RAKUGO: Japan’s Enduring Art of Storytelling Part1

Japan has a fascinating and multifaceted culture. It is a culture that is steeped in traditions dating back thousands of years and at the same time in a constant state of rapid flux, with continually shifting fads, fashions, and technological developments. Yet, at times it seems that the more Japan evolves, the more it remains the same. Many of Japan’s traditional arts embody these characteristics as well and reflect the mutable society we have so often observed.

Rakugo, Japan’s traditional art of storytelling is no exception to this phenomenon. Rakugo as we know it today dates back to the Edo period (1603-1867), when the art form gained a foothold in Edo (Tokyo), Osaka, and Kyoto, with each city developing its own distinctive style. It became a popular form of entertainment after the establishment of the first vaudeville-type urban theaters known as yose in 1798.

Kanariya Eiraku (English rakugo storyteller performing in Aichi courtesy of Kanariya Eiraku)

These theatres provided entertainment for ordinary people and at the height of their popularity there were 175 yose operating in Edo alone. Today there are only four yose still in existence in Tokyo (the Suzumoto Engeijo in Ueno, the Shinjuku Suehirotei in Shinjuku, the Asakusa Engei Hall in Asakusa, and the Ikebukuro Engeijo in Ikebukuro), one in Osaka (the Temma Tenjin Hanjo Tei), and one each in Kobe (the Kobe ShinkaichiKirakukan), Nagoya (the Osu Engeijo), and Sendai (Hanaza).

Rakugo’s origins can be traced back to the 17th century, to the humorous anecdotes that were used during long Buddhist sermons as an effective way to keep people awake and alert. In 1623, through the urging of Kyoto governor Itakura Shigemune, a Buddhist monk named Anrakuan Sakuden (1554-1642), compiled over 1,000 of these anecdotes in a work called “Seisuisho” (“Laughs to Wake You Up”).

Today, Sakuden is considered to be the father of rakugo. The presentation and style of rakugo performances have remained unchanged since the late 18th century. A rakugo performance is rather minimalistic and features a lone storyteller (rakugoka) dressed in a kimono, kneeling in the seiza position on a floor cushion (zabuton) that is placed on an elevated stage or platform (koza).

The performer relies solely on a paper fan (sensu) and a small hand towel (tenugui) as props to help him convey the story to the audience. The stories are based on a wide range of topics, from comical to sentimental, and involve conversations between multiple characters. The storyteller switches fluidly and seamlessly from one character to another, changing his voice, facial expression, mannerisms, and accent to fit the character who is speaking. A slight turn of the head and a change in pitch is used to indicate a switch from one character to another.

Continue to Part2

『Kristine’s Eye on Japan: Introduction to Japanese Culture』
Writer: Kristine Ohkubo

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