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International Herald Tribune
The Asahi Shimbun
Sturday-Sunday, April 17-18, 2004
Weekend Beat

Comic crusader takes rakugo abroad to prove Japanese can be funny

At first Kimie Oshima had no idea how to combat the stereotype that the Japanese are a humorless bunch. The issue came up at a 1996 conference of the International Society for Humor Studies (ISHS) in Australia. A researcher specializing in cross-cultural communication and sociolinguistics, Oshima gave a presentation on ethnic humor and how humor and laughter make intercultural communication easier. Later, other attendees asked her questions, including, "Do the Japanese tell jokes?" and "The Japanese aren't exactly funniest people on the earth. How can you make a presentation on humor?"
The 33-year-old lecturer at Tokyo's Bunkyo Gakuin University remembers the moment well. "They also said, 'If you maintain Japanese are funny, it's your job to prove it.'" She took the bait and became a woman with a mission: to demonstrate Japanese humor overseas.
Oshima eventually decided that rakugo (comic storytelling) was the way to go - calling this "sit-down comedy" Japan's answer to stand-up comedy in the West. "Until then, I hadn't given any thought to rakugo," she said. But she was sure it would be an excellent way to introduce foreigners to Japanese humor, and, at the same time, its culture. Dating from the early Edo Period (1603-1867), rakugo are comic monologues with punch lines called ochi.
Oshima explained why she thought foreigners would react well to rakugo. "Performed by a single storyteller seated on a cushion, rakugo mostly consists of conversations among several characters. It's a good example of how Japanese speak. Westerners tend to get frustrated by the indirect and ambiguous way Japanese speak, but they are more tolerant when they hear it in a funny rakugo skit," Oshima said.
In July 1997, at an ISHS conference in Oklahoma, she scored her first victory in "the Japanese are not funny" battle when she introduced rakugo comic Shofukutei Kakushw, who kept audiences laughing throughout his performances. Since 1998, Oshima has organized English-language rakugo tours, visiting the United States, Singapore, Malaysia, Norway, Thailand and Australia with a group of Osaka-based professional comics and a shamisen player.
The two-hour show kicks off with a brief introduction on rakugo by Oshima and includes a couple of comic tales, a musical interlude, and paper cutting art. The group was a big hit wherever they went, playing to packed houses, a fact that convinced Oshima that Japanese humor can cross cultural and linguistic barriers. Also, she said, some bits of Japanese culture, that may at first weird to foreigners, can be understood and accepted if presented with a smiley face.
"For instance, slurping noodles is not bad manners at all in Japan, but people in the West might grimace... Yet, when a storyteller makes loud slurping noises in the rakugo tale 'Toki Udon' (Time-Noodle), American audiences usually roar with laughter and accept Japanese culture as it is. "Some audience members even told me they'd like to try slurping noodles when they visit Japan," she added, with a laugh. The group's latest tour was March 20-29, playing before U.S. audiences in St. Louis, Chicago and New York.
Born in 1970 in Tokyo, Oshima became interested in intercultural communication when she visited the United States as a high school exchange student. "At first I thought it was because my English wasn't good enough that I had a hard time communicating with others. I hardly ever understood jokes made by my American friends," she said. But not long after, she came to understand the problem wasn't linguistic, but cultural. Oshima went on to major in international affairs at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and intercultural communications at Aoyama Gakuin University's graduate school.
Her area of specialization was the importance of humor in multicultural societies and how it helps to dissipate tension among people from different cultures. When she isn't teaching at the university, Oshima produces English-language rakugo performances, translates classic rakugo tales into English and teaches storytellers how to deliver them in English. In Norway in 1998, Oshima herself performed rakugo for the first time.
"In Japan, there're about 650 professional rakugo performers, but only five are women. It's traditionally male-dominated, but if only male performers appear on stage overseas, I'm afraid people might think rakugo is exclusively performed by men, like Kabuki," she said. "I appear on stage and deliver original rakugo comedies written from the female point of view."
Oshima seems tireless in her effort to export rakugo overseas. "I'd like to continue the rakugo tours until the word is listed in English dictionaries, like tofu and karaoke," she said.

Bridal Training ←Kimie Oshima performing her original story "Bridal Training". She is about to drink a cup of tea at tea ceremony with appropriate manner.
January 1, 2004
Rakugo troupe aims to make world laugh

It fools, henpecked husbands and misers are universal to all nations, there is no reason why rakugo cannot travel overseas to make the whole world laugh. "These types of people are favorite topics in rakugo tales. Undoubtedly, our rakugo performances featuring these people have never failed to please audiences in any of the countries we've visited," said Kimie Oshima, 33, a lecturer at Bunkyo Gakuin University, who organized a group of five English-speaking rakugo performers in 1998. Katsura Asakichi, a member of the English Rakugo troupe, concurred, saying: "Few rakugo stories feature brutality. Rakugo characters are people with great humanity."
The troupe's first overseas performance was in the United States, where they performed in Colorado and California. The list of foreign cities covered by the group's annual performing tours includes Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Manila and Sydney. Oshima's initiation into English rakugo was inspirational. In fact, she had little knowledge of rakugo until she chose the Japanese sense of humor as the theme of her academic research. In 1996, she attended a conference of the International Society for Humor Studies in Australia, where she was inspired by its participating scholars to explore the uniqueness - or a lack of it - of the Japanese sense of humor.
Eventually, she concluded that rakugo was a worthy subject in that this narrative performing art existed long before Japan's exposure to Western culture. Oshima met a number of professional rakugo performers, hoping to learn what rakugo is all about from scratch. "Rakugo performances have a unique style. First, rakugo is the only one (among comic storytelling arts) in which performers sit erect on the stage (with their legs folded under them). That's why we call rakugo a 'sit-down' comedy act," she said.
Oshima expounded on the basic differences between rakugo and foreign performing arts by saying that Western comic narrative arts are usually one-sided in that their performers keep talking straight at the audience. This is in stark contrast to rakugo performances, which feature a dialogue between at least two characters personified by a single performer, she said. "Japanese humor requires a dialogue between people," she said, adding that this is reflected in day-to-day conversation and person-to-person communication among ordinary Japanese. "To the Japanese, asking someone a question often means helping him answer the question in the way he wants to, not necessarily in the way you want. This helps them better communicate their feelings to each other," Oshima said.

English narration a challenge
The English rakugo troupe includes three professional rakugo performers, Asakichi, Shofukutei Kakushow, and Katsura Kaishi, as well as shamisen player Hayashiya Kazume - none of whom had bothered to speak English until they joined the group. Oshima first translated rakugo tales into English. They were then recorded on tape so the three performers, who began performing in English in their 20s and 30s, could memorize the English renditions.
"There was an occasional clash of opinions among us about tempo, timing and gestures that I suggested be made before foreign audiences," Oshima said. To resolve the conflict, she took advantage of her skills, knowledge and experience acquired through her study of communications and theatrical performance at a U.S. high school and college. "We somehow overcame the difficulties in the pursuit of our mutually shared goal of entertaining foreign audiences with our rakugo performances," she said. Asakichi agreed. "As a rakugo performer strictly trained in the traditional art, I occasionally found it difficult to follow her instructions. But I wanted to entertain foreign audiences, so I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt," he said.
His repertoire includes "Time Noodle," a popular tale about cheating on payment for a bowl of noodles. The story begins with a smart man counting out old mon coins to pay when a noodle shop owner says:
"It's 16 mon, sir."
"OK. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, what time is it?"
"Oh, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, and 16."
The smart man therefore pays less than he should for his noodles.
Later, a foolish man tries to perform the same trick on another noodle vendor, but with disastrous results.
"One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, what time is it?"
"Six, seven, eight, nine, 10..."
So, the stupid man ends up paying more.
However, Asakichi has a second opinion about the significance of this tale, which is usually interpreted to suggest that shallow conning and cheating does not pay off. To Asakichi, the best part of the tale is a scene in which the foolish guy, while being served a bowl of noodles, says:
"Let me see... Chopsticks! Your chopsticks are dirty, and they're wet! What? You just washed them? Fine, fine. But they have shredded green onion on them... Well, that's OK. I'll wipe it off. Now, bowls - your bowl has too many cracks chips on the edge... How can I drink this soup? ...It'll hurt my lips. But that's OK. You can use this bowl as a saw. (Drinking soup) Yech! Salty soup! This is not soup! You could make two bowls of soup with this. That's good, I guess... Anyway, noodles are important. Sometimes noodles are too soft and soggy. Noodles should be nice and firm. Oh, how disgusting! Your noodles are too soft and soggy. Maybe it's good for the stomach. It's hard to pick them up without breaking them... So, ah, do you use kamaboko (boiled fish sausage)? Well... I got one! Now wonder I couldn't fine it, it's so thin it stuck to the bowl... Sometimes noodle shops use fu (dried wheat gluten) instead. That is terrible. Ah, yes, this is real fu. It's OK. It's OK. I'm a sick person anyway..."
Asakichi imitates the sound produced by a man slurping noodles, using sensu (folded fan) - a hand prop commonly used by rakugo performers - as a pair of chopsticks. "The stupid guy is a very affectionate character. He finds the situation is quite contrary to what he wants, but desperately tires to praise the noodles in front of the hapless noodle vendor. He sounds funny but is touching at the same time," Asakichi said.

Laughs need puns
Oshima has rewritten the English translation of "Time Noodle," hoping to make it better understood by non-Japanese listeners. "Our initial translation of the soup part was 'Oh, salty soup!' This part draws a laugh from the Japanese audience. But foreign audiences would not find this funny," Asakichi said. "Then we added 'Yech!' to our description of the soup, it worked better." The use of "disgusting!" proved quite helpful in the scene in which the noodles were described as "soft and soggy." Through their efforts to improve their English rakugo performances, both Oshima and the professional performers have gained more confidence and mutual trust. "Our performances have drawn bigger and bigger laughs from foreign audiences," Oshima said.
Her translations include a number of puns aimed at making the troupe's performances even funnier. This alteration in rakugo has never embarrassed Asakichi. "What is important to me is to entertain foreign audiences - not sticking to rakugo traditions," he said. Undoubtedly, rakugo is intrinsic to Japanese culture. Still, it expresses the "very fundamentals" of human nature, Oshima said, adding that this explains why classic rakugo have survived for centuries. "The essence of humor is universal," she said. "Foreigners say Japanese people have no sense of humor. I hope our English rakugo disproves this notion, by making people around the world laugh."

Kimie Oshima
"Telling jokes helps people communicate better with each other. That's what a sense of humor is all about."

Workshop with local comedians ←Workshop with local comedians in Manila, Philippines. There were very energetic discussions and it was exciting. It seems that there are a lot in common between comedians anywhere in the world.
英会話 レッツスピーク


- How hard is it to communicate Japanese humor in English?
Oshima: Communicating humor is pretty much the same as any cross-cultural communication. It's easy to pick out differences since they stand out. Seeking out common points is much more difficult but is key to communication and to humor. With humor, it may be hard, but there is always something that is universally funny to all people. Find that and it is much easier. For example, some of the Rakugo stories are about stinginess and that is understandable to just about anybody since no one wants to pay extra money.
- How important is the visual element in communication of humor and language?
Oshima: In my communication lectures, I always say that 80% of understanding comes from visual. Rakugo is very visual but it is also an art of imagination where you don't necessarily need to see the performers to imagine what is happening.
- Why did you choose Rakugo?
Oshima: In general humor laughter helps to lubricate communication and you tend to accept others better when you are laughing. If I did a serious lecture on Japanese culture, many would think our culture is strange. But if you deliver Japanese culture through humor, people don't necessarily accept but understand it as a different culture.
Rakugo also disproves the stereotype that Japanese do not have a strong sense of humor and are maybe less friendly. By picking something very traditional with a history of over 300 years, I could easily say this is original and is not a copy of anyone else's humor.
- Around the world, which audiences are more receptive to Rakugo?
Oshima: Maybe eastern audiences have responded the best so far such as Australia and the Philippines. Our Rakugo was also well received in London and the US but people laughed in different places and it caught us by surprise. Many people in the West laugh much earlier since they are imagining the punch line. They also laugh at poses that represent a rickshaw or the noise that performers make to represent the slurping of noodles. They are not things experienced much in everyday lif and are funny in themselves.
- How can students of English use humor to improve their skills?
Oshima: It is all about not being afraid of making mistakes. Making mistakes is a vital part of the process of learning a language and making mistakes can actually be fun. Don't think of it as people laughing at you but think of it as you making them laugh and immediately you have an advantage. It is all in your attitude.
Create your own self-defense. For instance, just tell people how bad your English is at the beginning with a joke and then you can make mistakes and feel OK about it. It shows you are confident and telling people your faults is also mentally healthy. You could even memorize a short joke to tell people when you meet them along with a greeting. The other very important thing is that you have to have something that you love and want to talk about. Try not to speak English but try to speak IN English about SOMETHING.

国際基督教大学大学院教育学(社会言語学)博士。文京学院大学外国語学部専任講師。専門は社会言語学、異文化コミュニケーション、ユーモア学。 「世界を笑わそ!」(研究社)、「知ってる単語で英会話!」(ジャパンタイムズ)など、著書多数。NHK国際放送局「Hello from Tokyo」にも出演中。

After the show at Cebu island ←After the show at Cebu island, Philippines. The beautiful flowers on our necks are the gift from the host. From left, Kimie Oshima, Hayashiya Kazume, Mr. Uchiyama of Japan foundation Manila Office, Katsura Asakichi, and Katsura Kaishi.
Copyright 2002 Kimie Oshima