Living in Japan
Written by Takahashi Hidemine Photos by Akagi Koichi
He is a globally known mathematician, and a street performer, too. One moment he is working on a difficult math problem involving number combinations, but a moment later he calmly gets out his juggling pins and tosses them in the air. What is going on here?
Peter Frankl is so unusual you cannot pigeonhole him, except to say he is one of the most famous non-Japanese people living in Japan today.
“Mathematics is a lonely subject—you sit by yourself puzzling things out, working at something few people can understand. Juggling is the opposite—it draws a crowd and everyone has fun. These two things could hardly be more different from each other, but through them I’ve found a balance in my life,” he says in fluent Japanese.
Frankl was born in Kaposvár, Hungary. His parents were sent to a Nazi concentration camp during the war because of their Jewish heritage and lost everything they had, even family members. From his bitter experience his father often told his son, “The only things you can be sure of having are the knowledge in your head and the feelings in your heart.”
Mathematics fit in with this piece of advice—all he needed was paper and a pencil. Spurred on by his father, Frankl was multiplying two-digit numbers by the time he was four, and catching the attention of the entire town where he lived. In elementary school, he won first place in a national arithmetic competition. Later, while a senior high school student, he participated in the International Mathematical Olympiad and won a gold medal. He was soon recommended for admittance to the science faculty at a national university in Hungary, and he enrolled without any other formalities.
With all that studying he needed some diversion, so he started practicing juggling. He improved rapidly and, after graduating from university, enrolled in the national circus school. There he learned tightrope walking and clown techniques, and this brought him an official license from the Hungarian government to perform on the street.
Mathematics and street performance—with a full background in these two fields, Frankl set out to wander the world. “My travels were a search for freedom.”
By the time he landed in Japan in 1982, he was 29. “Up until then, in just about every country I visited I was made to feel somewhat of an outsider, because I’m Jewish. But as soon as I arrived in Japan I saw that things are different here—people welcomed me warmly, perhaps out of curiosity. The Japanese are considerate of others—they look out for you. It was like I had finally come home.”
Frankl has spent about 20 years in Japan so far. During that time he has helped make it possible for senior high school students to represent Japan at International Mathematical Olympiads, produced a range of mathematics teaching materials for all ages, and got many Japanese interested in the mysteries of math.
He has traveled to more than 80 countries, and draws from those experiences when giving lectures on how to interact with other cultures. His audience is sure to see him juggle, too—he does that to reach out to people at another level, where everyone can have a good time.
In May 2008, he teamed up with the Japan Culture Volunteers Program sponsored by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (The program sends volunteers from Japan to four central and southeastern European countries, including Hungary, to introduce the Japanese language and culture). At program events he spoke about his own experiences, keeping things simple so his listeners could relate to what he had to say. He says he wanted to stress the worthwhile aims of the program.
“Japan is admired for its economic might, but what I admire most is the people. Animé and manga are known throughout the world, and I believe their quality is so good because the Japanese people who produce them are, like most Japanese, serious and sincere—they want to get things right. That’s the kind of thing I say when I talk to people from other countries about Japan.”
Frankl says he combines math and juggling skills much like the samurai in old Japan combined the way of the warrior with studies of classical literature. People need to study, and they need to have fun, too. Listening to him, one sees Japan and its culture from a different perspective, a perspective that is new and valuable for people from other countries, and for Japanese people as well.