The Streets Are Alive

text and photos by Joel Breckenridge


A man is lying on the pavement surrounded by a circle of people. He is shaved bald, wearing only a rag wrapped around his loins and his lithe body is smeared with white paint. It' a cool autumn night, yet his body is drenched in sweat, vapors rising off him. "Antonio!" he cries out. "My heart is stopping." A young man standing near hesitates, then kneels down and starts a heart massage. He gives a few light pumps, then stands up again. "Antonio... I can't breathe!" Again the young man hesitates. "Antonio, hurry up!" Finally yielding to forces beyond his control, the young man kneels down, gently bringing his mouth down and begins resuscitation. Slowly, the naked man puts his arms around his rescuer and they lay on the pavement, entwined and surrounded by a crowd of families and tittering young folks on dates. I watch the scene with another street performer, who turns and says, "It's a great act, but I'd hate to be the guy picked from the audience to be Antonio." I know what he's talking about, brother. These street performers can get a Japanese audience to do just about anything.

Japan map

Shizuoka City has problems with its location - Mt. Fuji is an hour east, a decent beach is an hour west - and, outside of green tea and clean air, doesn't seem to have much going for it. Which makes the Daidogei World Cup Street Performance Competition all the more unusual. It just isn't very Shizuoka-like. But for four days each November, an amazing transformation takes place: A bizarre army of jugglers, magicians, pantomimes, musicians, conceptual artists and clowns descend from all over the world and conservative, dowdy, dull Shizuokans call in sick, get drunk in public, throw money around, talk back to the performers and sometimes even perform themselves.

By any measure, the Daidogei is a huge event. Last year, there were 54 acts performing in 30 minute intervals at 25 locations. Over 1.5 million people attended (the population of Shizuoka is only 500,000). "It was never supposed to happen this way," executive committee chairman Sugiyama Mikio despaired over a late night whiskey. "Nobody knows why it succeeded." And a real success it is among the countless flop expositions and downtown development projects gone bust that litter this country.

The collision of unexpected success, big show ambition and small town mentality isn't always easy on the performers. As one foreigner fumed at me while packing up his fire sticks and unicycle after his day with the judges, "This isn't a contest. It's a crap shoot." But that isn't really the fault of the "judges" - a mishmash of regular Shizuoka citizens, including a grandma, a housewife and a thirteen year-old school kid. Cute, but not very professional. Just how are they supposed to judge a street performance, anyway?

Magic Moments
showDoing four shows a day four days in a row isn't easy either. "I'm so tired. I just want to go home," said Krystyna, a Polish cowgirl by way of Holland and Orlando, Florida. She had trouble twirling her ropes on the cobble streets instead of the shiny Disneyworld stage she's used to. She smiled and twirled her guns around while the audience stood silent. Then she got out a huge whip. "I want you to yell yeehaw!" she yelled at the Japanese audience. Crack! "I can't hear you!" Crack! A few people mumbled. She cracked it good and hard a few centimeters from peoples' heads until, by gosh, they yelled "Yeehaw!," complete with Polish accent.

"I've been to street festivals all over the world and this is by far the best," said David Cassel from Australia, who does a superman stint where audience members lift him up and "fly" him around on their hands. He does this without speaking a word of Japanese. "The money is great, too, although I really had to work on the sponsors to pay for my manager's ticket." His manager (uh, wife) agreed. "It has been a great festival. I just wish it wasn't a competition."

Lots of performers naturally think there shouldn't be any competition at all. Yet if there wasn't any prize money, the greed principle wouldn't push everybody for that $20,000 jackpot. Of course, it's more than that. For many, if not all the performers, what it comes down to isn't competition or money. It's that indescribable, intangible magic moment when performer and audience open to each other and something incredible happens. One person rises above indifference, fear, even pride, to give a gift of simple joy and the audience rises to follow the performer to a place in their minds where they have never been before.

"I get so high from this festival, a heightened sense of awareness. I'm able to see things I never noticed and feel like Superman," said David Ramsay, a magician from New York now living in Yokohama. "Actually my son is my toughest audience," he confessed later. "He says ‘Daddy do some real magic,' and I do a trick but he sees right through it. ‘No Daddy, some REAL magic.'" David is a very rare performer, a guy who started with nothing - not even a word of Japanese - nine years ago and now has his own production company, a professional so dedicated that I've seen him do his grand finale with a pulled neck muscle, shot full of pain killers, yet all smiles as he rides a tall unicycle while juggling knives and twirling a toy airplane tied to his helmet releasing a cascade of bubbles to wild applause. The show must go on.

Tears of Laughter
showMy own joy has been watching the level of the Japanese performers rise with each festival. They just keep getting better and better. When the festival started, Yuki Taro with his pantomime "Living Museum of Art," complete with dead-on poses of the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, was the only native performer whose talent was undeniable. He won the World Cup in 1992. Now there are a dozen young restless performers with talent to burn, like Thank You Tetsuka, whom you might have caught in front of Shinjuku Isetan on a Sunday afternoon. He has his own "light show" (10 watt, 60 watt, spot light, lighthouse and so forth) and races a bullet to save a kewpie doll. Right. And there is the Chaplinesque pantomime duo, Pantomanga, who made my neighbor actually cry with joy. "Thank you for bringing me! Oh, you must introduce me," she gushed. I did and she shook their hands, thanking them in English. They were so good she thought they must be foreigners.

Later that evening I was drinking with Salvador Kamiyama of Pantomanga and another performer, Akira Tsuruoka. Salvador had just had a fight with his stage partner and seemed a little down, so I told him his act moved my neighbor to tears. "Really? Are you serious? Are we that good?" I started to tell him how good they really were. That in a mere 20 minutes, they manage to create a world and pull everybody inside. In my enthusiasm, I swept my drink right into Akira's lap. I had seen Akira's act earlier that day and wanted to ask him what his parents thought of him graduating from Waseda University (kind of like Yale here) just so he could dance with a banana on the streets of Shinjuku. After dumping my Moscow Mule on his legs, I didn't have the heart to.

We walked back to the hotel in the early hours, a big full harvest moon overhead. I pointed to it and put my hand on Salvador's shoulder. "Look Salvador! It's going to be a good day for you tomorrow." And it was. Pantomanga won the competition. During the prize ceremony Akira stood alone in the stage wings dressed in his Waseda blazer, clutching the scaffold and trying not to cry, but crying anyway for his friends' good fortune.

Facts and Figures
The Daidogei World Cup in Shizuoka will be held November 3 through 7. Performances run 11am-4pm every day with impromptu night acts as well. There are too many performers and locations to list here. Ask for a pamphlet (Japanese or English) at the Daidogei Information booth in Shizuoka station during the festival or contact the Event Planning Bureau, Shizuoka City Hall at 054-254-2180. The festival is free, but please show your appreciation by dropping money into the street performers' hats. It is best to come to Shizuoka by Shinkansen (one hour from Tokyo). For more information see or email For hotel information, call the Shizuoka Tourist Information Center: 054-252-4247 or visit (in Japanese only).

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The Daidogei World Cup Street Performance Competition
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