Interviewed & written by Isao Tokuhashi
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Have you heard of the word “Rakugo”? It’s a form of Japanese verbal entertainment. The lone storyteller sits on stage, using only a paper fan and a small cloth as props, and does not stand up from the sitting position.
Actually My Eyes Tokyo has interviewed some foreign rakugo performers so far such as Diane Orrett from UK and Mizirakli Halit from Turkey. Also we met Johan Nilsson Björk, a rakugo performer from Sweden. They learned rakugo after coming to Japan, fell in love with the 300-year old Japanese comedy and mastered it despite the language/cultural barriers. Then they spread rakugo to their folks.
On the other hand, most Japanese rakugo performers stay in their country. They’ve left foreign rakugo lovers in charge of promoting rakugo abroad due to language/cultural barriers, lack of budget for overseas promotion and so on.
But a Japanese female J-E bilingual educator stood up for the diffusion of the “sit-down” comedy to the rest of the world. Kimie Oshima, a sociolinguistic professor. She learned how to perform rakugo about 20 years ago and has performed it in English in over 20 countries.
We heard how she started the rakugo activities overseas. Also she shared what she learned during her career as a rakugo performer with us.
*Interview at Kanagawa University (Yokohama)
“Do Japanese laugh?”
Rakugo was a tool for me to introduce the Japanese sense of humor and the Japanese culture at the same time. During the last 17 years, probably I’ve performed over 20 different countries and some hundreds cities in the world. Now let me tell you about why I became an “English rakugo performer”.
It was 1996 in Sydney and there was a conference called “International Society for Humor Studies“. It was a very academic, serious conference. I was there for a presentation about how people communicate with each other in Hawaii. At that time, I was studying Hawaiian pidgin English and jokes that were used for communications between ethnic groups. I talked about Japanese-American jokes in Hawaii there, but I didn’t talk about Japanese jokes so many researchers showered questions on me.
I was the only Japanese person who participated in the conference and there were probably hundreds of other people from all over the world. Even though that was a group of EXPERTS of humor, nobody knew about the sense of humor Japanese had. Everybody was wondering if Japanese even laugh or Japanese have any kind of sense of humor so I promised that, “I would bring back something that introduces the Japanese sense of humor”.
In 1997, a conference was held in Oklahoma, U.S. I brought a Japanese rakugo performer from Osaka and we performed rakugo there. He performed in Japanese and I translated it.
That was a very good success. But the performer, Shofukutei Kakusho, was not satisfied with how it went. Because he speaks in Japanese and nobody laughed, and I translated and everybody laughed. He was not very comfortable so we discussed what to do and decided, “I will teach you English and you can teach me rakugo”. Then both of us would perform rakugo in English. That was the beginning of my rakugo career.
In 1998, we went on a rakugo tour in the States. We performed at universities, theaters and so on. At the time, the reactions from audiences were amazing. So it was a trigger for us to continue and go on a tour every year. And some rakugo performers such as Katsura Kaishi, Katsura Asakichi, Hayshiya Ippei (Currently Hayashiya Sanpei), Hayashiya Hikoichi, Shunputei Shota, Tatekawa Shinosuke and so on joined us. I’ve learned a lot about rakugo from all of them.
Some laugh at this thing, others don’t
Humor comes from their common knowledge or common sense, or what they were expected so whatever that’s not expected for them would be funny. The same story can be laughed at in different parts.
When I performed the story called “Time Noodle”(Toki Soba), I made a lot of slurping sounds while I was eating soba noodles. That’s a very common custom for Japanese or any of Asian countries so it’s not funny for them.
But it’s received in a different way in other areas. Some people may be uncomfortable, some people may think it’s actually really funny so I usually explain that making a slurping sound actually makes it taste better before I perform the story. Otherwise they feel Japanese are rude. If I tell them the reason for the slurping sound, they respect part of our culture and feel they want to go to Japan and make the slurping sound there LOL. Now they laugh every time I make the slurping sound.
Rakugo is like an “ambassador”
After the performance, a lot of people come up to me and tell me how interesting the show was. That’s quite normal, but they have very good impressions of Japanese people or Japanese culture. I feel like we’re closer to each other. That’s the effect of rakugo. When people laugh together, your relationship becomes much closer. You tend to like each other. When you laugh at one thing together in your daily conversation, you feel like you’re the same.
So when I perform rakugo in front of an audience – whoever they are – it’s quite likely that they will like me, not ME personally, but they will like Japanese people or Japanese culture, or maybe even Japan as a whole. And they get interested in Japan.
Then they go home and, if they have Japanese neighbors, they would talk to them saying, “Hey, I saw rakugo yesterday and it was so fun!” and they might share fun conversation together, or they might work with a Japanese person and it would help them have a better relationship. Those things are actually happening. I think it’s a very peaceful environment that I’m creating, not just IN the theater, but for each person and audience. They make peaceful relationships with Japanese or they have a deeper understanding and a strong interest for Japanese culture. Some people actually come to Japan afterwards because they are interested in Japan… maybe they want to make slurping sounds! LOL I don’t mind whatever it may be, if they pay a little more attention to Japanese, I would call this “Success”.
I often perform at schools both in Japan and overseas. They might become politicians; they might become very influential people in economy in the future. When they grow up and if any conflict would happen, they might stand up and say, “I’ve seen rakugo from Japan when I was a little kid so I know Japanese are good people so let’s try to protect them!” – that’s what I’m expecting in 20 years.
If I lived in Japan for my whole life, I would probably NEVER perform rakugo
Rakugo seems easier to perform than kabuki, so there are more people who want to perform it rather than just watch it. I know there are rakugo groups in the Philippines and Hawaii so rakugo seems to be spreading.
To me, making them laugh is not the most important thing. Of course it’s important and a fundamental part of rakugo. But I don’t have to make them laugh at every single point that Japanese laugh at. If they laugh at different points, that’s perfectly OK. If they enjoy it, that’s OK.
I’ve learned a lot of other things through rakugo, like values and cultures. I looked at other forms of humor like standup comedy, and leaned about myself. And I learned about my own identity. Rakugo seems to be a suitable way of performing for me. It’s like a lot of other people. You go around the world and you usually come back to your own. In my case, if I didn’t live in the States for a long time, I probably wouldn’t have performed rakugo. If I lived in Japan my whole life, I would probably have NEVER performed it.
Hope “Rakugo” becomes like “Sushi”
I do have certain goals. One of the things I’m aiming at is that Rakugo becomes an international language and is listed in the Oxford English-English dictionary like sushi, tsunami and karoshi.
Another thing is peace. I’m trying to create a peaceful environment. I hate to say this, but you can almost never achieve a peaceful world. We can only try. If you don’t even try, it’s nothing.
Rakugo performance at temple, organized by The International Center in Tokyo (ICT)
*Article: http://www.intlcentertokyo.com/classes_title/workshop-report/workshopreport21 (November 2014)
So I’ll TRY to achieve peace through this Japanese traditional “Sit-down comedy”!
Other rakugo performers/researcher