Japan has a fascinating and multifaceted culture. It is a culture that is steeped in traditions dating back thousands of years and at the same time in a constant state of rapid flux, with continually shifting fads, fashions, and technological developments. Yet, at times it seems that the more Japan evolves, the more it remains the same. Many of Japan’s traditional arts embody these characteristics as well and reflect the mutable society we have so often observed.
Telling a story through the ages
Rakugo, Japan’s traditional art of storytelling is no exception to this phenomenon. Rakugo as we know it today dates back to the Edo period (1603-1867), when the art form gained a foothold in Edo (Tokyo), Osaka, and Kyoto, with each city developing its own distinctive style. It became a popular form of entertainment after the establishment of the first vaudeville-type urban theaters known as yose in 1798.
These theatres provided entertainment for ordinary people and at the height of their popularity there were 175 yose operating in Edo alone. Today there are only four yose still in existence in Tokyo (the Suzumoto Engeijo in Ueno, the Shinjuku Suehirotei in Shinjuku, the Asakusa Engei Hall in Asakusa, and the Ikebukuro Engeijo in Ikebukuro), one in Osaka (the Temma Tenjin Hanjo Tei), and one each in Kobe (the Kobe Shinkaichi Kirakukan), Nagoya (the Osu Engeijo), and Sendai (Hanaza).
Rakugo’s origins can be traced back to the 17th century, to the humorous anecdotes that were used during long Buddhist sermons as an effective way to keep people awake and alert. In 1623, through the urging of Kyoto governor Itakura Shigemune, a Buddhist monk named Anrakuan Sakuden (1554-1642), compiled over 1,000 of these anecdotes in a work called “Seisuisho” (“Laughs to Wake You Up”).
The components of a rakugo performance
Today, Sakuden is considered to be the father of rakugo. The presentation and style of rakugo performances have remained unchanged since the late 18th century. A rakugo performance is rather minimalistic and features a lone storyteller (rakugoka) dressed in a kimono, kneeling in the seiza position on a floor cushion (zabuton) that is placed on an elevated stage or platform (koza).
The performer relies solely on a paper fan (sensu) and a small hand towel (tenugui) as props to help him convey the story to the audience. The stories are based on a wide range of topics, from comical to sentimental, and involve conversations between multiple characters. The storyteller switches fluidly and seamlessly from one character to another, changing his voice, facial expression, mannerisms, and accent to fit the character who is speaking. A slight turn of the head and a change in pitch is used to indicate a switch from one character to another.
Although rakugo performances follow the stylised conventions established long ago, the storyteller’s freedom to improvise and incorporate modern vernacular and references to recent events has contributed to the popularity of the artform. New stories are constantly being created and added to the traditional repertoire of over 300 classic stories.When rakugo was first performed in Japan, it was intended to be performed by a Japanese performer for a Japanese audience.
However, in the early 1890s, Australian-born Henry Black, who is better known by his stage name, Kairakutei Black, began performing rakugo in Japan to a Japanese audience. He was Japan’s first foreign-born rakugo performer. His audience was surprised to see a foreigner who not only had learned Japanese but had become fluent enough to make them laugh.
In the late 20th century, there was another notable “first” in rakugo history; a Japanese-born rakugo performer who performed in English. His stage name was Katsura Shijaku II. He made his debut in 1962 and went on to become the first rakugo storyteller to perform in English and to take the art overseas to foreign audiences. Shijaku started studying English as a hobby in the early 1980s and initially began translating rakugo stories to improve his English skills. He gave his first English-language rakugo performance in 1983.
Throughout his career, he toured various English-speaking nations including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. His repertoire included approximately 60 Japanese stories and 15 English stories, some of which he wrote himself. In recent times, Japan has seen a rise in rakugo performed in English.
Performing rakugo outside of Japan
Although rakugo is no longer limited to Japanese speaking audiences, it is less known outside of Japan compared to other forms of traditional Japanese theater. However, rakugo performers like Katsura Sunshine and Kanariya Eiraku, the founder of the Canary English Rakugo Company, are working hard to change that.Sunshine is a Canadian-born rakugo storyteller who gives performances both in Japan and abroad.
He brought his rakugo act to New York’s SoHo Playhouse in November 2017 and continues to be a popular player in the world of rakugo.The Canary English Rakugo Company was established in 2007 and currently has more than 50 members. They hold regular recitals in Tokyo and began touring overseas in 2015.
Over the years, they have given performances to enthusiastic audiences in the United States, the United Kingdom, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Denmark, Laos, New Zealand, and Australia. Eiraku, born in Aichi prefecture, has been studying and performing rakugo for over thirty years.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in English at Sophia University, Faculty of Foreign Studies, in 1981, he studied rakugo for a few years at Tatekawa-ryu, founded by Tatekawa Danshi (1936-2011). He established his Japanese rakugo classes in 1991 and his English rakugo classes in 2007. In 2020, he founded the English Rakugo Association in Tokyo. One of the association’s goals is to spread English rakugo all over the world and have it become as popular as sushi, manga, and sumo in Western culture.
Bio: Kristine Ohkubo is a Los Angeles-based author who believes that writing from other cultural perspectives encourages empathy and understanding, and at the same time broadens our knowledge of the events that have unfolded over the years. She developed a deep love and appreciation of Japanese culture, people, and history early in life. Her frequent travels to Japan have enabled her to gain deep insight into this fascinating culture, which she shares with you through her work.