Glimpses of Culture Through Humor: An Introduction to Japanese Comic Storytelling

Sakuranbo

We do have some sense of humor. But Japanese export too many good products like cars and stereos…So we just decided not to export good jokes. That’s why you never get to hear one.

Kimie Oshima

I remember seeing a commercial on TV a few years ago, pretty sure it was for Beck’s beer. The scene was set in a comedy club. On stage was a guy with a heavy German accent clumsily attempting stand-up. His joke bombs: “I just flew in from Germany and boy are my arms tired!”

The commercial then cuts away with the tag line, “In Germany we don’t do comedy, we do beer!”–or something like that.

What struck me about the joke is that it doesn’t work without the established cultural stereotype of Germans as a stoic, humorless people. And the irony of the commercial is that a German company is poking fun at its own culture for not being funny–and it’s funny! And I’d be remiss not to mention that the commercial had its desired effect: it made me want to go out and drink a Beck’s!

The Japanese get a similar bad rap in the humor department. Truth is I was guilty of dragging this stereotype with me to Japan over 32 years ago. And boy was I wrong. (Come to think of it I’ve known a few German folks in the past who could joke with the best of ‘em, although the flow of humor tended to correlate with the amount of beer consumed.)

After discovering with delight just how wrong I was, I got interested in Japan’s comic tradition, an interest that eventually led to my discovery of the Japanese comic storytelling art form known as “Rakugo.” My decision to write my senior thesis on “Black Humor in Rakugo” was a natural extension of this new interest.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before going there it helps to understand that I have this unusual (some might say morbid) fascination with death. Nah it’s not a Goth kind of thing. I blame it on a philosophy course in my sophomore year of college that got me hooked on death–more specifically, on understanding different cultural attitudes toward death, and how our respective cultures deal with it. I’ve never been the same since.

So the ultimate choice of such an esoteric theme was really an attempt to kill three birds with one stone: 1) Indulge my interest in humor; 2) Deepen my understanding of Japanese culture by looking at how they use black humor to deal with death, and; 3) Improve my Japanese language ability in the process.

Well, it occurred to me a few months ago that a post on Rakugo might interest some of my readers. So I dug through my files and dredged up the old thesis. What follows are bits and pieces of a document written twenty-five years ago, then heavily edited (think slash and burn) to purge all the boring academic minutia and other mumbo-jumbo that doesn’t matter. To further enhance and update the piece, I added some quotes from Rakugo expert Kimie Oshima as well. (Your reward for reading this post to the very end is a funny Rakugo performance on youtube–done in English!)

What is Rakugo?

Let’s start by examining the word itself. It is written with two Chinese characters: “raku,” which means “fallen”, and “go.”,which means “words” or “language.” So literally Rakugo means “Fallen Words.” Note that in the old days it was also called “Otoshibanashi” or “falling discourse”. Does anyone else find it interesting that the concept of “fall” is associated with humor in Japan?

Rakugo is similar to what we call “stand-up comedy.” One key difference is that Rakugo performers practice their art sitting down–or more precisely, kneeling in seiza position. Using minimal narrative the Rakugo performer acts out the entire story playing every character.

The performer also has props that include a fan and hand towel. The fan can be used as, among other things, a real fan. It can also be chopsticks, pens, scissors, knives–or just about any object the storyteller wants it to be. The towel is used for objects with a flatter shape, like books, etc.

Rakugo has lots of strong, distinctive characters in its repertoire of stories. And since the performer is playing every character’s role, acting is a big part of the storyteller’s gig; he must capture the essence of each character through his voice, facial expressions, accent, mannerisms and, of course, his skillful use of props.

The origins of Rakugo can be traced to the end of 17th century, but some scholars believe it reaches back even further to the medieval jongleurs and priests of the 13th and 14th centuries, who traveled about Japan entertaining and spreading the Buddhist word to the then illiterate masses. And there’s no doubt that the tumultuous Muromachi era (1333/4-1573) was a time of great artistic creativity for the performing arts. The “national literature” and performance style created in this era left an indelible stamp on virtually all performing arts of ensuing generations, certainly Rakugo.

But I’m not one to split academic hairs over something as fun and benign as Rakugo. What’s impressive to me–and what really matters–is that Rakugo survived to the present in its current form. This is a testament to both the power of the tradition and its flexibility in adapting to changing times.

Rakugo expert Kimie Oshima sums it up nicely:

“After 300 years, people still find new laughter in the same stories…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 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.”

Can’t think of a better way to describe the Rakugo art form. It really is a lot like going into a dream state since the storyteller has a way of “projecting” a kind of movie in your head–with nothing more than words and gestures. In this sense Rakugo is a great example of what scholar Barbara Ruch coined “the cinemization of Japanese literature”.

For those interested in delving deeper into Japanese culture, Rakugo offers a delightful peek under the stern-looking Japanese façade that masks a people who love to laugh.

The real beauty of humor is that it humanizes all of us. Indeed humor can draw on our common humanity to bridge gaps and connect people. And if you need proof, just check out the youtube link below🙂

In the next post we get a glimpse at the humorous Buddhist afterlife portrayed in a classic Rakugo story titled Okechimyaku. In the meantime check out this great youtube clip of an English Rakugo performance on the “strange way” Japanese people exchange business cards. Since the clip is not set up for embedding I provided the link. Enjoy!

(For readers interested in learning more about Rakugo, check out this link and this link.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2010

10 responses to “Glimpses of Culture Through Humor: An Introduction to Japanese Comic Storytelling

  1. Aloha Tim! Thank you for taking the time to walk us through something I had seen but never really appreciated (or understood) when living in Japan.

    I look forward to additional posts on the exploration of humor in Japan…and am quite interested, perhaps morbidly interested, in how humor is used in accepting death….

    I participated in a company organized funeral for my father in law which was a long drawn out affair with hundreds of dignitaries and kept myself awake by taking notes of what was happening sometimes using black humor…but didn’t realize Japanese might be thinking the same way as well…

  2. Aloha Tim,

    Happy new year again. I hope that this year will be a good one.

    I read a book yesterday evening, a good one. It’s about the experience of the author first encounter with the japanese workforce. I like it a lot.

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Fear-Trembling-Amelie-Nothomb/dp/0571220487/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1268551163&sr=8-1

    Take care,
    Andy

    • Hey Andy, happy (belated) Chinese New Year to you! The book you recommended looks interesting, thanks for the heads-up. Hope all is well on your end and that you’re surviving the slump. We’re chugging along, a bit surprised at our good fortune (so far). We’re grateful but cautious. (And we’ve always got Rakugo to keep our spirits up! :-))

      Best wishes for a great 2010!

  3. Aloha Tim-San,

    Well now that you’ve asked, I’ve been trying the Lean philosophy at my new work and also your philosophy of self reliance and make your own choice, regarldess of others. And guess what? It works like a charm.

    I’ve been surprised of my life so far since 2009 and enjoying very much, the down as much the up. We don’t have Rakugo over here, but we have friends and that’s help a lot to keep the spirit up.

    Take care and still enjoying very much to read you.

    Thank you for keeping my spirit up during last year.

    Take care,
    Andy

  4. I’m always happy to see people interested in rakugo. Kimie Oshima has a pretty romantic take on rakugo, and her work tends to be half-baked. Your readers may want to check out Morioka & Sasaki 1990 (or any of the articles they’ve written) or Brau 2008. These works are solid, though they treat mainly Tokyo/Edo rakugo. Best regards, m.

  5. Hell o there🙂 My name is Till Weingaertner, I have been mainly doing research on Manzai but I also love rakugo. It would be lovely to get in touch with you and maybe read your thesis when it’s finished?
    I am teaching Japanese culture in Berlin (Germany) now.
    All the best
    Till

    • Hey Till, thanks for checking in!

      As for my thesis…I actually “finished” it a long (long) time ago–25 year ago to be exact. With the wisdom of hindsight–and in my very honest, humble opinion–it leaves much to be desired as a reference on rakugo, LOL. (I was a dumb-ass back then and only a tad smarter today :-)) That said, I learned a lot researching it, and can recommend some interesting reading that might be a bit more useful to you. As I’m traveling on business right now, I don’t have access to my reference material, but the book that jumps out at me is “Japan in the Muromachi Age”. It’s a kind of anthology, with a fascinating chapter on “Medieval Jongleurs and the Making of a National Literature” by Barbara Ruch. Check it out if the spirit moves you.

      So glad to see other “gaijins” interested in Rakugo.

      Best Regards,

      Tim

  6. Hi,

    I am interested in rakugo after watching a Japanese drama called Tiger and Dragon. Do you know where can I find more rakugo stories in English to read? Thank you.

    • Emma,

      Haven’t spent much time on rakugo lately. Used to listen to it in the original Japanese, so don’t have any suggestions on rakugo stories in English. Try googling it, maybe even check out youtube, you might find some interesting English renditions there.

      Thanks for checking in and also reminding me about “Tiger and Dragon” drama, hope to check it out soon.

      Tim

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