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Those who’ve been in Japan for a while probably have observed that Japanese people do things differently from Americans. Comedy is no exception.

When it comes to making people laugh, Japan’s stand-up comics often perform sitting down.

And they wear kimonos.

Rakugo — comic storytelling, or as some people call it, “sit-down” comedy — is a form of Japanese humor with roots said to extend to the end of the 16th century. Professional rakugo performers are said to have emerged during the Edo period in Osaka and Edo [present-day Tokyo], when they discovered they could make a living from performing.

Rakugo is a form of monologue in which the storyteller, the rakugoka, using gestures, facial and vocal expressions, narrates a tale confined to conversations between people. The storyteller, wearing a kimono, sits on a cushion, or zabuton, on stage, then tells the entire story sitting down. Stories end with a punch line, or ochi.

These unique characteristics of rakugo led Kimie Oshima, an assistant professor at Tokyo’s Bunkyo Gakuin University, to introduce it as a form of Japanese comedy to foreigners.

“I was asked if Japanese people had any sense of humor,” Oshima said, recalling when the International Society for Humor Studies asked her to make a presentation on Japanese humor in 1996. “This shows that people think there isn’t any in the first place.”

Different types of humor traditions exist in Japan, but Oshima chose rakugo because it’s told as a conversation, making it easy to research. She also liked it because the storyteller sits on the floor, wears a kimono and acts out different characters, which makes it unique.

Rakugo’s long history also was important because she needed to prove it was a form of humor original to Japan. “Rakugo has a history of 300 or 400 years, longer than the history of the United States, so at least it shows that it is unique to Japan,” she said.

But she also simply wanted to show that “Japanese also have humor and wit.”

She made her presentation with a professional rakugoka performing in Japanese with subtitles. She quickly realized that for an audience that spoke only English, it needed to be performed in English.

Storytelling, gestures and facial expressions all make up rakugo — and audience members at the presentation were moving their eyes back and forth between subtitle and performer. Eventually, she said, many just read the subtitles.

After she returned, she got together with the rakugoka who performed in the United States and wanted to perform rakugo in English since it was his first time making foreigners laugh. They found four rakugoka who were interested in performing overseas. They and Oshima toured in the United States in 1998. Since then, they’ve put on shows in countries such as Singapore, Australia, Malaysia and Norway.

Although they were able to put together a show in just a year, they faced difficulties. For Oshima, translating jokes that played on words in the original story was tough.

Rakugo derives much of its humor from plays on words, she added, so she couldn’t just take them out. Also, the standard in America is that a good comedian should be able to make an audience laugh five times in a minute. So Oshima devised stories with that number in mind.

For the rakugoka, those unable to speak English simply memorize their lines. But audience laughter at unexpected places leaves them unsure if they should continue. However, they constantly work over their skits to fit the audience.

Rakugo stories reflect the society at the time. Through rakugo, Oshima hopes people can learn Japanese culture and develop a positive image of Japanese people. “One can learn more if they learn things with humor,” Oshima says. “I think rakugo is a good material for that.”

Oshima dreams of spreading the word “rakugo” throughout the world. Just as Japanese words such as “sushi” have been accepted and used as English words, she hopes “rakugo” will catch on worldwide.

“Just as people now say, ‘Let’s go and get some sushi,’ I want people to say, ‘Let’s go to rakugo tonight.’ ”

Check it out

You can catch English rakugo at an upcoming performance at the Rakugo Festival in Ginza, Tokyo.

Date: 3:30 to 5 p.m. July 17.

Place: Yamaha Hall, a four-minute walk from Exit A3 of the Ginza station on the Tokyo Metro’s Ginza, Hibiya and Marunouchi lines.

Admission: Free.

The program is to include a description and explanations of how to enjoy rakugo, the rakugo story and Japanese dance by Ryutei Komachi. There also will be rakugo performances by Kimie Oshima and Hayashiya Ippei and a bamboo blinds show (tama-sudare) by Oshima, Hayashiya and Ryutei.

For more information about the Rakugo Festival in Ginza, go to www.joa.co.jp/koasa/daiginza/ginza_eigo.html.

For more about English Rakugo, go to www.english-rakugo.com/english_version/english_index. html.

author picture
Hana Kusumoto is a reporter/translator who has been covering local authorities in Japan since 2002. She was born in Nagoya, Japan, and lived in Australia and Illinois growing up. She holds a journalism degree from Boston University and previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor’s Tokyo bureau.
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