but "ball and stick" is the English name for this group of tricks.


The stick is a drumstick, for the feat was originated by a drummer who pIayed outside a Japanese temple. Thinking to engage the attention of passers­by (for the drummers are in a sense officials of the temple), this drummer made a number of flourishes with his stick, similar to those used to this day bv drummers in the British Army. Then the drummer learned how to throw up his stick and catch it again in a variety of ways. Afterwards he did the same thing with two sticks. One day he saw some children playing with a ball several simple games very much like those played by English children to this day. The drummer conceived the idea of doing something with a ball and his two sticks, and so the foundation for a long series of juggling feats was laid.


In Japan the first lesson in juggling is always given with one of these drumsticks. A boy is taught to throw up the stick so that it turns over and over in the air, and to catch it again by the right end. The feat looks absurdly easy, but in reality it is very difficult. This feat affords an excellent training for the eye and hand. A practice lesson, by the way. occupies two hours, and it is usually given at sunrise. During the day the pupil has to attend school. where one of his duties is to learn a musical instrument. All Japanese jugglers, being servants of the temple, have to be musicians.

Fig 1 - A very difficult trick with wooden blocks. (photo Talma Melbourne)

Fig 3 - One of the many ball and stick tricks.  In this trick the ball is passed from one stick to the other.

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