Young performers hone their acrobatic techniques at what is known as Japan’s only circus school. (Video by Tsuin Cho)

MIDORI, Gunma Prefecture--A pandemic, a nuclear disaster, and a lack of profitability have not been strong enough forces to stop Japan’s only circus school from helping performers achieve their dreams.

The Sori international circus school is located deep in a mountain here in the city of Midori, located along Akagane (copper) road, which was once used to transport copper unearthed at the nearby Ashio Mine during the Edo Period (1603-1867).

It was founded 20 years ago by a stage director after he became enchanted watching an acrobatic performance, and now it is helping a former Japan Airlines Co. mechanic, a student, a model and other young people pursue careers in bringing smiles to people’s faces.

Naoki Yufu, 34, a resident of Oita and an ex-JAL mechanic, said the school “has made me what I am today.”

While working at Narita Airport, Yufu was inspired by a show put on by a circus company visiting from overseas during a holiday. He trained at Sori and learned from scratch how to maneuver an iron Cyr wheel, which is less than 2 meters in diameter, as if he was part of the tool.

“The vibrations that spectators create when they clap are comforting,” said Yufu, explaining the appeal of performing in circus shows.

Yufu has been traveling in France and Turkey, performing as a member of a Mongolian circus troupe.

But the novel coronavirus crisis forced him to return to Japan, and he is now sharpening up his skills at his alma mater.

Some 50 individuals have graduated over the past 20 years. Many are now street performers or have moved on to bigger tents, displaying their techniques in circus troupes and at theme parks in and outside of Japan.

This year, six students are studying there.

Chiharu Yokoyama, 17, who is from Nagoya, decided to enroll after becoming captivated with a performance by a graduate from the school. She went to the Daidogei World Cup street performance event in Shizuoka to watch an acrobat who amused the audience while doing back handsprings and juggling.

“The sense of unity at the venue was fascinating,” Yokoyama said. “This made me think that I want to likewise sharpen my skills.”

Normally a four-year program, the school also accepts a wide variety of students who hope to attend for shorter periods. The only requirement for admission is that they cook their own meals, as they must live in private housing about a 40-minute drive from a nearby supermarket.

The annual schooling fee is 300,000 yen ($2,700). The students improve their physical abilities under the supervision of a professional gymnast in the morning and hone their skills on their own in the afternoon.

The academy uses a former elementary school building for its training facility. The gymnasium serves as a base for practice, equipped with flying rings and a trapeze.


The school was founded in 2001, but staying in operation has always been a difficult balancing act.

“I would like to protect circus traditions,” said Keiichi Nishida, 77, head of the nonprofit organization operating the education facility and former president of the academy.

Around 45 years ago, Nishida was writing and directing underground plays. Nishida dropped by a circus tent with the aim of “getting inspiration for our plays.”

There, he became overwhelmed by “the sincere beauty of techniques” of the performers on a flying trapeze and tall unicycle.

“The mummy hunter became a mummy (as the old Japanese saying goes),” Nishida said, recalling how he ended up becoming that which he sought to learn from.

He frequently went to see performances and eventually started participating in circus operations. But the industry was on the decline. People were turning to other forms of amusement. Cinemas and TVs were becoming increasingly common.

So, Nishida published a quarterly magazine for about a decade to win over more fans.

In the process, Nishida came up with the idea of one day creating “a specialized school.”

His dream started to come true when he met Wataru Sekiguchi, now 68, who was an official of what is now called Midori city.

They got to know each other at a circus-themed event organized by the municipality. Sekiguchi came around on Nishida’s plan and worked hard at arranging shows in local regions.

A world champion gymnast was invited from Ukraine to become the school’s first teacher, but the academy was financially strained.

Following the accident at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, officials determined part of the grounds to be a highly radioactive zone, so the academy had to voluntarily close for a time. When virtually no students showed up, it could not continue operating as usual.

But despite all those difficulties, it did not deter Nishida from keeping the school going. He said he takes great pleasure from seeing his students leave the training facility.

“I want to continue with the business, as long as young people who hope to perform turn up,” said Nishida. “This produces no profit, but it is my duty. Circus shows give people hope. Circus shows make people happier. I believe in the power of the circus.”


Graduates of the school and the industry face tough times, but not because of the normal struggles that circuses must grapple with.

The ongoing heath crisis has dealt a harsh blow to circus troupes around the world. Cirque du Soleil, an overseas company popular in Japan, filed for bankruptcy in June last year.

Major circus groups in Japan have also been forced to suspend their shows for prolonged periods.

Pop Circus, based in Osaka, has refrained from performing in front of spectators to ensure their safety since February last year. Most of its 70 members from Europe, the United States and China have returned to their homelands, tentatively.

“Every day, we are asking ourselves why we perform,” said Satoru Kubota, president of Pop Circus.

But even still, they are determined that the show must go on.

By soliciting support through a crowdfunding drive to “keep the light of the circus burning,” Kubota managed to raise a total of 10 million yen. After that, he made up his mind to “resume operations for certain, so that poignant, live performances will be shown off.”

The long-established Kinoshita Circus in Okayama started up shows in Osaka Prefecture in June, while reducing its audience capacity by about 20 to 50 percent. It also raised 30 million yen through a crowdfunding campaign.

“We will put on a spectacle someday with the venue filled to capacity,” said Hideki Kinoshita, a director at Kinoshita Circus.

Based in Osaka, the Happy Dream Circus set up shop in a shipping container home in spring last year in Iizuka, Fukuoka Prefecture, thinking it would be temporary. But it found itself stuck there for 10 months as the virus spread nationwide.

Happy Dream Circus succeeded in resuming its performances in Miyazaki by improving ventilation and disinfection measures.

Tsuneto Suzuki, secretary-general of Happy Dream Circus, said he currently delivers this message on stage when he greets the audience: “We have come here to give you energy and smiles.”