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        "I'd like them to gain an insight into Japanese customs and see how we communicate with each other," she added. Oshima believes rakugo, whichh is more than 300 years old, is an "art form unique in the world." Rakugo storytellers, who usually remain seated throughout performances, rely on words and facial expressions to portray various characters. Audience members are encouraged to use their imaginations while listening to the stories. Oshima said rakugo - which she calls "sit-down" (as opposed to "stand-up") comedy - is an excellent way to teach the world about Japanese culture because it delivers messages in an amusing, rather than serious, way. "We have to always keep in mind the goal of explaining Japanese culture to people overseas," she stressed. "Otherwise, our performances would end up vague and forgettable."
"We try to make the most of humor by thinking of our jokes as a means to deliver the messages we really want to," she continued. "I don't think we could have worked so hard and come so far without this approach."
Japanese to English
Rakugo stories feature many puns and thing peculiar to Japanese culture, meaning word-for-word translations into English simply don't work. Instead, Oshima, who spent her high school and university days in the United States, said the process involves "remaking the stories into something that sounds interesting and funny in English." In the initial stage of translation, she reads the dialogues aloud in Japanese, then immediately tries to make a corresponding phrase in English while maintaining the feelling of the original.

Spreading the rakugo word
Can you even remember the last time you enjoyed a really good laugh? If not, attending a performance of rakugo - the traditional Japanese art of comic storytelling - may be just the ticket. Rakugo features humor everyone can enjoy. And if you're worried that your Japanese only stretches to ordering a beer and not much else - or if you're not even in Japan - no problem. Thanks to Kimie Oshima, rakugo shows in English are now frequent and increasingly popular both in Japan and overseas.
"I was always confident that we'd be able to make (people overseas) laugh," said Oshima, 31, who is also a lecturer in English at Meikai University in Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture. "But they laughed even harder than I expected."
With the dream of "exporting" rakugo, Oshima first banded together a company of rakugo storytellers to do an overseas tour in 1998. The tour, which took the group to the United States, came at the end of a long struggle by the producer to procure sponsorship from companies and other organizations.
During the tour, Oshima acted as driver for the company - comprising several storytellers and a shamisen player - ferrying them to and from their dates at universities in a van. The following two years, she organized two more tours by the group to Singapore, were their rakugo shows proved popular with children. The children, who crowded into the space in front of the stage, never seemed bored, she said.
Last year, the company's tour - by this time an annual event- was in Australia, and Oshima is currently preparing for this year's tour, scheduled for summer. Oshima always appears as emcee on the tours. In her book Sekai o Warawaso! (Make the World Laugh!): Rakugo in English, published late last year by Kenkyusha Ltd., she includes an excerpt of a speech she used at a U.S. performance that pokes fun at the stereotypical image of the "humoreless Japanese " that overseas audiences tend to have.
"We do have some sense of humor," the book quates her as saying, "But Japanese export too many good products like cars and stereos...So we just decided not to export good jokes. That's why you never get to hear one." Oshima, whose university work involves research on cross-cultural communication and the effects of humor, said her main purpose in producing rakugo in English is to "introduce Japanese culture to people overseas and let them know that we too possess 'the art of laughter.'"

"Rakugo stories consist of everyday conversations, which we conduct without much thought," she said. "Therefore, it's better to translate quickly to produce natural-sounding English with a good tempo." Because Oshima's English-language rakugo is designed for an audience with no knowledge at all of the genre, the translatio process can involve changing a story's order and cutting its length. But while her translated works - which usually run 12 to 13 minutes - are often slightly different from the originals, she strives to maintain the basic essence.
So far, Oshima has translated about 20 rakugo stories, and has no plans to stop yet. "I feel so excited when I'm thinking of ways to make the audience laugh and where to put a pun in a story," she said. Oshima recruited four professional rakugo performers, three from Osaka and one from Tokyo, to join her English-language rakugo company. She chose the four - all in their 30s - because she considered them young enough to memorize English. Performing in English also has had the unexpected benefit of helping them to improve their command of the language. "I already knew English-language rakugo was a good teaching material for students," Oshima said. "But I never expected it would help those repeating the stories to improve their English ability."
The storytellers memorized the dialogues in English and spoke no English except on stage. Oshima has noticed that even those who understood very little English at the start now are able to dispense with her interpretations sometimes. "They took the characters' lines and made them their own," she said. Rakugo storytellers try to get under the skin of the characters they portray as much as possible, and those performing in English have proved to be no different. They began to associate spoken phrases with the situation and emotions in the story, and found that they could sometimes apply the phrases in real life, when the situation or emotion was the same as in the story, acccording to Oshima.
"All the phrases they use in thier everyday life (during the tours) came right out of the stories they tell," Oshima said. She cited the example of Katsura Asakichi, 31, who tells a story called "Time-Noodle" tha tfeatures dialogues between two noodle-shop owners and their customers. "It's interesting that Asakichi-san has the most to say when we order things at restaurants," Oshima joked. The troupe has been raising the profile of rakugo not only overseas but also at home, receiving a growing number of requests for domestic performances. "The Japanese audiences tend to comprise people who like English and have never watched rakugo before," Oshima said. "Many of them tell us that, after watching a show in English, they now feel the urge to see rakugo in Japanese."
While Oshima acknowledges that English-language rakugo is different from the original, she said, "We're making a great contribution to raising awareness of rakugo as a part of Japanese culture (around the world)." "It's only natural to adjust things to a new environment to ensure that they will be accepted," she added.Though Oshima finds it grueling to organize overseas tours every year, she plans to continue until her ultimate goal of making rakugo an internationally recognizable art form has been achieved. Just as "sushi" has entered the English vocabulary, she also hopes "the word 'rakugo' will take root overseas."
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Rakugo: Japanese Sit-Down Comedy

Rakugo can be best described as Japanese sit-down comedy of comic story telling. Just as there is stand-up comedy in the western countries, there is sit-down comedy in Japan. Most obviously, the difference is that the performer sits on his knees when he performs. It requires some training to sit like that for a long time without letting the legs fall in sleep. The performer wears traditional formal Japanese clothes (Kimono) and sometimes wears a pair of long wide pants (Hakama) and/or a formal jacket (Haori).

The performer is usually equipped with a fan (Sensu) and hand towel (Tenugui). These items help the performer express and act out the story. For example, the fan can be chopsticks, scissors, cigarettes, pipe, or pen. The towel could be a book, bills, or an actual towel. The performer sits on a small mattress, dressed in his Kimono and acts out the whole story by himself.

In Rakugo only the conversations between characters appear in the story. Therefore, the performer must be able play the role of each distinct character. There are always several characters in a Rakugo story. The performers play each character by changing voice, facial expression, mannerisms, speech, etc.. In most cases the characters have strong stereotypical personalities and characteristics so that as the performer switches from one character to another the audience readily detects the change.

Some of the popular character stereotypes are: 1. Stupid, hasty, rash, forgetful, clumsy; 2. Smart, reliable, short-tempered; 3. Pretentious, vain; 4. Cunning, tricky, quick-witted; 5. Authority figure, man in power; 6. Canny, stingy, miserly, mean; 7. Sexy; 8. Liar, brag, untruthful; and 9. Non-human characters.

Each character represents qualities within all of us or parts of the human personality. Each character in the story emphasizes one aspect of the human personality.

Each character represents qualities within all of us or parts of the human personality.

These exaggerated characters are performed by Rakugo performers without costume or equipment to disguise themselves. Therefore, in a way, Rakugo is the art of imagination. The audience is free to imagine features of characters and the background.

The roots of Rakugo can be traced to the end of 17th century. Rakugo developed from mini-tales which were told among common people. The style of performance or presentation of Rakugo was established in the late 18th century and has not changed. When some of the early artisans discovered that they could actually make a living as professional story tellers, they would rent a large room (Yose) in a house and sit on a small mattress to perform Rakugo. Rakugo performers are called Rakugo-ka.

First, Rakugo stories were intended to teach what would be laughed at in the society and give people social knowledge. As it developed it became entertainment for common people and the rooms where Rakugo was performed (Yose) became centers for social gathering. Historically, there are no female Rakugo-ka (performers) and even today there are only a few female performers. In Japanese culture social activities have been considered as primarily for men.

As Rakugo became popular, a tradition for learning Rakugo became established. Pupils who wish to become Rakugo performers are called Deshi. Hen someone wishes to become a pupil of a favorite Rakugo performer the person goes to the performer and asks to be accepted as a student. If the professional Rakugo performer finds the prospective pupil to be talented and chooses to teach him, the Rakugo-ka takes in the pupil.

The master trains the student verbally. First, the master tells a story, perhaps one of his favorite repertories. Then, the student imitates it as best he can. After much practice the pupil is able to ad or modify the style and introduce some originality to the story. All the training is verbal. No written text is used. Probably part of the reason for the oral emphasis is that when Rakguo started many people were unable to read, therefore, the tradition has been passed on through the generations. Recently, it has become acceptable to use audio and video tape, but written text is still not employed.
The pupil (Deshi) has the duty to carry out responsibilities for the master. Deshi's responsibilities include even house work such as cleaning, cooking, driving the master, laundry, and baby sitting to take care of younger Deshi. They take lessons in story telling, playing instruments like the Japanese three stringed banjo, drums, and dance. In many cases, Rakugo performers in training live with the master in the master's house. Therefore, their work is 24 hours a day.

During the time as a student the master is primarily responsible for taking care of the pupil's financial needs. The master also provides opportunities for the pupil to perform on the stage. Usually, Rakugo pupils complete their training after two to four years. With the master's permission a Deshi becomes a Rakugo performer, Rakugo-ka.

The first few years after Deshi's becomes Rakugo-ka and leave their masters' roof is when they usually experience the most difficult times in their career. They must try to get on the stage and increase their number of repertories.

There are about 300 popular stories which are still performed as classic Rakugo in addition to many new stories created by current Rakugo artists. Even the new stories follow the structure of Rakugo so that the essence of Rakugo remains intact. Each Rakugo story begins with what is called Pillow, or Makura, which begins and leads the audience into the story or Hanashi. The symbolic meaning of Pillow, Makura, is that one places his or her head on a pillow before going to sleep and then goes into a dream state of consciousness. Makura is the preparatory stage for entering the imagery of the Rakugo story comparable to a dream.

After 300 years people still find new laughter in the same stories.

Also there is the Kusuguri or "jab of laughter" which occurs throughout the story and the punch line (Sage) which occurs at the end of the story.

One might ask why the audience would laugh at the punch line of a Rakugo story that the audience has heard many times before - especially in the case of a classic story. It is because of Kusuguri, the jab of laughter. Performers introduce their own originality in their performances and the jab of laughter. Sometimes it appears in word play, set up of the story, exaggeration of performance, or characters' conversation style. After 300 years people still find new laughter in the same stories. It is similar to the way people enjoy classic operas or classic comedy routines in western culture.

So, the jab of laughter occurs throughout the performance during the Makura and Hanashi to keep the audience interested in the story. Hanashi is usually a humorous story to make the punch line more potent. Sometimes, Hanashi itself is serious or miserable, but it could still have humorous jabs. The Rakugo performer must bring the audience into the imaginary story employing their techniques or artistic skills during Hanashi to surprise the audience when they meet the punch line at the end of story.

Rakugo is a unique form of story telling which includes comedy and play as well as art. It is important to the Japanese people that the style, structure and rich tradition of Rakugo be passed on to succeeding generations. At the same time the people wish to see the changes that take plae in society and culture reflected in Rakugo. The newer stories reflect modern Japanese society and are appreciated as are the classic stories. Events of today will be history tomorrow. Reflections of today's society are being blended into Rakugo tradition.

Rakugo is one expression of Japanese society and culture and can help introduce Japan to other cultures. I am pleased to help introduce Rakugo to other cultures and in doing so present Japanese society and people as well as a form of Japanese humor.
Copyright 2002 Kimie Oshima