19m 30s

Rakugo in English / International Exchange Associations in Your Town

Living in Japan

Broadcast on November 5, 2023 Available until November 5, 2024

Rakugo is the Japanese art form of storytelling with laughter, the spice of life. Rakugo performer Tatekawa Shinoharu welcomes a wider circle of people to the world of imagination by telling the tales in English.

Also, NHK WORLD-JAPAN producer Ogura Kei talks about organizations that bring newcomers together with Japanese neighbors. They’re found in communities across the country.

【Guest】 Tatekawa Shinoharu: Rakugo performer



Living in Japan! Hello, and thanks for stopping by. I'm Stuart.  I'm Ruth.
Living in Japan is a program for international residents of Japan. Whether you're here now or expect to be in the future.
Our goal is helping you make the most of your life.

Ruth, we’ve devoted a lot of attention to traveling in this program. Yes, we have.
Today, we'd like to introduce you to the totally different way of doing that. What?
One that I think you wouldn't imagine. What's that?
It's Rakugo.

Rakugo. Wait, how do you travel with that? It's a traditional performance art, and there's no wheels to travel with.
You're right about that. But its approach to storytelling transports you to all sorts of different places.
Well, maybe, if you understand what they're saying in Japanese.
Ahh, not just Japanese. Today we're going to talk with a Rakugo performer called a Rakugo-ka or Hanashi-ka, who also performs in English.
Oh, my gosh. That sounds great. Let's raku... go go go!


Senpai is the Japanese word for someone who's a step ahead of you, or even more. Now, every month, we invite a senpai in so we can listen and learn. I happen to be acquainted with today's senpai. He really knows how to tell a story, I can tell you that. Rakugo is one of my favorite forms of entertainment.
Well, Stuart, it sounds like you're really into it.
Oh, yes, I am. How about you?
Well, to be perfectly honest, I actually don't know much about it, so I'm very excited to find out.

Our guest is Tatekawa Shinoharu. He was born here but spent his student years in the U.S. He came back to Japan for his career, then he became an apprentice to Rakugo performer Tatekawa Shinosuke. Now he performs all around Japan, in Japanese and in English. Would you please welcome Tatekawa Shinoharu.

Hey, Grandpa, what are you doing? Oh, I am listening to Rakugo on radio. Rakugo on radio? Really? Is it fun? Of course, it's fun. It's Japanese traditional comedy. See, it's a combination of storytelling and acting. One person sits on a stage and acts out all the characters that appear in the story. And it's really powerful. You get the image in your mind and it starts moving. Really? But it's traditional, right? It's gotta be boring, and it's got to be difficult. No, it's not difficult at all. It's very, very simple. You see, the thing is, Rakugo is old, but it's still very much alive. I see. Old, but still very much alive. Wow, that sounds just like you, Grandpa.

Hahaha. Okay, so that's what Rakugo is all about.
Yep. I introduced Rakugo, in the Rakugo style. It's just one person sitting, looking both ways and acting out characters to tell a story. And it's been around for a long time, about 300 years.
So, Rakugo is, like, classical music. It has many repertoires. So, there are some funny stories, touching stories, horror stories, many types of stories. But most of them offer something to make you laugh.
Well, I like that for sure. Yeah.
And here in the studio, we have the benefit of listening to you and seeing you. I actually noticed that you changed the angle of your head quite a bit. Yes. Is there some meaning to that?

Oh, yes, we do that. We change the direction of our head and also we change the tone of our voice a little bit to differentiate the characters. We only use Sensu, which is the folding fan, and Tenugui, the towel. And using only these two props, we try to portray many actions and characters. And in that way, the audience can picture the story unfolding in front of them as if that it's happening right in front.
It sounds fantastic. Now, performing Rakugo in the original Japanese is a major challenge, of course. What led you to make things even more difficult for yourself?
I mean, it feels like it's almost impossible.
Doing it in English. Yeah.

Yes. So, so that was exactly the reason. People told me it was impossible to do it in English. You know, change the language and convey the humor in Rakugo. But the people who said that had not challenged it. So, I wanted to give it a try, you know?
Well, I've seen you do it both in English and in Japanese, and I've seen it many, many times. And it really is exactly the same. The meaning and all the nuances are really, really quite kept well. It's brilliant.

By the way, do the plots or the characters change when the stories are told in English at all?
I try not to change much, and so I try to stick to the original plots and the characters. But of course, the puns in Japanese cannot be translated. So, I change that part. The punchline usually ends with a pun, so I change that. But I try to keep the Japanese original flavor to the stories. So, I call Hachi, Kuma, Inkyo, Kozo. They're the characters that appear in the Rakugo story.
That's their name? Mm hmm. Oh. I keep them the same. Okay.

Well, as I just said before, like, what I love about your Rakugo, even when you do it in English, it's like you're doing in Japanese. I mean, I know you're speaking English, but it seems like you're talking in Japanese. Absolute magic.

Yeah, that's the thing. I try to keep the rhythm as I am speaking in Japanese and speaking in English.
So, it really truly is like a cultural experience for somebody listening to it, even in English. Absolutely.
And I wonder about the audiences. Yes.
Do they laugh in the same places or do they react differently? Have you noticed any difference?
They usually laugh at the same places, but more wildly than the Japanese audience. Usually, the Japanese audience are more reserved. But when you go abroad, they're just clapping their hands, they're jumping up and down. It's great. Oh, That's fun. Yeah.

When I first saw Rakugo, it didn't seem completely foreign to me because it reminded me of legendary English comedians from the 70s, like Dave Allen and Dick Emery. Some of the listeners may remember these people. They sat in chairs and told wonderful stories just like Rakugo-ka do.
Yeah, I might have seen that online. Wow. That's really interesting. And what are some of the themes?

So, most of the Rakugo stories deal with people's weaknesses. So, you know, being stingy or being ignorant or, you know, being lazy, kind of. Everyone has that, right? Yeah.
But we say those things are what makes people attractive and charming. And so it was, it originated from the ordinary people during the Edo period. Okay.
So, most stories are about, you know, lazy workers, fathers who drink more than they should, shopkeepers, apprentices. So, the stories deal with the everyday hopes, successes and failures and, you know, the charms of everyone around.

For example, there's a story called “Jugemu.” It's a very popular story. It's about a boy with a very long name. And the reason why his name became very long was because his parents wanted to give him a good name, but they couldn't think of a good name. So, they asked around and people gave them names and when they had collected them, they could not choose one. So therefore, the boy's name becomes "Jugemu Jugemu Goko no Surikire Kaijarisuigyo no Suigyomatsu Unraimatsu Furaimatsu Ku Neru Tokoro ni Sumu Tokoro Yabura Koji no Bura Koji Paipo Paipo Paipo no Shuringan Shuringan no Gurindai Gurindai no Ponpokopi no Ponpokona no Chokyumei no Chosuke" was his name. So, that's how parents are for, you know, kids.

Another story is called “Tenshiki,” and it's about people who pretend to know things that they don't know. So, it's about a priest at a temple, and he's having a stomach problem. And the doctor comes and says, “Do you have Tenshiki?” And he says, “I don't have Tenshiki,” but he actually doesn't know what Tenshiki means. Right.
Now, he wants to try to find it out, and he does it by using a child monk who's in the temple. And so, and in the end, we learned that Tenshiki means fart. And so, the priest is embarrassed. But, those things happen, you know, to everybody.
I think we learned an important word today. Tenshiki. I’m gonna teach it to my kids because they do Tenshiki all the time.
Loud Tenshiki, silent Tenshiki, many kinds of Tenshiki.

And actually, when I watch stand-up comedians from English-speaking countries, they often make fun of people, especially people in power. Is that true of Rakugo as well?
Yes, Rakugo was born like that. It was among the ordinary people. So, we made fun of Samurai in the Edo era who were in power. A story called Meguro no Samma is about a Samurai who knows nothing about ordinary food such as Samma, which is a kind of fish.
So, making fun of the people, yeah, of course in power, who don't really know what they're talking about.
Kind of like picking on them.

Love it. Okay, so now that you've got us hooked, tell us what we should do to get to know Rakugo better.
Yes. So, the difficult thing about Rakugo is, compared to Kabuki, it deals more with language, right? So, if you want to find performance in English, they're held in various venues, professional Rakugo performers, or if you can’t find a live performance, watch videos you can find online. And but once you've gotten the plots from English performances, you'll be better prepared for the Japanese versions. So, because even Japanese native speakers find Rakugo challenging because we use Edo kind of dialect and Kansai dialect. Oh, that's fun.

And this makes me kind of think of opera because most of them, you know, they're in Italian or German, and I'm an English speaker, right? Yeah.
But once you sort of know the story, you can enjoy them. Because the storylines can be quite similar, right? That's a really good point. Yeah.

So that's exactly like that. And so, if you learn Rakugo, the Edo dialect, you can show it off to people, you know. You’re going to speak like "Surutteto-nanikai", which means "What are you trying to say?" You know, "Do you mean something?" in Edo dialect, "Surutteto-nanikai."
"Surutteto-nanikai." Oh yeah! Very, very cool. Well done!
And then once you build your confidence, the next step is Yose. Yose? Okay.
Traditional theater that plays that Rakugo every day, 365 days a year. And not only Rakugo but Manzai and other performances. And in Tokyo, there are four Yose theaters: Ueno, Asakusa, Shinjuku, and Ikebukuro. And also, there are some in Osaka area as well. So, but don't expect to find any English guidance like the Kabuki theaters.

Yeah. I've actually been to a Manzai one in Osaka. Couldn't understand a thing. It was right when I first came. So yeah, it might be challenging, but it sounds like a very good way to get immersed in Japanese, and also a very important part of the culture.
Oh, exactly. Yeah. Now, Shinoharu, you perform lots of monologues that are only in English, right?
Yeah. So, when I do an English performance, usually before I go into the stories, I do a Makura, which is like an introduction to get them used to the Japanese and Japanese culture and Japanese language. What I speak is that we're obsessed, Japanese people are obsessed with the word "Suimasen." We say that all the time. "Suimasen" when you say, “Excuse me,” it's “Suimasen,” when you say, “Thank you,” it's "Suimasen." when you say I'm sorry, it's "Suimasen." All the time.  But "Suimasen" has other meanings as well. It means when you're saying, “Would you like a cigarette?” it’s "Suimasen." when you're saying, “I don't smoke,” it’s "Suimasen." So, things can get a little bit complicated when you have this kind of conversation, it's like, “Would you like a cigarette?” “Excuse me, would you like a cigarette?”  “Oh I'm sorry. I don't smoke.” “All You don't smoke?” “No, I don't smoke.” “I'm sorry.” “No, no, no, I'm sorry.” So, this in Japanese would be like this, “Suimasen, suimasen?” “Ah suimasen, suimasen.” “Suimasen?” “Suimasen, suimasen,” “Ie ie, suimasen...” It gets very, very complicated...
On and on and on. Yeah yeah.

Oh, that's brilliant. Nothing we could say would ever top that. I could tell that. Okay. Today's guest was Tatekawa Shinoharu. Thanks so much for coming in. Thank you very much for having me.
Suimasen! Suimasen!


Now we move on to "Good to Know," insights for enjoying our lives in Japan even more.
Well, one thing that's certainly helped is getting back to a normal lifestyle now that the COVID situation has calmed down.
Absolutely. The borders were closed for such a long time, but tourism has resumed and we're seeing the evidence of pent-up demand.
That's certainly true. But the number of people from other countries “living in Japan” is increasing, too. Stuart, how were your early days here?
Well, I came to Japan at the tender age of 20. And in my case, everything happening around me felt really fresh, and I could even sort of enjoy all the difficult things. However, I had friends who found it really daunting. They were hoping that interacting more with Japanese people would open the door to the language and the culture.
They'd also be happy if they could join in community events with their Japanese neighbors.

What do you think it would take to make that happen?
Well, I know somebody to ask. Kei Ogura. He's a producer with NHK WORLD-JAPAN, and he knows from experience. Welcome, Kei.
Thanks for having me.
Kei, what are some of the organizations that bring local Japanese people together with international residents?

International exchange associations are what comes to mind. They have close ties with local governments and were established with the purpose of supporting international residents.
They also promote exchanges between Japanese and people from other countries.

What kind of activities do they offer?
First of all, Japanese language classes. There are many places where you can learn basic conversation, words and phrases to get you through daily life. Simple Japanese also may help you know what to do and where to go in natural disasters. Yeah.
The courses are typically taught by Japanese volunteers.
Well, getting a handle on simple Japanese can give you a lot and very deep peace of mind, right? We do live in a country where earthquakes, tsunami and other types of disasters are not uncommon. Right.

Let me mention that quite a few Japanese volunteers in the association also help with international exchange events. Oh.
They provide interpretation and translation. Actually, in my free time, I've been volunteering with that sort of organization for more than seven years. Wow. Thank you so much.
Wow, seven, thank you. That's so nice to hear! Tell us about what kind of activities you’re involved in.
I mainly work as an interpreter, most often at elementary and middle schools. Schools regularly have meetings to convey information to the kids and their families. However, many of the overseas families are not good at Japanese. And that's why interpretation becomes necessary. Sure.

I totally understand that, because parents really need to know what's going on with their children at school, especially those who have just come to Japan, right?
That's true. I sometimes help parents understand the content of their children's assignments. That’s good.
For example, explaining how to write a book report or how to grow flowers for summer homework.
Ah, that summer homework! A classic component of the Japanese school year. It’s so important to keep up with, right?
Is it possible to receive this kind of help from any international exchange association?

I think you have to contact the association where you are living to find out what it's prepared to do. Many of them provide language classes and often offer a way for newcomers to get involved in the community. Really? Like, like what? Such as?
Like events at which you can learn about the local culture and the history. The city of Yamagata, for example, has a famous festival called Hanagasa Matsuri. People dance together in teams. The international exchange association there teams up the residents from overseas with Japanese volunteers.

Hanagasa Matsuri is quite famous though, isn't it? Sounds like a lot of fun.
Yeah, I mean, every part of the country has a lot of things to be proud of.
Yes. Check with the international exchange association where you live and dive in. The more you do, the deeper your life in Japan will become.

By the way, how can you get information about international exchange associations?
The easiest way is to search on the Internet. However, they go by different names. So, if you don't find what you are looking for right away, try some similar words. Or you can always go to your city hall and ask there. It's a great idea.
Especially, for families with children, being in a new country, presents nonstop challenges. Yes.
But it's also filled with endless opportunities.

I'm sure they're really helped, especially like when they're having a baby in Japan. Oh yeah.
There are all these different things, challenges that come up. All sorts of challenges. Yes, indeed.
So, Kei. Thank you so much for coming in and for volunteering to help a lot of people like us, all these newcomers to Japan.
Today's guest was Kei Ogawa from NHK WORLD-JAPAN. Thank you so much Kei.
My pleasure.


The holiday season is approaching.
Yes, I'm so excited! But for some people, including myself, this can be a time when we feel a little homesick. But, you know, if you actually look around like, I love Thanksgiving. If you look around, there are places that have Thanksgiving dinner.
You might even come across something directly from your own country.

We hope you'll always feel at home with our program. If you want to hear it again or introduce someone else to it. Just head to our website.
Please do. Go to the NHK WORLD-JAPAN website, click on "On-Demand," choose "Audio," and select "Living in Japan."
And let us hear from you. You can send us a message through the site. We'll be back next month with another edition of Living in Japan. We certainly will.

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