Youna: The Western Japanese Juggler

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The story of the juggler Youna is an amazing and mysterious one. Youna was born in Japan to Episcopal missionary parents from New England in the USA. His parents died when he was very young and he was apparently taken in by a Japanese family that performed daikagura, the traditional Japanese form of juggling. Youna began practicing daikagura at the age of 6 and first performed the art at the age of 8. He grew up speaking Japanese rather than English and didn’t learn the language of his parents until much later. Youna performed all over the world, including tours of Asia, Africa, Europe, and the South Seas. Once he came to the USA, however, he decided to stay and made New York City his permanent home. He originally came to the United States as part of the Imperial Japanese Tiger Troupe of Jugglers that performed at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall in New York City. He performed with B.F. Keith’s Vaudeville circuit before being cast in the 1911 Broadway production of the play Kismet. He juggled in a bazaar scene early in the play and then performed an entire act in front of the curtain between the second and third acts. The audience response to his act was often cited by critics as one of the highlights of the production. Youna remained with the cast of Kismet for five years.

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Following his run in Kismet, Youna performed many one time event shows in New York City, toured internationally from time to time, and eventually settled into performing on the Lyceum and Chautauqua circuits, which he had sometimes worked in his early days in the United States. He didn’t speak at all during his performances, which could be quite lengthy. In fact, juggler George DeMott wrote that Youna may have been the second juggler, following Joe Rosani, to present a full length juggling show rather than just being a part of a larger cast or presenting other skills.

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Youna’s act consisted of many of the routines still associated with daikagura. These included the ball and two sticks (Hitotsumari-no-kyoku), the bottomless basket (Hanakagomori), the “Animated Tea Chest,” parasol spinning, and ball and mouth stick. He also included plate spinning and devil stick, two props more often associated with China rather than Japan. Youna also performed with fans and swords.

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Youna was assisted by his wife, “Madame Youna.” In all of his work, correspondences, and contracts, he was always referred to as Youna; never by any other name. During his run in Kismet, a New York City newspaper reporter interviewed Youna in his dressing room and asked the juggler for his real name. He replied “Youna” with a pleasant smile and a very courteous Japanese-like bow. However, fellow juggling historian Alan Howard had his birth name on file. Youna was born Jesse C. Goodhue.

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In addition to his work with the Imperial Japanese Tiger Troupe, the cast of Kismet, and as a solo performer, Youna sometimes paired himself with another performer to produce unique two man shows. He did this in 1908 with accordionist Joseph Baldi and in 1924 with Native American illusionist Shungopavi. Below are three photos from his early shows with Joselp Baldi in 1908.

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A review of Youna’s act from 1906 states the following: “Youna, the Juggler, appeared two nights during the assembly of 1906, and it was the verdict of everybody that in all the eighteen years during which the Chautauqua has existed, nothing as clever and fascinating has appeared on the platform. It was a marvelous performance, combining skill and grace. Youna drew two wonderful audiences.”

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Despite all that I’ve discovered about this almost unknown juggler, there is still quite a bit we don’t know about Youna. The only mention of him in any juggling history book or juggling magazine is a single passing reference to him in Francisco Alvarez’s Juggling – It’s History And Greatest Performers. I have no idea what happened to him after the early 1930s. Perhaps new info will emerge as more resources are put online, but at least this article should bring him out of obscurity.

David Cain is a professional juggler, juggling historian, and the owner of the world's only juggling museum, the Museum of Juggling History. He is a Guinness world record holder and 15 time IJA gold medalist. In addition to his juggling pursuits, David is a successful composer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and singer as well as the author of sixteen books. He and his children live in Middletown, OH (USA).

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