Interview by Isao Tokuhashi
Edited by Jennifer A. Hoff (My Eyes Tokyo)
Does everybody remember the Swedish rakugo storyteller who My Eyes Tokyo interviewed in the past? At the time, he was performing amateur rakugo by the name “Borubotei Ikeya (Volvo-tei Ikea).” But in July 2016, Johan Nilsson Björk became an apprentice of Sanyutei Koraku, a well-known performer on the Japanese TV comedy program “Shoten” (笑点; English: “punchline”), and entered the professional entertainment world as “Sanyutei Juubee”. After about four years of training, he was promoted from zenza (前座, the lowest rank of performer) to futatsume (二ツ目, a second-ranked performer) in August 2020 and finally changed his stage name to the one he is using now, “Sanyutei Koseinen”. *Koseinen (好青年) means “nice young man”.
Since we met Björk, we have been following his energetic activities on SNS and in the media. In July of this year (2022), we learned through one of his social media posts that he had formed the rakugo unit “Menikaru”, short for “Many Cultures”, with Sanyutei Ryuraku, an international rakugo evangelist who has performed in 8 different languages and in around 60 different cities all over the world.
He had teamed up with Sanyutei Koseinen to form “Menikaru” in order to promote multicultural understanding and build a society in which everyone can live in harmony and symbiosis. We contacted the two performers because we truly empathized with their attempt to unite people of various backgrounds through laughter and comedy.
We at My Eyes Tokyo decided to ask Ryuraku about the background behind the launch of Menikaru and how Koseinen got involved in this project. We hope you enjoy watching the two of them in their gallant kimonos as well as hearing their stories.
“Miso Beans” performed by Ryuraku in 8 languages
Greetings from Koseinen
*Interview at Office Mamekana (Shibuya-ku)
Laughter that leaves no one behind
Ryuraku (R): At the overseas performances I organize, both Japanese viewers and local citizens congregate together under the same roof. It isn’t surprising that most locals in these different countries don’t understand Japanese, but there are also many Japanese who live in these areas who cannot speak the local languages.
By choosing to perform rakugo in Japanese that can be enjoyed by native Japanese speakers and using simple local words which even people new to these areas would know, the rakugo stories can be enjoyed by everyone in the audience. This is exactly what the SDGs stand for as well: “No one gets left behind.” This experience became the basis of Menikaru.
Due to the COVID outbreak, I have been unable to perform overseas, which I had been doing for more than 10 years since 2008 in about 10 different countries. As a desperate final measure, I had tried to perform online, but due to the time difference, I was performing at midnight Japan time, which became very hard on me.
Then when I had thought about it, I realized that there are so many foreigners living in Japan. There was no need to go all the way abroad to continue to perform.
On top of that, I had always been interested in working with Sanyutei Koseinen. I thought that if I could have a foreign partner who is doing his best in the world of traditional Japanese storytelling without losing his personal and cultural identity, I would be able to spread the feeling of both Japanese people who welcome foreigners and foreigners who want to participate in Japanese society to many people. So I shared my idea with him around the end of last year. After further discussions with him, we formed Menikaru in January of this year (2022). Maybe he had no choice but to accept my idea because I am older and more experienced as a performer than he is (laughs). Since then, we’ve been performing foreign-language rakugo together in Japan.
Koseinen (K): If it was something that I absolutely did not want to do, I would think twice (laughs), but I was able to participate in Menikaru without hesitation because he is a person who understands the feelings of foreigners living in Japan.
R: I often hear about disputes between local residents and foreigners in Japan who are not familiar with detailed rules, such as garbage separation. If they are excluded from activities in the community, isolation will result. This is bad not only for foreigners but also for Japanese people. There have been foreigners living in Japan since the arrival of Eurasians dating back before records have been kept. I want to remind people that we as a Japanese society should have the generosity to welcome people from outside.
Actually, I was born and raised in Japan. I had never had any yearning to go abroad, nor am I fluent in any foreign language. Yet I had been performing overseas for a long time, and came up with the idea of Menikaru because I could NOT speak any foreign languages.
Laughter transcends languages and borders
R: My overseas performance activities have their roots in the fact that about 20 years ago, I was asked by Eleonora Yovkova, a Bulgarian professor at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology (now a professor at the University of Toyama), to perform rakugo in Japanese for young foreign students who had just arrived in Japan. The Japanese spoken in rakugo is very difficult for foreigners to understand because the language used varies according to the occupation and status of the characters in the script, such as with head clerks, apprentices, artisans, samurais, monks, and so on. Yet, when I performed my first act to them all in Japanese, they laughed. That was what convinced me that rakugo, even entirely performed in Japanese, could be enjoyed by people from other countries. This may be due in part to the fact that rakugo is essentially a performance art that is enjoyed by watching the movements and facial expressions of the storyteller.
Later Socho Horiuchi, my tea master from the Enshu school of tea ceremony, asked me, “Would you like to go do a rakugo performance in Florence, Italy as a volunteer? I will go with you.” It sounded fun, so I went. I knew that there would be no pay involved, but I didn’t expect to also not be reimbursed for the round-trip between Japan and Italy (laughs).
K: I have some similar experiences. I was asked to perform by people who have been very kind to me, and they said, “I forgot to tell you, we won’t pay for your transportation,” or “No pay this time,” after my arrival at the venue (laughs).
R: Because of this situation, there was no budget for putting up Italian subtitles. I thought about writing the Italian translation on a piece of paper and pasting it up on stage, but everyone would look at the paper instead of at me, and it would make it difficult to tell which of us was the main actor (laughs). So I chose to perform stories that could be enjoyed more for the comical movements and facial expressions of the storyteller than for the words.
K: The amazing thing about Ryuraku is that he goes up to the stage knowing by heart everything that has been translated from Japanese into the local language.
R: That’s right. I don’t have time to learn the spelling and meaning of words, so I learn everything by sound and rhythm alone.
K: In my case, I had studied Japanese so I was able to pick up the words I knew and memorize the stories. However, Ryuraku performs rakugo in a foreign language without any such foundation. So he must have listened to the words repeatedly and said them out loud to memorize each of the stories. It must have been very hard work.
R: After having learned storytelling in the Italian language in that way, I went to my first overseas performance in Italy. I performed the stories without rehearsal. The audience there at the time was all Italian, but my strategy worked and the audience laughed out loud. I thought, “Now I can take this to the world!” (Laughs). I started touring around Europe, then I expanded my activities to the United States and China.
“Ki no Chotan” (Long-Tempered vs. Short-Tempered) performed by Ryuraku in Italian (at the University of Milan)
Imagination eliminates barriers
R: I think I was able to do this because of the uniqueness of the art of rakugo. Because rakugo is performed by one person, it is easy to make modifications based on the audience’s reaction, such as “speak more slowly” or “use larger gestures.”
In rakugo, a sensu (扇子, fan) and a tenugui (手ぬぐい, hand towel) are used to represent various objects such as a pipe, chopsticks, and a book. Also, one rakugo performer can play two characters. Those are possible because the audience uses their imagination to picture them by watching the rakugo performer’s movements. Conversely, it does not matter what people from any country imagine in their minds. The performer does not assert himself, but rather says, “The story cannot be completed without your help, so let’s create the story together.” There is no wall separating the performer and the audience, and the story progresses through mutual unity and harmony—that is rakugo.
Some people from overseas say, “I want you to perform rakugo only in Japanese because I want to experience the real thing.” In such cases, if I first give a synopsis of the story in the local language, the audience will enjoy it while they have an idea in their minds of the conversations between the characters. For my first overseas performance, I was not able to add Italian subtitles due to budget constraints, but later I realized that adding subtitles would have spoiled the audience ability to use their imaginations. So it turned out to be a blessing in disguise (laughs).
We can have fun together even if our respective Japanese language skills and amount of knowledge about Japanese culture are different. We don’t clash with anyone. In that sense, I think rakugo is a very peaceful art form.
K: And in rakugo, there are characters who are a bit stupid, but there is never a single antagonist. It creates a feeling in the audience that, “There are people like this, but that’s okay.” I feel that rakugo carries the uniting message that all human beings are incomplete yet accepted.
R: I think the overarching theme in rakugo is “reconciliation.” When characters get into a big fight with each other, the tension reaches its peak, and then someone watching the fight says a pun or something to settle the matter, which then becomes the punchline and abruptly ends the story. There are many such stories.
K: I agree. I sometimes want to hear what will happen after the punchline. (laughs)
R: This can also be seen in Kyogen, which is the root of Japanese comedic theatre. I believe that Japanese people like to settle things using humor, without forcefully beating or punishing anyone. And such storylines are actually popular in many other countries as well. I believe that Japan—which gave birth to such peaceful entertainment as rakugo, where performers and audiences are in harmony and characters reconcile with each other through humor—is suited to multicultural conviviality, where people of all backgrounds live together and support each other.
“Chiritotechin (Vinegared Bean Curd)” performed by Ryuraku in French (Lyon, France)
“Zoo” performed by Koseinen in Japanese (Tokyo)
Working hand in hand to build a better nation
K: If you’ve been abroad to many countries like Ryuraku, you’ll know that there are many different kinds of people in other countries. However, I feel that there are still some Japanese people who have the idea in their minds that “all foreigners have blonde hair and blue eyes,” and sometimes I’m asked by Japanese people, “Are you American?” (laugh) But in reality, people are different from country to country, and there are many different kinds of people even within the same country. Especially in the world of rakugo, where there are many weirdos, people are not discriminated against on the basis of nationality (laughs).
In my home country of Sweden, immigrants and refugees are pouring in from Syria, Kurdistan, and more recently Ukraine. The number of foreigners in Japan is increasing and will continue to increase for economic reasons. I believe that the world will be a better place if those who come from abroad and those who take them in come to understand each other.
R: My personal impression is that there is no overt discrimination against foreigners among the Japanese. Our attitude toward foreigners is rather one of “keeping a distance” and “non-interference”. In other words, we leave them alone because we don’t understand them well. Because we are not yet accustomed to foreigners, we lack the courage to reach out to them. We may have a kind of “vigilance” toward them. This may cause us to keep foreigners away from us, and as a result, we may create an invisible barrier that makes foreigners feel that it is difficult for them to enter Japanese society.
K: When I decided to live in Japan, Japanese people asked me, “Why do you want to live here in Japan and not in your home country?” It seems that they have a deep-rooted sense of “living in the country where you were born and raised is natural”. It is not only me but also foreigners who have lived in Japan for 20 to 30 years, who are asked by Japanese people, “So when are you going back to your home country?” (laugh) It’s as if they’re saying, “It’s strange for a non-Japanese person to live in Japan.”
R: We hope that this aspect of Japan will change. I believe that people from overseas will continue to come to Japan and I would like to cooperate with them to create a better society through “laughter”. By seeing, hearing and feeling our highly interactive performances and laughing with us, foreigners will learn about the good aspects of Japan, and Japanese people can learn about the good parts of other countries, and then eventually we will become more united with each other. This is nothing special, it is the very essence of the “spirit of harmony” that the Japanese people have always possessed.
Let’s demonstrate the spirit of harmony and create a mutually beneficial society with people from overseas!
Menikaru Launch Event – Learn about and enjoy multiculturalism – Lecture & Rakugo
Lectures about the world as seen by Sanyutei Ryuraku and Japan as seen by Sanyutei Koseinen were delivered. In addition, Ryuraku performed rakugo in Japanese and Koseinen performed rakugo in English. In between the performances, Ryuraku led a workshop in which he invited the audience, mostly from overseas, to perform a scene from the rakugo story called “Misomame (Miso Beans)” in their native languages.
On September 27, 2022 at Uchisaiwaicho Hall (Chiyoda-ku)
*Photos provided by Menikaru
Related Links *Mainly in Japanese
Menikaru official website: ryu-raku.com/manycultures/index.html
Official website: ryu-raku.com/
Ryuraku Sanyutei RAKUGO Channel (YouTube): here
Ryuraku’s Wagashi Channel (YouTube): here
Official website: kouseinen.net/
Koseinen’s blog: ameblo.jp/borubotei-ikeya/
Sanyutei Koseinen (YouTube): here