If you’ve never seen a kendama before, you might think it’s some sort of small wooden doll, or handheld weapon, or tool for assembling Ikea furniture. In fact, it’s a Japanese toy made of two parts — a cross-shaped handle (the “ken”) and ball with a hole in it (the “tama”) — connected by a string.
For centuries, kendama was rarely played outside its home country and you could hardly buy one in the United States. But in the past decade, its popularity has exploded around the globe. Within certain circles — largely young men, who film themselves “lacing bangers” (kendama-speak for landing difficult tricks) to share on social media — it’s become a craze, largely due to one Minneapolis-based company, Sweets Kendamas.
Matt Jorgenson, best known by his nickname, Sweets, is hardly ever without a kendama draped over his shoulders like a pelt. He considers himself a “walking billboard” for his company, which is among the toy’s dominant retailers worldwide.
The number of hours Sweets has logged grinding tricks is “too many to comprehend,” he says — at trade shows he’ll play 12 hours a day. He’s the only American who has earned the kendama equivalent of karate’s black belt, the 6 Dan.
“For me personally, as Sweets, it is my life, I am Sweets Kendamas, I embody it,” said the 32-year-old entrepreneur.
The reason something so analog has thrived in a digital world — and an adult has devoted his life to a toy — is that the playful contraption is not as simple as it seems, and offers powerful benefits to its devotees.
Kendama most closely resembles a cup-and-ball toy, but there’s really no comparison between the two. If cup-and-ball is checkers, kendama is chess, infinite in its complexity, addictive in its ceaseless challenge.
The handle has cups on three sides, used for catching the ball, and a spike on the fourth, for spearing it. Beginners learn to juggle or balance the ball on various parts of the handle.
Expert players get more creative. Bending their knees, they bounce up and down as they land trick after trick, the toy whirling in their hands like a tiny acrobat. They flip the handle, twirl the string, or hold the ball in their hand and catch the handle. Or balance the spike on the string like a tightrope, seeming to defy the laws of gravity and limits of human dexterity.
The obsession begins
Sweets discovered kendama in 2010 after watching a free-skiing movie that showed athletes playing the toy when they got off the slopes. (There’s a lot of crossover between kendama and trick-focused sports such as skateboarding and BMX biking.)
Sweets, who grew up in North Branch, Minn., had always been into activities that require good hand-eye coordination, such as drumming, snowboarding, rock climbing and juggling. He found it meditative, something to busy his hands while calming his mind.
“I have ADHD so I don’t just like sitting around doing nothing,” he said. (Sweets’ penchant for activity extends to his frequently changing hairstyle, which has been braided, bleached and dyed purple at various times.)
Almost immediately, he was hooked. Hoping he could get others hooked, too, he ordered 1,000 kendamas from China to resell.
When they arrived, their quality wasn’t what he’d hoped. “After the first three big cups, there was a pile of paint chips on the ground. And I was like, ‘Oh, no!’ ” Sweets recalled.
Still, they sold out quickly. Not trusting the quality of the paint, he ordered the next batch of kendamas in natural wood and painted them in a backyard shed. Sweets Kendamas’ focus on paint eventually led the company to develop its proprietary “sticky” clear coatings, which give the ball a slight tackiness, like Post-it note adhesive, to increase friction and help land tricks.
Today, Sweets has two business partners, Gabe Klemm, who serves as CEO, and Matt Paulson, who is responsible for the product’s eye-catching and graphic designs. The company has 13 employees and its operations fill a vast northeast Minneapolis warehouse (Sweets Kendamas are sold through its website or via toy retailers, including Target, for $15-$60).
Prominently displayed in a trophy case is the company’s kendama collection, including rare models worth several thousand dollars, kendamas that look like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and ice cream cones.
For pros and beginners
As Sweets’ business grew, so did his skills as a player. Last year, on one of his many trips to Japan, he passed the Japan Kendama Association’s 6 Dan test. He’s one of only two players outside Japan to have earned this title and one of the rare westerners to have a trick he invented, the Sweets Special, recognized by the association.
Early on, Sweets Kendamas began sponsoring expert players and helping them design pro models that reflect the player’s aesthetics and style of play. The company’s pros compete around the world, including at the North American Kendama Open, the largest annual event outside of Japan, which the company has hosted in Minnesota (and virtually on Twitch this year) since 2013.
In his youth, Sweets had aspired to be a professional snowboarder or Rollerblader; kendama was a way to achieve that elite status without risking life or limb (something that’s become more important now that he’s married and has a 2-year-old daughter).
He also enjoyed the sense of camaraderie that developed among the players. His business’ ability to cultivate a community set it apart from the large toy companies getting into the market, such as yo-yo maker Duncan.
“As a 21-year-old man, I was obsessed with it,” Sweets said. “And I saw other 21-year-olds like me doing that, and I was like, ‘This isn’t just a toy that I want to sell. This is a game that I want to turn into a lifestyle and a culture.’ ”
While Sweets Kendamas is respected by the pros, the company is also focused on bringing beginners into the fold. Every week, Sweets posts a new video online demonstrating a trick, creating a large tutorial archive on their YouTube channel, which has 100,000 subscribers.
The company has partnered with the local nonprofit Kendama Institute to develop curriculum and promote the game’s many benefits — it can develop patience and grit, stimulate the brain, exercise the body, lure people from screens and forge friendships.
Sweets says he’s heard from a surprising number of new players who say kendama helped them break away from addiction or unhealthy relationships and find a new focus and community.
“There are people who literally say, ‘This changed my life. I was in a bad place and kendama saved me,’ ” Sweets said. “That’s something I’m very proud of that I did not expect.”