Rakugo: Japanese Sit-Down Comedy
By Kimie Oshima M.A.
From Humor & Health Journal
Vol XII, Number 3
May/June 1998

Rakugo: Japanese Sit-Down Comedy

Rakugo can be best described as Japanese sit-down comedy of comic story telling. Just as there is stand-up comedy in the western countries, there is sit-down comedy in Japan. Most obviously, the difference is that the performer sits on his knees when he performs. It requires some training to sit like that for a long time without letting the legs fall in sleep. The performer wears traditional formal Japanese clothes (Kimono) and sometimes wears a pair of long wide pants (Hakama) and/or a formal jacket (Haori).

The performer is usually equipped with a fan (Sensu) and hand towel (Tenugui). These items help the performer express and act out the story. For example, the fan can be chopsticks, scissors, cigarettes, pipe, or pen. The towel could be a book, bills, or an actual towel. The performer sits on a small mattress, dressed in his Kimono and acts out the whole story by himself.

In Rakugo only the conversations between characters appear in the story. Therefore, the performer must be able play the role of each distinct character. There are always several characters in a Rakugo story. The performers play each character by changing voice, facial expression, mannerisms, speech, etc.. In most cases the characters have strong stereotypical personalities and characteristics so that as the performer switches from one character to another the audience readily detects the change.

Some of the popular character stereotypes are: 1. Stupid, hasty, rash, forgetful, clumsy; 2. Smart, reliable, short-tempered; 3. Pretentious, vain; 4. Cunning, tricky, quick-witted; 5. Authority figure, man in power; 6. Canny, stingy, miserly, mean; 7. Sexy; 8. Liar, brag, untruthful; and 9. Non-human characters.

Each character represents qualities within all of us or parts of the human personality.

These exaggerated characters are performed by Rakugo performers without costume or equipment to disguise themselves. Therefore, in a way, Rakugo is the art of imagination. The audience is free to imagine features of characters and the background.

The roots of Rakugo can be traced to the end of 17th century. Rakugo developed from mini-tales which were told among common people. The style of performance or presentation of Rakugo was established in the late 18th century and has not changed. When some of the early artisans discovered that they could actually make a living as professional story tellers, they would rent a large room (Yose) in a house and sit on a small mattress to perform Rakugo. Rakugo performers are called Rakugo-ka.

First, Rakugo stories were intended to teach what would be laughed at in the society and give people social knowledge. As it developed it became entertainment for common people and the rooms where Rakugo was performed (Yose) became centers for social gathering. Historically, there are no female Rakugo-ka (performers) and even today there are only a few female performers. In Japanese culture social activities have been considered as primarily for men.

As Rakugo became popular, a tradition for learning Rakugo became established. Pupils who wish to become Rakugo performers are called Deshi. Hen someone wishes to become a pupil of a favorite Rakugo performer the person goes to the performer and asks to be accepted as a student. If the professional Rakugo performer finds the prospective pupil to be talented and chooses to teach him, the Rakugo-ka takes in the pupil.

The master trains the student verbally. First, the master tells a story, perhaps one of his favorite repertories. Then, the student imitates it as best he can. After much practice the pupil is able to ad or modify the style and introduce some originality to the story. All the training is verbal. No written text is used. Probably part of the reason for the oral emphasis is that when Rakguo started many people were unable to read, therefore, the tradition has been passed on through the generations. Recently, it has become acceptable to use audio and video tape, but written text is still not employed.

The pupil (Deshi) has the duty to carry out responsibilities for the master. Deshi's responsibilities include even house work such as cleaning, cooking, driving the master, laundry, and baby sitting to take care of younger Deshi. They take lessons in story telling, playing instruments like the Japanese three stringed banjo, drums, and dance. In many cases, Rakugo performers in training live with the master in the master's house. Therefore, their work is 24 hours a day.

During the time as a student the master is primarily responsible for taking care of the pupil's financial needs. The master also provides opportunities for the pupil to perform on the stage. Usually, Rakugo pupils complete their training after two to four years. With the master's permission a Deshi becomes a Rakugo performer, Rakugo-ka.

The first few years after Deshi's becomes Rakugo-ka and leave their masters' roof is when they usually experience the most difficult times in their career. They must try to get on the stage and increase their number of repertories.

There are about 300 popular stories which are still performed as classic Rakugo in addition to many new stories created by current Rakugo artists. Even the new stories follow the structure of Rakugo so that the essence of Rakugo remains intact. Each Rakugo story begins with what is called Pillow, or Makura, which begins and leads the audience into the story or Hanashi. The symbolic meaning of Pillow, Makura, is that one places his or her head on a pillow before going to sleep and then goes into a dream state of consciousness. Makura is the preparatory stage for entering the imagery of the Rakugo story comparable to a dream.

After 300 years people still find new laughter in the same stories.

Also there is the Kusuguri or "jab of laughter" which occurs throughout the story and the punch line (Sage) which occurs at the end of the story.

One might ask why the audience would laugh at the punch line of a Rakugo story that the audience has heard many times before - especially in the case of a classic story. It is because of Kusuguri, the jab of laughter. Performers introduce their own originality in their performances and the jab of laughter. Sometimes it appears in word play, set up of the story, exaggeration of performance, or characters' conversation style. After 300 years people still find new laughter in the same stories. It is similar to the way people enjoy classic operas or classic comedy routines in western culture.

So, the jab of laughter occurs throughout the performance during the Makura and Hanashi to keep the audience interested in the story. Hanashi is usually a humorous story to make the punch line more potent. Sometimes, Hanashi itself is serious or miserable, but it could still have humorous jabs. The Rakugo performer must bring the audience into the imaginary story employing their techniques or artistic skills during Hanashi to surprise the audience when they meet the punch line at the end of story.

Rakugo is a unique form of story telling which includes comedy and play as well as art. It is important to the Japanese people that the style, structure and rich tradition of Rakugo be passed on to succeeding generations. At the same time the people wish to see the changes that take plae in society and culture reflected in Rakugo. The newer stories reflect modern Japanese society and are appreciated as are the classic stories. Events of today will be history tomorrow. Reflections of today's society are being blended into Rakugo tradition.

Rakugo is one expression of Japanese society and culture and can help introduce Japan to other cultures. I am pleased to help introduce Rakugo to other cultures and in doing so present Japanese society and people as well as a form of Japanese humor.

© 2002 Kimie Oshima