The Mugen kendama has attained legendary status among kendama players. Here’s a little background on this kendama model.
The Mugen kendama was manufactured by a small company in Hatsukaichi, a small town in a sparsely populated wooded valley in Hiroshima Prefecture in southern Japan, about 20 miles from Hiroshima City. Hiroshima has a claim on originating the three-cup kendama design a century ago, so it was only fitting that a company from Hiroshima be one of the official JKA approved kendama makers.
Iwata Mokko was founded in 1992 by the father, Kiyoshi Iwata. Mokko means “woodworks,” so the company name can be translated as Iwata Woodworks. Iwata Mokko manufactured various products made from wood, including traditional Japanese calligraphy brushes, when they decided to start making kendamas. In 2005 the Japan Kendama Association certified Iwata Mokko as a maker of official JKA competition kendamas, one of three at the time. This was a big deal in Hatsukaichi, which created a kendama mascot character and put kendamas on display in town facilities.
The son, Kazuma Iwata, was in charge of making the kendamas. The kendamas were finely crafted, and Iwata Mokko was aggressive in pushing the JKA to approve new kendama colors. In all, Iwata Mokko made kendamas in seven standard colors. The company dubbed the kendamas with the brand “Mugen,” also used for their brushes. Mugen has various meanings in Japanese, including infinity and fantasy, but the particular kanji characters used by Iwata Mokko for their brand are not used in any standard word, and can be roughly translated as “source of dreams.”
The thing that really helped to set Iwata Mokko’s kendamas apart was that the company pushed the JKA to allow them to produce a couple of nonstandard colors, sold for a higher price, a metallic gold and a translucent burgundy color they dubbed “wine.” Of course, the kendamas were well made from good materials, but it was the cool factor of the gold kendama and the wine kendama that really made them sought after.
Iwata Mokko also got approval for a red and a blue kendama with gold sparkles embedded in the paint, called the Mugen Kotobuki model. These were not allowed to carry the JKA seal, however.
Kazuma Iwata started to appear with kendama entertainer Yusuke Ito at some of his performances, and Ito adopted the Mugen as his preferred kendama. Iwata promoted the Mugens in person in retail stores that carried them, in the manner of an author doing a book tour. And a local station of Japan’s public broadcasting company, NHK, produced a documentary about the manufacturing of the Mugen. The reputation of the Mugens was growing.
The end of the gold kendama and wine kendama
But Iwata Mokko pulled out of the market in April 2008. There have been various explanations for this:
- The JKA told me in a phone call that it was simply a problem with procuring materials to make the kendamas, and that they expected production to resume. This sounded like BS to me. They also told me not to talk to Iwata Mokko, which struck me as extremely out of line (I promptly called Iwata Mokko).
- I spoke to Kazuma Iwata, but for various reasons decided not to directly press him on the issue. However, I got the distinct impression that the JKA was difficult to deal with.
- Both Kazuma and Kiyoshi implied that brushes were more profitable than kendamas, and in fact around the time of the demise of the Mugen the nationwide Japanese craft chain Tokyu Hands picked up their high-priced Mugen brush line, necessitating an increase in production of brushes.
- Various parties have said that the process used for painting the gold kendamas in particular had quality control problems, requiring a relatively high percentage of each production run of gold balls to be discarded, yet the price was stuck at ¥1,200.
Before dumping the Mugen, Iwata Mokko twice applied for their own patent on a new kendama design, but both times were unsuccessful. They didn’t seem to want to tussle with the JKA over patent claims, even though the JKA claims seem bogus, and the basic competition kendama design can be clearly seen in JKA publications and videos dating back to the 1970s and 1980s (patents last for only 15 years in Japan). In fact, there are precise clones of the JKA competition kendama design made and sold without the JKA seal in Japan today that the JKA has not seen fit to pursue legal action against (for superstitious reasons, I won’t name them).
The Mugen kendama legend
The Mugen kendamas were good, but were they really that good? I think that their current status has much to do with their unattainability, not to mention their relative poor distribution even when they were being made. When something becomes difficult to obtain, its reputation naturally starts to grow beyond all reason. If you want a new deadstock Mugen now, you need to pay $60 and up on Yahoo! Auctions. I’d guess that most kendama players would have a hard time saying that the Mugen kendama is better than a Yamagata Koubou Oozora if put to a side-by-side comparison, with the exception of the paint finish of the two special colors.