By the time he was 24, Yusuke Funaki was pretty sure he had the rest of his life mapped out. “My dream was to be a good scientist and good engineer,” he says. He studied for two years at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), doing research on the robotic arms used in the International Space Station, and graduated from the Tokyo Institute of Technology in 2005 with a Masters in Engineering. He was offered a job at the Tokyo-based Bridgestone Corporation, in their research and development department, and within just a few years he’d already applied for his first international patent, for inventing a non-pneumatic tire. The Okayama, Japan-born Funaki had a promising and fulfilling career, one that he couldn’t imagine giving up.
But then he went to the circus, and everything changed.
It was a 2004 touring production of Quidam, one of many shows produced by the world-famous Cirque du Soleil. “At first I was impressed,” Funaki remembers. “But then I became moved, and I cried.” Funaki was especially affected by a solo rope-skipping performance by Norihisa Taguchi, and he decided almost immediately that this was something he wanted to learn. “Just as a hobby,” he says. “I didn’t have any ambition to perform. I just wanted to see if I could do it, if I could think like they think.”
He began slowly, first teaching himself rope-skipping tricks in the park, then practicing with a rope-skipping championship team at a local gymnasium. After five years of practice, with nobody and nothing to guide him but his own fascination with the art form, he applied for a street performers license in 2008, and spent his weekends skipping rope for Tokyo tourists and pedestrians. After years of moonlighting between his two passions, he finally made a difficult decision; he officially resigned from Bridgestone in December, 2009. By April of the next year, he was in Montreal, Canada, training at the international headquarters of Cirque du Soleil. By that summer, he was sent to Orlando, Florida to join the cast of La Nouba, where he continues to live and perform to this day.
Funaki, now 32, hasn’t completely abandoned his roots in aerospace engineering. Amongst his Cirque du Soleil peers, he’s sometimes referred to by the nickname “NASA,” a constant reminder of what might have been. Funaki says that he’s sometimes nostalgic for his old life—”I have complex feelings,” he admits—but for him, making the transition from engineering to circus performing never felt like an especially huge career change. One skill set complimented the other, he says.
“When I was in Japan, there was no skipping rope street performer except for me,” he says. “So I had to create everything. I created my own art of skipping. It was the same with engineering. We invent or create something that didn’t exist before.” An engineer, like a rope-skipping acrobat, conjures a mental picture of what he wants to achieve, and then tries to recreate it in reality. “It’s the same mental process,” he says. “There’s really no difference.”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on the Bloomberg BusinessWeek website.)