The Secret Life of Yo-Yos

The modern version of the toy is practically unrecognizable, an Object Lesson.

The man behind me in the queue was trying to be helpful: “It’s true, though, right? They are used as weapons in Asia. I go there a lot and I’ve seen them do it—they’re lethal.” He made a sudden gesture, like Spiderman throwing a web.

I was torn between asking this stranger to unpack his astonishing assertion and trying to prevent the airport security guard from unpacking my luggage. I resolved the impasse by laughing nervously, which had precisely the wrong effect. The security guard studied me suspiciously. “You’ll have to come with me, sir.”

Sadly, something like this had happened to me before. On my last trip to Tokyo I’d visited a legendary little store in Akihabara called Spingear, which is run by Takahiko “Taka” Hasegawa, the winner of multiple national and world championships. It’s probably the most comprehensive high street yo-yo shop in the world. I’d bought a clutch of Japanese yo-yos (I’ve decided that "clutch" is the appropriate collective noun), which I’d packed into a custom-made padded case. When this package went through the x-ray machine at Narita airport, all hell broke loose: If six evenly spaced metal cylinders encased in a locked aluminum container weren’t improvised explosives, they were probably chemical weapons of some kind. In the end, I had to unpack and demonstrate each of the yo-yos in turn, much to the amusement (and eventual applause) of the security team.

So I was somewhat accustomed to the idea that the material and shape of the modern, metal yo-yo could cause confusion; most people still think of yo-yos as cute plastic or wooden toys. They imagine children playing with them in front of a 1960s fireplace. In fact, it’s estimated that nearly every child in America played with a yo-yo between the 1940s and 1960s, probably one manufactured by Duncan—the company that famously sold 45 million yo-yos in 1962 in a country with only 40 million children, and then went abruptly bankrupt in 1965. Today’s yo-yos look rather different, but, after a demonstration, people grinned in amusement or asked if they could try. The simple charm of the yo-yo was usually enough to disarm any misunderstandings and, for many people, it triggers a warm sense of nostalgia for their own childhoods. However, this was the first time that I’d been confronted with the serious accusation that a yo-yo was tantamount to an offensive weapon.

The myth of the yo-yo as an ancient Filipino weapon persists despite the absence of sound historical evidence that it was ever used in this way. The term yo-yo (like the toy itself) was probably imported into the U.S. from the Philippines in the 1910s: One of its first appearances was in the pages of Scientific American, “Filipino Toys: How Our Young Island Wards Amuse Themselves” (July 1, 1916). The first yo-yos manufactured in the U.S. were made by Pedro Flores, a Filipino immigrant who eventually sold the trademark to the Duncan Yo-Yo Company. In the cultural turmoil of U.S. imperialism, the idea of the yo-yo as an exotic weapon caught on, and many of Duncan’s early demonstrators used this story in their sales pitches. In 1983, a “yo-yo thug,” played by William Derrick, even appeared in the James Bond blockbuster Octopussy, complete with a wholly improbable, impractical, and probably suicidal bladed version of a yo-yo.

“It’s just a yo-yo,” I said, trying to keep a rising sense of the situation’s absurdity out of my voice. I didn’t think a lecture about cultural credulity or invented traditions would help. “Look.” I looped the string around the middle finger of my right hand and threw the black, aerospace-grade aluminum return-top towards the ground. This “Turning Point Basilisk” is heavier than most, but it’s incredibly stable and its spin times are crazy—it’s a fantastic throw. When it reached the full extent of the string, it spun there, whirring with a faintly mechanical sound. I made a mental note to oil the center-trac bearing when I got home; it had been running loud for a couple of weeks, and I hadn’t brought the lubricant with me on this trip. Temporarily distracted by these maintenance considerations, I let the yo-yo spin at the bottom of the string and listened to it whine, feeling a little embarrassed about being a bad yo-yo owner.

Yo-yos line the shelves at the Spingear shop in Tokyo's Akihabara district. (Danny Choo/Flickr)

The security guard stared at the yo-yo and then looked up at me, clearly unimpressed. “Yo-yos come back. That ain’t no yo-yo.” He paused, apparently thinking. “And why’s it making that noise?”

I resisted challenging the coherence of the security guard’s position: Was he suspicious because yo-yos might be weapons or because the object might not be a yo-yo at all? Besides, he’d hit on an important question that had been worrying me for some time: Is it an essential feature of the yo-yo that it goes away and then comes back? Isn’t this why we say "yo" twice? Isn’t this why we use the verb "yo-yoing" to refer to repetitive and contradictory patterns of behavior? What would it say about the world if the yo-yo didn’t come back? Would it be a different object altogether: a yo?

In fact, the notion that a yo-yo should immediately return to the hand pre-dates the use of the term "yo-yo" in the West. Before Pedro Flores introduced the Filipino practice of looping the string (rather than tying it or otherwise fixing it) around the axel, the yo-yo had been known by a variety of different names: the bandalore in France, the quiz in England, the chucki (an Indian name) during an 18th-century popularity boom in Europe. Historians assume that the yo-yo was known as a yo-yo in Asian history, reaching back at least as far as 1000 B.C. in China. In Europe, archaeologists have found twin discs with fixed axels and images that seem to depict people playing with yo-yos as early as 500 B.C. in Greece. This ancient pedigree fuels the myth that the yo-yo is the second oldest toy in history.

Duncan's yo-yo tricks guide, 1962 (Tom Simpson/Flickr)

Whatever the history, looping the string over the axel enabled players to make the yo-yo "sleep" at full extension, which opened a new world of tricks and techniques to master, transforming the yo-yo from an object of curiosity that helped pass the time into a modern "skill toy." Flores also introduced the first yo-yo competitions, which then powered the yo-yo wave ridden by Duncan and other emerging companies. In the modern yo-yo era, the technological challenge has been to produce yo-yos that "sleep" for longer periods. Before Flores, yo-yos didn’t really sleep at all. Early Duncan yo-yos, with the string looped around the wooden axel, would sleep for a few seconds. By the 1970s and 1980s, manufacturers were experimenting with different weight distributions and material densities to increase spin times; the axels were changed from wood to brass. By 1991 the American Yo-Yo Association recorded the longest "sleep" time at 51 seconds. Ten years later, in 2001, after the introduction of the ball-bearing trans-axel yo-yo, the AYYA record was more than 13 minutes. Eleven years later, in 2012, the new world record was set at 30 minutes and 28 seconds, using a specially designed yo-yo from the Hong Kong firm C3yoyodesign. These technological transformations in the nature of the yo-yo have profoundly changed the way in which people relate to them.

“It’s an unresponsive yo-yo,” I explained. “It’s not supposed to come back straight away. It’s so you can do tricks and stuff. The sound is the bearing—it needs oiling.” I felt like this was inadequate, not just as a story for airport security but also as an ontological position. “Sorry.”

The security guard stared for a moment and then seemed to make a decision. He smiled suddenly and broadly. “Can you show me?” he said, glancing briefly from side to side as though he was being naughty. He was smiling with the eagerness of an excited child. I noticed he was carrying a gun.

“Err, sure,” I answered, whipping the string into a loop that tripled the amount wrapped around the axel, causing the silicone response-pads to bite and the sleeping yo-yo to snap back into my hand with a satisfying smack.

“Cool,” he said, grinning enthusiastically.

I realized that he’d never seen anyone use a modern yo-yo before, so even a basic "bind" like that opened a whole new world for him. Happy that the yo-yo’s objective charm seemed to have come to my rescue once again, I threw my little Basilisk into a strong "breakaway" to the side. It flew over my left index finger and then my whole right hand before dropping it into a "wrist mount." Then I popped it back out through the V, caught it into a "trapeze," flipped it round into a "side mount," and then jumped it into an "air bind" that brought it slamming back into my hand.

“No way!” he said, spacing out the words for extra emphasis and staring with something approaching awe on his face. He was a child who’d just added a toy to his Christmas list.

It’s easy to forget how much of an impression such a simple object can make on people. The yo-yo has been charming and enchanting people for centuries, even when it simply moved up and down a string as a predictable instance of rotational physics and gyroscopic stability. Anyone can pick up a fixed-axel yo-yo and bounce it around; the therapeutic value of this repetitive action is well documented, and the amount of skill required is minimal. It gives people a particular kind of thrill to feel in control of such a dynamic, energetic, and animated object. But the modern yo-yo is a different proposition: If you haven’t developed a basic level of skill, the yo-yo doesn’t even return to your hand—it just spins in its sleeping position until its sleep becomes a slow death. You need to play with a modern yo-yo. It participates like an animated companion. It collaborates, cooperates, and, also, resists. It seems to act. You have to coax it or force it or trick it. In return for this investment, it is transformed into an instrument of creative expression: The modern era of yo-yo championships (which was kickstarted in Chico, California, in 1993) is now dominated by creative, freestyle performances of astonishing intricacy and skill; there are styles of play that require the use of two yo-yos at once, styles in which the string isn’t tied to the player’s finger at all, and styles in which the string isn’t even attached to the yo-yo. The expressive possibilities enabled by this simple, circular toy are immense. The yo-yo has become an instrument of urban expression, like hip-hop, graffiti, and skateboarding.

“Yes, it’s pretty cool,” I say, a little embarrassed. “But you should see the guys who are actually good at this. I’m terrible.” I pause again, feeling like I’m failing to do justice to a whole other world, as well as embarrassing my little Basilisk, who really is a monster of that world.

“Can I have a go?” asks the security guard with the gun.

This happens a lot. For whatever reason, it only takes a few moments before people want to try it for themselves. There seems to be something about the simplicity and accessibility of the object that encourages this, and many people have vague memories of fixed-axel yo-yos from their childhoods. It’s enough to imbue the object with immediate affection. And most yo-yoers will be delighted to share the joy; there’s a wide, friendly, and supportive yo-yo community around the world, bursting with people saying: “Here, you try!” However, on this occasion, the yo-yo I had with me was a Turning Point Basilisk, meticulously designed and painstakingly engineered by the boutique Japanese manufacturer owned by the former world champion Kentaro Kimura. It was worth nearly $200. A clumsy, inexperienced (or vertically-challenged) player needed only to smash it into the uncarpeted floor of an airport to ruin its anodized finish, dent the aluminum out of balance, or break the threaded axel.

The Turning Point Basilisk (Chris Goto-Jones)

Over the last decade, yo-yo manufacture has become a burgeoning design-based industry. High street companies such as Duncan (which relaunched in 1968), YoYoFactory, and Yomega have been joined by a host of smaller, micro-brewery-like companies that specialize in high-end competition-level "throws." Many employ aerospace design and construction technologies to produce yo-yos at unprecedented levels of precision and balance, using materials with tolerances suitable for spacecraft. North America has a proud reputation for engineering yo-yos, with leading companies such as OneDrop and General Yo. In Canada there’s G-Squared and MonkeyFinger Design. In Australia, there’s Werrd. But it’s in Asia that the very highest levels of precision and performance are being reached by small firms such as Turning Point, YoyoRecreation, sOMEThING, and C3yoyodesign. These companies sponsor local, national, and international competitions, and they maintain their own professional performance teams. Hence, today, a toy yo-yo might cost $5, but a high-end titanium yo-yo from Japan might cost $500. Collecting yo-yos is a well-established hobby in itself.

“I’d rather you didn’t, if that’s ok,” I said, watching the disappointment fall like a visor over the security guard’s face and hoping that it wouldn’t push him back into concerns about Filipino weapons.

“As you wish,” he said sternly, the grin faltering back into professionalism. “But our machine doesn’t recognize that… thing. It’s not a normal object so we’ll have to loop it back through the machine again.”

“Oh,” I managed, restraining myself from commenting on the “normalcy” of objects. “We’ll loop it back again like a yo-yo?”

I smirked, already wishing I hadn’t.

An ongoing series about the hidden lives of ordinary things