As a skill toy wholesaler and retailer, I’ve been involved in kendama for years. About 15 years ago my cousin, who had been living in Japan, came back for a visit. He brought me a gift. Knowing I was a yo-yo and skill toy enthusiast, he brought me this odd wooden toy that I had no idea how to use. It was a kendama. I played with it a little, got nowhere, and relegated it to my skill toy drawer along with my auto return yo-yo and juggling bean bags in the shape of cows.
A few years later, I was at a Juggling convention in Rochester when someone came up to me and showed me a kendama. I regret I don’t recall who it was, but his enthusiasm was contagious. He was nuts for kendama. He was blown away by the fact that I knew what it was and even had one (although I hadn’t touched it in years). When I got home I dug out the old kendama and started playing with it with a newfound interest. It was fun. It was challenging yet doable. It had endless possibilities. By this time youtube was a common place to check stuff out, so I thought I’d look into kendama. Sure enough, I found a few videos by Matt “Sweets” Jorgenson, the man I consider to be the father of the American Kendama Craze. After checking out some of the stuff he was doing with kendama, I was hooked. A few months later while on vacation in the Bahamas, I decided to launch a kendama company. Hence the origin of Bahama Kendama.
Kendama popularity started to grow in 2012, 2013 were great years for kendama. We sold tons of kendama, both wholesale to stores as well as direct online. We came out with new design styles, hydro printing, glow in the dark, hand painted, and the list goes on. We started making all different sizes, small, medium and large, and then extra small and extra large, then extra extra small, and extra extra large (we called that one Kenzilla), and then tried new kinds of materials and different types of kendama, Hardwoods, Acrylic, even Aluminum, and five cup kendama, six whole kendama, and some so wacky they never made it past proto-types. Not to suggest these were all our own ideas, there were probably about ten companies all doing the same kind of stuff, we “borrowed” their ideas, and they “borrowed” ours. But we were all enjoying a booming kendama business. In 2014 it peaked. Holiday season is huge for online retailers, and in 2014 we had one of our best years ever with almost half of our online stores’ sales being kendama.
Then 2015 came around, and kendama sales started to slip. When I say slip, I mean they fell off a cliff. The stores that just few months earlier couldn’t get enough kendama stopped re-ordering, our store sales died, and the boxes of kendama we had in the warehouse started gathering dust. Since we sold all major brands of kendama in our brick and mortar store as well as out online retail store (yoyosam.com), we knew it wasn’t just the Bahama Kendama brand, it was dead across the board. 2015 ended with kendama sales down two thirds over the previous year. 2016 was even worse.
In my years as a skill toy seller, I’d never seen a product get so hot and then die so quick. Popular kendamas that were selling on Amazon for $20 in 2014 were now down to $8 bucks, and less, as desperate retailers were trying to move product. I think it is important to note that I kept watching the kendama community during this time. And it was not dead, there were still committed kendama players putting on events and posting videos. But it wasn’t growing, and they weren’t buying new kendamas. Some smaller kendama companies closed up shop, some of the larger companies dropped their kendama lines. It looked like the end of the American kendama craze. And maybe it is.
But i wanted to end this commentary on what I think is an interesting note. Kendama sales are up about 13% over 2016 so far this year. Maybe this is just a death throe. But maybe kendama is just starting to wake up from a very deep sleep. Fingers crossed.