Wyatt Bray the Kendama World Champion Thanks to J-Pop

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At the Kendama World Cup this past weekend came a moment almost too perfect for fiction. Nervous from being in the spotlight, 19-year-old Wyatt began to flub his routine. It looked like it was the end of the road for the young Oregon native, until the unlikeliest of events transpired. Hearing the opening to Teen Titans—a cartoon from childhood inspired by anime which features a theme by Japanese pop band Puffy AmiYumi—Wyatt reports entering a trance that he has no recollection of otherwise. When he finally came to, he would find himself a world champion and ¥500,000 (approx. $4000) richer.

We caught up with Wyatt and his family to learn about his journey. Born and raised in Portland, Oregon, Wyatt was a quirky youth. Then, one day, he found something that changed his life: kendama. A Japanese toy dating back centuries, Wyatt quickly learned that performing with kendama was a unique and wonderful experience. His growing passion for the art would lead him years later to Japan, where he would take the 2015 Kendama World Cup this past weekend by storm.

Kendama is the Japanese variation of the “cup-and-ball” toy commonly found throughout the world. Possibly first coming to Japan via the Silk Road in the 18th Century, it was originally used as a drinking game (messing up meant bottoms up), and over the years became a fixture of Japanese youth. Famously, the popular 1978 anime (turned 2009 live-action movie) Yatterman features superheroes who fight using kendama. Much like the yo-yo (which is also very popular in Japan), kendama appear simple yet allow for a wide range of freedom, expression, and athleticism.

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Wyatt at a family gathering

In the beginning, Wyatt was not naturally talented at kendama, and his family lovingly poked fun at his newfound hobby, according to his cousin Damask Schantz. However, his grandfather, law professor and Portland campaign manager for Richard Nixon Dr. William Schantz, believed in pushing his grandchildren to be their best. Within the environment of a hyper-competitive family, kendama became his path towards success. Suddenly, he could be seen carrying the kendama with him everywhere, and every Christmas when Grandpa Schantz would ask his grandchildren to perform (with the generous gift of monetary compensation!), Wyatt could be seen steadily honing his craft from one year to the next. As he grew from boy to man, Wyatt became calm and collected, a product of his training and dedication.

Eventually, Wyatt’s genuine love for kendama led him to being sponsored by Kendama USA, an organization founded in 2006 to promote kendama throughout the country. Competing at events while also creating videos for YouTube, Wyatt would eventually earn the chance to compete at the Kendama. He did not consider himself the favorite, and saw his friend and teammate, Nic Stodd, as far better than himself. In his own words, Wyatt would have been satisfied with 5th place, because it would mean an opportunity to return next year, but more importantly it would mean finally earning the respect of his friends and family. As it turns out, Wyatt would accomplish much more.

Japanese pop culture was the catalyst for Wyatt to bring out his full potential, but the skill and work had to be there in the first place. From a quirky youth to a devoted practitioner, Wyatt’s journey to Japan was as much internal as it was external, the fruits of his labor and love. Now an inspiration himself for eager aspiring kendama-ists, he now has a new challenge to face: the pride and burden of being at the top.

-Carl

Kendama USA will be at Waku Waku +NYC! Whether you’re entirely new to kendama or are already practicing, stop by and learn from the best!

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