Interviewed & written by Isao Tokuhashi
Mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Johan Nilsson Björk (Sweden)
His name is Johan Nilsson Björk, a.k.a Borubo-tei Ikeya. “Borubo” means Volvo, the Swedish automotive company, and “Ikeya” refers to IKEA, the world-famous Swedish furniture retailer. A professional rakugo performer gave him such a great stage name.
Johan discovered rakugo in Japan and decided to settle in the country after going back home once. His reason? Because he fell in love with the unique Japanese traditional verbal art.
We held a talk session with him in the winter of 2014 and heard his “Tokig Rakugo” (“crazy about rakugo” in Swedish) story after we enjoyed his performance in fluent Japanese.
Loving languages, making people laugh and Japan led me to rakugo
I’ve loved to perform in front of people and make them laugh for a long time. I always felt alive when I was doing that. I initially thought of becoming an actor in Sweden, but then I decided to learn something at university before starting my acting career, so I majored in Japanese language at university.
When I was in high school, there was a Japanese class we could take. My teacher who grew up in Sweden was half Japanese and half Taiwanese. When he was a child, he could only speak Japanese but then Swedish became his main language so he learned Japanese again after he became an adult.
At high school level, it wasn’t very challenging for me so I only learnt the basics. However, I liked his lessons because of the fun way he taught the class.
I originally liked Japanese things such as samurai, ninja, anime etc. My favorite anime were “Dragon Ball” and “Naruto”. After I came to Japan, I was addicted to the anime called “Steins;Gate“… but not many know it (T^T). I loved Japanese anime and I loved the Japanese language so I went to Stockholm University to study it further.
I want to make people laugh in Japanese
When I was in my second year of university, I applied for an exchange program and studied at Nanzan University in Nagoya for 4 months. The Japanese class was really tough and intense so I needed to focus all my energy for the classes. I was living in a dorm in front of the university so the only places I went to were my dorm and university. I had no time to hang around the downtown area in the city.
I went back home 4 months later, but I wanted to study Japanese even more, so I came back here when I was a senior student and studied at Chuo University in Tokyo for a year as an exchange student. The reason I chose Chuo Uni was because I wanted to go to Tokyo, but Chuo is located very far from the metropolis… However, it was there where I happened to first encounter rakugo.
I started a new life in Tokyo from April 2012. All student clubs and circles in the university were recruiting new members. A basketball club wanted me to join because I’m tall, but I am not that good at sports so I declined. As I walked around the area, I happened upon a rakugo stand with some club members handing out flyers.
It seemed exotic to me so I thought to myself, “Why not? I’ll go check it out”. As it was, their performances were really good. After watching them, I then realized that I wanted to make people laugh in Japanese, too!
My Japanese teacher in Sweden used to make a joke saying “Ikura wa ikura?”, which means in English “How much is the salmon roe?” I loved the fact that it used the same word twice with different meanings to make this pun and it stuck with me for many years. I wanted to also make similar word puns in Japanese so for example, if I made an unfunny joke, I could say, “it’s because I’m from Sweden”.
(*Samui 寒い originally means “cold” in Japanese, but recently as a slang term, it also means “not funny”). So I can say, “If you thought the joke I just made was “Samui”, you’re right. I mean I do come from a cold place after all!
Performed in front of elderly people
Soon after I decided to become a member of the rakugo club, one of the hardest things for me was seiza, which is sitting on your legs folded underneath you, but it didn’t put me off doing rakugo. There were some people who quit the club, not because of seiza but probably because of the unique, quirky atmosphere which didn’t suit them. I noticed that almost all of the members had their own unique odd characteristics which I found really interesting and fun.
After a couple of months of joining the club, I was allowed to perform in public. I still remember my first live performance. I performed in front of elderly people at a hall near the university. It was all I could do to say my lines, however my mind went totally blank. I focused so hard on my performance that I had no room to look at the audience’s reactions. The senior rakugo club members (my senpai 先輩) told me that everyone was laughing at my performance… But I’m not sure if that’s true even now. *laughs*
Performance back in 2013, when he was Chuo Uni student (Performed in Japanese)
The language that is spoken in rakugo in Tokyo is the Edo Dialect, which was spoken among merchants, craftsmen and others during the Edo Period. It’s totally different from standard Japanese which I’d studied before that so I would say that I really learned Japanese in the rakugo club, not in class, while I was in Chuo University. I was also a member of a drama club at Chuo University, so most of my time was spent with club activities rather than actual studying. I became just like a lot of Japanese uni students!
Rakugo in Sweden
A year later, I went back home and wrote my graduation thesis. Of course the theme was “Rakugo”. I also performed rakugo in Sweden, too. There’s a Japan Association in my hometown called Uppsala and I was invited to an event which was hosted by them.
Rakugo performance in Sweden (Performed in Swedish)
I did the story called “Sudofu” (酢豆腐 Sour Tofu), which is the one I did for my first public performance. I noticed that people laughed at different parts of the story when I performed in Swedish and then in Japanese. It was much easier to make them laugh when I did it in Swedish because it’s my mother tongue, but unfortunately I cannot make my living as a rakugo performer in Sweden…
I’m in Japan because of rakugo
After I graduated from Stockholm University, I wanted to study drama in the UK or the US because English is easier than Japanese and I thought I would be able to be cast as any role regardless of my nationality, unlike in Japan, where I would like be cast as the role of “foreigner”.
But there’s rakugo in Japan. I love rakugo and wanted to explore it more, so I came here again in April 2014 and enrolled into a school called “Tokyo Film Center” where I was to study acting there for 3 years.
I want to become famous during the period, so I have to brush up my rakugo skills and overcome the language barrier. In order to conquer those challenges, I learn Japanese everyday and listen to professional rakugo performances over and over again.
Johan performed rakugo in English for Americans who were learning beginner’s Japanese. Even though he has no experience of living in English speaking countries, he got great laughs!
Held at Intercultural Institute of Japan, organized by ICT, The International Center in Tokyo (Jan 2015)
Swedish laugh at politics, Japanese avoid political issues
Rakugo has an aspect of “laughing at the behavior of foolish characters”, which means people who hear the stories may think to themselves “at least I’m not that stupid”. *laughs* I think that’s a common trait in all human beings. A bad one.
In Sweden, we don’t have a sole comedian playing 2 or more roles simultaneously like rakugo. Comedy skits or sketches are popular among my generation in my country.
And there’s a crucial difference between Sweden and Japan. We laugh at politics, or even at what our king does.
Some Japanese comedians talk about politics, but those are not televised so often. I asked one time, “How about using the Emperor as a theme?” My senior told me when I was in the Chuo University rakugo club; “You can go home anytime, but I want to stay in Japan so I’ll never talk about him!” It may be a sensitive topic but I would like to make my own rakugo political stories someday.
What is Japan to you?
Japan is a country I love. It’s quite comfortable to live in, everybody is polite and there are a lot of kind people.
But it would be very tough for me if I was a full-time office worker in Japan. I don’t think I could stand it being in an authoritarian workplace with rules like “you must not leave before your senior”. Japanese people seem to accept it, but I’m amazed at how much they can abide by it all.
However I learned how to avoid being caught in the senior-junior social system (上下関係 jouge-kankei) which isn’t so difficult because I’m a foreigner. Even if I can’t use honorific language well, Japanese people may think that I am simply struggling with speaking Japanese. Though of course, I can use honorific expressions very well, perhaps better than some young Japanese people. *laughs* I think I only see the good aspects of Japan because I’m in the entertainment world. If I had no choice but to be a full-time office worker, I would go home.
So I want to be a comedian here in Japan. However, I don’t want to be a typical foreign “gaijin” comedian who speaks weird, unnatural Japanese. I want to compete while being true to myself and proving my abilities at a professional level. In order to do that, I need to improve my Japanese fluency to near perfection and perform rakugo much, much better. But, I know I can do this.
What is rakugo to you?
It’s comedy and something that makes people laugh. But on the other hand, it has a psychological part to it which depicts the fundamental good and bad aspects of human beings. Because of this deep, psychological aspect of rakugo, I am incredibly drawn to it.
Moreover, rakugo is performed by one person, which means you have the spotlight to yourself. That’s good for me because I enjoy being at the center of attention, especially on stage. However, I also enjoy interacting with the audience while I perform and rakugo is very flexible. You are allowed to change some parts of the story even if it was written 100 years ago.
I believe rakugo has so many possibilities. There are still so many stories that I don’t know but can’t wait to discover. And best of all, I can make any number of my own rakugo stories!
Kimie Oshima (Professor/English-rakugo Performer)
Tanja Sobko (Nutritionist/cooking instructor) *From Sweden.
David Sindell (Lawyer) *He also went to Nanzan University.
Mike Staffa (Leader of the “Pirates”)