Kenta Koga ’14 rushed Sigma Phi Epsilon so that he would have a place to store his doves. Luckily for the Berkeley College freshman from Fukuoka, Japan, he’s now secured that dependable home for the set of white birds he hopes to soon purchase from a magician in New York City.
I first met Koga while eating cheese. I knew instantly that he possessed something special when a simple flick of his fingers was capable of drawing my attention away from Whole Foods Gruyère and Camembert, a feat not easily achieved. He’d slipped off a thick metal ring, and, in a deft series of motions, let it disappear, reappear, spin (perhaps even apparate — who knows for sure?) between his hands. I was mesmerized. Several requests and a few weeks later, on October 1, I found myself sitting in the Berkeley Master’s House for Koga’s first show at Yale, a carefully planned production titled PB & J.
Koga has been practicing magic for over seven years. What started as a hobby has become a professional job, landing the young magician performances in front of some of Japan’s top businessmen, actors, and celebrities. Since arriving at Yale, Koga has begun to establish himself as a notable member of the freshman class. PB & J had a waiting list of over a hundred students. Those, like myself, lucky enough to secure a seat were instructed on their online invitation: “No T-shirts and shorts. Don’t be too formal but not too casual. Just be classy.”
As an eleven-year-old, Koga had no entrepreneurial ambitions — he just wanted attention from girls. “The first thing that came up to me in my head was: magic.” Koga’s sudden interest serendipitously aligned with an episode in Japan’s periodic magic infatuation. (Once every decade, Koga explained, Japanese TV broadcasters provoke a sudden nationwide magic craze and then phase it out, only to revive its popularity later.) Koga pored over television schedules hoping to tape every single magic program broadcast on TV. He then replayed the VHS tapes in slow motion over and over with painstaking intensity.
A rather precocious pre-teen, Koga’s ambition only grew. By junior high, he was spending every evening from six to 10 p.m. in a local magic shop, practicing tricks and getting to know the professional magicians who dropped by. He interned with one such magician, Jonas Jost, learning the complexities behind building allusions and drawing in audiences.
The majority of Koga’s debuting jobs in Japan were at kids’ birthday parties. Later, he started faking his age to land better gigs. At 15, he gave his first individual performance at the All-Asian Street Performer’s Festival of 2006. The festival’s youngest performer, Koga left the two-day event with a top hat brimming with $3,000 in donations to Doctors Without Borders and a commission to perform at a Christmas party at Fukuoka’s most famous hotel for the city’s most prominent CEOs.
“There were a lot of mistakes,” Koga said of his first performance. “I mean, I was very nervous, and I realized how cold, actually, people are when you’re showing magic tricks to complete strangers.” But after years of experience, Koga told me he no longer feels nervous. “Except maybe if I performed for Barack Obama,” he clarified.
I settled into my seat at the Berkeley show with a few complimentary cookies in hand and glanced around, recognizing Master Marvin Chun’s family and a number of other Vanderbilt freshmen. I spotted Koga and sent a short wave in his direction; he looked effortlessly put together in his polished glasses and sleek suit. Once the last stragglers had made their way in, my attention focused toward the flatscreen at the front of the room. I leaned forward to catch a full view of the pre-recorded video of Koga introducing himself and his magic, narrated in a measured and somewhat austere tone. As he opened a door on the video screen, the side door of the room swung inward and Koga, composed and in control, strode dramatically onto the stage. Glancing back over my shoulder, I recognized a tripod and several members of his production crew standing nearby, geared for action.
PB & J began with two audience volunteers (neither of them me, disappointingly) and lasted for about half an hour — a meticulously planned and practiced half an hour. Each volunteer chose blindly from a bag of socks; Koga told us that if they both chose the same sock, it was going to be a good show. If not, it wouldn’t go so well.
The first person held up a pink and green striped sock…the second, black with multicolored polka dots. I felt my neighbors on either side share an anxious breath, clearly as concerned as I was that the ominous opening would dishearten Koga. Just as Koga’s seemingly equal sense of disconcertment began to render us increasingly uneasy, he raised his hand.
“There is one thing left that might still indicate that this will be a good show,” he declared slowly, initiating a nervous half-sigh of relief. He bent over and untied his shoes, calmly easing them off his feet. I crouched up a few inches from my seat to see over the front rows. His left sock: pink and green. His right: black with polka dots. I eased back down and slowly joined in the applause as my mind attempted to decipher what had just passed.
For the signature trick of the evening, Koga brought his freshman counselor Victoria Perez ’11 to the front of the room. As he looked away, I watched her draw a soft slice of Wonderbread out of a stack and hand her selection to Koga, who placed it in a brown paper bag and returned it to her. After a short sleight-of-hand routine involving disappearing and reappearing jars of Jiffy and Smucker’s, I’d practically forgotten Perez was still there, tightly clenching shut the brown paper bag of bread. She looked a little startled when Koga asked her to open it but hesitantly reached in and pulled out her slice of bread. I watched her fingers slowly unfold it and lift it up alongside her incredulous face to the audience — it was spread with PB and J.
Winnie Huang ’14, one among many of Koga’s freshman peers to laud his showmanship at PB & J, admired the simplicity of his routine. There were no elaborate materials, but those used were used effectively to put on a good show.
This style is exactly how Koga expressed his intent. While following logical magic formulas, Koga prefers to base his tricks around everyday activities. The two basic trick formulas are relatively straightforward. For example, say I want to make a coin disappear. My first option is to present the illusion that it disappears (hide it in my hand, mouth, or pocket), whereas my second option is to actually move the object (to a table five feet away). Koga applies a strict logic in the unceasing process of developing new tricks.
“I always have to be thinking, no matter what,” said Koga, who practices magic for at least an hour every day. “I just wonder, for example, what happens if while you’re drinking beer, the can started floating?” Out of the hundreds of ideas continuously churning around in his head, only five or 10 turn out to be feasible, Koga said.
Though the performance of these tricks has grown natural to Koga by now, he is not yet habituated to the shift in audience. Back in Japan, Koga had the script for his shows planned to a T.
“I know all the answers to whatever happens on stage, in Japanese. And I have that in myself so firmly that when I’m on stage speaking English, it doesn’t work the way I would speak English in daily life. I have to translate it in my head. So it was very weird performing for the first time here,” Koga reflected.
Sitting next to Koga at the Fall Show, I clarified the meanings of a few words for him. I was reminded that English is his second language and that he largely taught himself with U.S. films and books, since the quality of English classes in his schools in Japan was poor. PB & J was his first show in front of a formal American audience, but I hadn’t picked up on any discomfort while watching. As an audience member at the comedy night, Koga was alert and observant. While I was there for a few laughs, he was there to get a better sense of the type of humor an American audience wants, supplementing his research of comedians on YouTube.
Koga has always been resourceful and hardworking. He attended Nada High School, the highest-ranked college-preparatory school in Japan. However, the quality of his education wasn’t necessarily what most stirred Koga to leave home and move to Kobe, where Nada is located.
“If I lived with my parents, I wouldn’t be able to grow as much as if I lived on my own, because they protect you, and you aren’t able to discover and gain certain elements within yourself,” explained Koga, an only child. With his newfound independence at boarding school, Koga continued to receive his parents’ full support.
Koga ended up skipping classes a lot in high school to go into Tokyo to perform; in fact, if he had missed one more day, he would not have graduated. When he did eventually graduate in February 2010, he spent the next six months living in Tokyo. His parents let him live alone, on the condition that he pay his own rent — no small feat given that he was setting up in one of the world’s most expensive cities.
As an education consultant by day, Koga designed textbooks and tests for advanced English learners. Magician by night, he performed a two-hour show, on average, three to four times per week, anywhere in the evening between five and 11 p.m. His shows ranged from movie premiere kick-off parties to cocktails for politicians, with audiences of one to two hundred.
It was at one of these shows that Koga met Engin Yenidunya ’02, a Turkish graduate now working in Japan. Yenidunya persuaded Koga to come to Yale when Koga had, in fact, told everyone at his school he was going to Harvard — where only one Nada student had ever gone before. Koga, smiling at its mild absurdity, relayed the story behind his Harvard pursuit. He hadn’t really intended to apply there but had rather liked the ring of saying it. Before long, word spread and real expectation mounted. So Koga went home, Googled Harvard, looked through their admissions requirements, then promptly set to work studying for the SAT and TOEFL. Upon looking up “Top U.S. schools,” he also added Yale and Princeton to the list. After being convinced that “people at Harvard feel like since they go to Harvard they need to act like geniuses,” Koga decided to come here.
Now settled into Vanderbilt Hall on Old Campus, Koga has quickly established himself. “For the first few weeks of school I went to every single party happening on campus — literally every single one. I wasn’t sleeping a lot, I was just looking for people,” he said. “My ideal business structure is like Ocean’s Eleven: people with unique talents get together, have fun, make a lot of money, and — goodbye.” Koga has now recruited five other freshmen — Benjamin Boult, Florian Koenigsberger, Geoffrey Litt, John Stillman, and Seth Thompson — with photography, film, music, technology, and management skills, to serve as his production team.
They plan to expand his website, kentakoga.com, and have already begun planning for his second show at Yale. Koga intends to put on two per semester, each with a theme he hopes will arise spontaneously. “How are people at Yale feeling? I want to respond to them, such as cheer them up in winter,” Koga said.
Still, Koga didn’t come to Yale to become a professional magician; rather, he wants to become an architect. “Magic,” Koga said, “works best as a form of decoration. However, it also exists as a form of art.” Magic shows are not the most beautiful way of showcasing this art form. “Magic complements other things better than it stands by itself.”
He wants to design venues where magic will serve just such a purpose — an alternative, sophisticated form of decoration. “For example, when I build a hotel, I want to design the entire business and organize every single party that will be happening there,” he said. And this proposal extends beyond hotels; it can be applied to airports, fashion boutiques, shopping malls, and other similar establishments. As an architect, Koga said, he thinks he would best be able to bring into reality the enterprise he has so thoroughly designed in his mind.
Koga ambitiously plans to leave the world of professional magic with a bang: a one-year world tour accompanied by his production crew culminating at the 2014 Brazil World Cup.
However, there’s one problem with Koga’s otherwise adequate production team — it lacks some feminine touch. Since PB & J, I’ve let him know on multiple occasions that if he’s ever in need of an assistant, I’ll be here. I don’t have much experience with slinky dresses and white doves or saws and body boxes, but after spending time with Koga, I think I’d be in good hands. Koga knows what he’s doing, and he does it incredibly well.
An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that Koga rushed and is now a member of the fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon. Koga actually rushed and is now a member of the fraternity Sigma Phi Epsilon.