Q: How many rakugo stories are there?
A: There are approximately 500 classical rakugo stories known to exist. These stories were written sometime between the 17th and 19th centuries.Of the 500 stories, 100 are commonly performed at the rakugo theaters known as yose.
Q: Can classical rakugo stories be modified?
A: Yes, classical rakugo stories can be modified if the changes do not materially alter the story.
Q: Do new rakugo stories exist?
A: Yes, new rakugo stories do exist. Currently, some rakugo scriptwriters and storytellers create new rakugo stories. The stories produced during the 20th century and after are classified as new or modern stories. Currently, some rakugo scriptwriters and storytellers create new rakugo stories.
Q: How many rakugo stories have been translated into English?
A: English rakugo storyteller Kanariya Eiraku has personally translated 80 classical rakugo stories into English. If you combine these with stories translated by others, there are currently over 100 stories in the English rakugo repertoire.
Q: Where can one listen to rakugo in Japan?
A: There are several rakugo theaters called Yose where rakugo is performed daily throughout the year. There are four yose in Tokyo, one in Osaka, one in Kobe, and one in Nagoya.
Q: Are children allowed in a Yose theater?
A: Yes, children are permitted in the yose theater. However, keep in mind that there are certain rakugo stories which may not be appropriate for children.
Q: Can one listen to English rakugo in Japan?
A: English rakugo is not performed in the traditional yose theaters. You can find certain performers who do perform in English at various venues throughout Japan, but these performances are rare.
Q: How many rakugo storytellers are there in Japan?
A: To date, there are approximately 1000 rakugo storytellers in Japan. These performers are redominantly male; however, the number of female storytellers is increasing. Currently, there are 50 female storytellers. Women account for only 5% of the total rakugo storytellers in Japan. There are also several foreign storytellers who hail from Canada, Sweden, the U.K., and France. These storytellers perform in both English and Japanese.
Q: How long has rakugo existed?
A: Rakugo developed about 400 years ago. Toward the end of the 16th century, there emerged a group of storytellers known as otogishu emerged. They were similar to the court jesters in the European arena. Both entertained their lord or king. Then, a monk named Anrakuan Sakuden published a collection of funny stories in 1623. Today, he is regarded as the father of rakugo.
Q: Why do rakugo storytellers wear a kimono when they perform?
A: Since rakugo storytellers portray both male and female characters, their portrayals are more convincing to the audience if they are dressed in a kimono. Most stories take place during the Edo period, when both sexes dressed in a kimono.
Q: Why do rakugo storytellers flip the zabuton (floor cushion) over after they finish telling their story?
A: By doing so, the performer pays their respect to the next storyteller. The floor cushion absorbs the storyteller’s body heat and may be quite uncomfortable for the next storyteller to sit on. By flipping the cushion over, the storyteller provides the next performer with a cool and comfortable cushion on which to perform.
Q: How does a storyteller portray different characters in the story?
A: In the Edo period, Japan was a hierarchical society where social rank was observed. A performer seamlessly switches from one character to another by moving their head either to the right or to the left. When a person who is ranked socially lower is speaking, they are on stage right and speak facing to the left. When a person who is ranked socially higher is speaking, they are on stage left and speak facing to the right.
Q: Can similar performances be found in other countries?
A: Other countries have their own versions of comedic performances, such as standup comedy for instance. However, performing a story while sitting on a floor cushion can only be found in Japan. These days, rakugo performers are performing outside of Japan more frequently than before. You may be able to catch a traditional rakugo performance in your country.
Q: How are rakugo stories translated into English?
A: Story selection is the key. Some stories lend themselves very well to translation while others may be more difficult to translate. If the premise and scenery of the story are easy to understand, the story can be translated quite literally. If they prove to be difficult to understand, the story has to be altered to suit the audience. For example, there is a popular story called “Scary Manju.” While manju is a popular dumpling in Japan, it is relatively unknown outside of Japan. In this case, when the storyteller relates this story to a foreign audience, they can change the dumpling to a hamburger, pizza or donut.
Q: How do you practice rakugo?
A: It depends on the individual. Some storytellers practice at home while others practice while walking, driving a car, or even riding on a bicycle. Still others go to a karaoke bar to concentrate on practicing.
Q: Which is more difficult to perform, Japanese rakugo or English rakugo?
A: Both are difficult in different ways. In Japanese, speech varies depending on a person’s age and rank; whether the individual is older or younger or if they have a higher or lower social class. For example, how you say ”I” or “you” varies depending on age or social rank. Further, sometimes rakugo uses archaic words that are difficult to understand.
The English language does not have these restrictions; therefore, English rakugo scripts are easier in that sense. However, intonation and pronunciation of English words may be challenging to master for a Japanese performer.
Q: Do you belong to an association?
A: We are members of the English Rakugo Association (https://en.englishrakugo.com/). The association was founded and incorporated in Tokyo in 2020 at the height of the pandemic.The association’s mission is to spread rakugo all over the world.
Q: What are the key differences between Japanese and English humor?
A: Basically, there is no difference. People tend to laugh when their expectations are cleverly betrayed. However, in the Japanese language, there are countless homonyms or words that sound the same but have different meanings. Rakugo takes advantage of this and incorporates jokes based on wordplay and puns.