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Image by Kaishi Katsura(桂かい枝)

[Traditional performing arts] Have you heard about the sit-down comedy Rakugo? There is even an English version of it.

You won’t find a person who doesn’t know what Rakugo is in Japan. There are no large props or co-actors. The story is created by a single rakugo storyteller who sits on the stage. Rakugo has attracted crowds of people since its birth about 330 years ago. Recently, the manga and anime 'Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju' by Haruko Kumota has attracted more attention to the world of Rakugo.

History of rakugo

Rakugo was born about 330 years ago. It was not born in one particular place and it developed around Osaka, Kyoto, and Edo (Tokyo today).

The oldest Rakugoka (Rakugo artist) is said to be the Tsuyu no Gorobei in Kyoto. He set up desk-like stages outdoors on the banks of the Kamogawa River in Kyoto. Here he sat and told funny Tsuji-Banashi stories. Tsuji means roadside and Banashi means story. After that, Hikohachi Yonezawa in Osaka built a small theater and established the same viewing style that we know of today.

During the same period in which Hikohachi Yonezawa was active, Buzaemon Shikano began performing Kokkei-Banashi stories, at restaurants and other places around Edo. They were thought to be the originators of Rakugoka as they all received money from the audience.

Today, there is not only classical Rakugo that follows Tsuji-Banashi and Kokkei-Banashi, but also many new Rakugo style that are performed presently. Also more and more people perform Rakugo and not only in Japanese but also in English! I'm looking forward to seeing how Rakugo develops in the future.

Rakugo performance style

Rakugo is performed by a Rakugoka (Rakugo artist) alone on the stage. There are no large props, only a few small props are needed to create the story.

There are three basic props. A traditional Japanese hand towel called "Tenugui", a foldable fan "Sensu", and a cushion "Zabuton" for sitting on. The Rakugoka proceeds by sitting on the Zabuton and using the hand Tenugui and Sensu to portray various other objects. You can make the hand towel out to be a snack, and the fan can be portrayed as a cigarette.

Edo Rakugo in Tokyo has only these 3 props, but Kamigata Rakugo in Kyoto and Osaka are different. As it originates from the street performance style they use tools that make sounds. A "Kendai" which is a small wooden stand and a "Hizakushi" which is a small screen are placed in front of the zabuton cushion. The "Kobyousi" which is 2 small pieces of wood are used to strike the Kendai to create sound effects. The stage of the manga and anime 'Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju' is based in Tokyo and they don't use these props.

What you should not forget is the admission song that plays when Rakugoka goes on the stage. They are called "Debayashi" or "Yosebayashi" and they mainly play live music using instruments such as shamisen and taiko drums. Originally it was used only in Kamigata Rakugo, but it has been used in Edo Rakugo for the past 100 years.

In Kamigata Rakugo, this Hayashi is played even during the Rakugo storytelling. This is called "Hamemono".

Image by Kaishi Katsura(桂かい枝)

Image by Kaishi Katsura(桂かい枝)

Places to Enjoy Rakugo

You can listen to Rakugo on the TV or radio in Japan, but if you listen to it at the theater, the impact is greater. Let me introduce you to a representative theater. Please note that English Rakugo is not always performed.

1. Suzumoto Theater

It is the oldest theater in Tokyo. It's been around since 1858. The building has been rebuilt several times, but it is always a place filled with the excitement of entertainment.

Suzumoto performance room

2-7-12 Ueno, Taito City, Tokyo

2. Shinjuku Suehirotei

Suehirotei is a classical building that stands out in the modern building complex in Shinjuku. It is also the model of "Uchikutei" that appears in the manga of “Genroku Rakugo Shinju.”

Shinjuku Suehirotei

3-6-12 Shinjuku, Shinjuku City, Tokyo

3. Tenma Tenjin Hanjotei

It is close to Osaka Tenman-gu Shrine and the Tenjinbashisuji shopping street, so it is perfect to do while sightseeing. This Tenma Tenjin Hanjotei is owned by the Kamigata Rakugo Association and Kamigata Rakugo is mainly played on the stage.

Tenma Tenjin Hanjotei

2-2-1-34 Tenjinbashi, Kita-ku, Osaka

4. Osuengei-jo Entertainment Hall

This is the only theater in Nagoya where you can listen to Rakugo. It can also be rented out, so anyone who wants to hold a meeting or play in a classical space can do so.

Osuengei-jo Entertainment Hall

2-19-39 Osu, Naka-ku, Nagoya, Aichi

Rakugoka in English Rakugo

There are Rakugoka who perform Rakugo not only in Japanese but also in English. Let me introduce two of them. Both are Kamigata Rakugoka.

Image by Someta Hayashiya(林家染太)

Kaishi Katsura

Born in Hyogo Prefecture, he became a disciple of Bunshi Katsura the 5th in 1994. He has been engaged in English Rakugo since 1997 and now performs it in more than 100 cities in 25 countries. Not only do they translate classical Rakugo into English, but they also create new Rakugo in English, which has been well received by 900 audiences on Broadway. He is also a cultural exchange teacher appointed by the Agency for Cultural Affairs. He is the driving force behind Japanese English Rakugo. It appears in English textbooks for junior and senior high schools in Japan.

In his private life, he is a good father of three daughters. In his US tour in 2008, he and his family were really close. They could travel together in a camping car for half a year.

Image by Kaishi Katsura(桂かい枝), photo by Hiroshi Sato(佐藤浩)

Someta Hayashiya

Born in Ehime Prefecture, he became a disciple of Somemaru Hayashiya 5th in 2000. He became interested in English Rakugo when he was a university student and learned English at an English school. Because of this connection, he had performed overseas before becoming a Rakugo storyteller, and now he has more than 20 years of English Rakugo experience.

At first, foreign audiences were doubtful that Japanese people do comedy, but in the end, they finished in standing ovation. He says this led him to become more and more into English Rakugo.

Image by Someta Hayashiya(林家染太)

Rakugo is a traditional Japanese comedy. The action of laughing activates immune cells, and Japanese people may extend their lives a little longer by doing so. Rakugo has no large props or background, so it's good at developing one’s imagination. Please listen to Rakugo. It is an outstanding for of comedy.

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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