‘Rakugo’ pro crosses borders with humor

English serves storyteller well in classic art form

by Eric Johnston

Humor, it is said, rarely crosses borders. Culture-specific references and ingrained social norms often mean jokes that leave audiences rolling in the aisles in the country of origin are greeted with puzzlement, incomprehension and even hostility when translated for foreign audiences.

The challenge of presenting Japanese humor in English is compounded by not only linguistic and cultural differences, but also because Japan is known abroad for its high-tech products, creative manga and “anime,” and serious, hardworking people, exemplified by baseball and soccer players like Ichiro Suzuki and Hidetoshi Nakata, but not for its sense of humor.

This is one reason why Kaishi Katsura, a “rakugo” comic storyteller, decided to introduce the nearly four century old art form overseas by translating classic rakugo stories into English.

“I remember going to a bar in Kobe after I’d become a professional rakugo artist, and an American guy asked me to do a performance right there in the bar. I didn’t do it, but I’d always had an interest in English and meeting and talking with foreigners,” he said.

In 2008, Katsura was appointed as a cultural ambassador by the government and went to America for nearly six months. He traveled to more than 30 U.S. states, performing not only in formal theaters for urban audiences familiar with Japan but also at locations not known for hosting traditional Japanese cultural gatherings.

“I did rakugo performances in the U.S. at a campground and on a boat, as well as on the back of tractor trailers and even on top of bar counters,” he said.

“I had visited America before 2008, but that was the first time I actually lived there. The experience changed the way I performed. I began using more body movements and made bigger facial expressions. Before 2008, when I performed in the U.S., I said the words in English but used the same kinds of expressions and body movements I used when I was performing Japanese.”

From the vast repertoire of traditional rakugo stories, Katsura has chosen a few to translate into English. He does a rough translation, a Japanese translator then checks it, and then a native speaker of English does the final editing. The result is a polished story delivered in colloquial English.

Asked about his criteria for selecting stories for translation, Katsura said one priority is that they be simple and not contain too many different characters that will make it confusing for the audience to follow.

“For example, the Japanese language has many ways of saying ‘I.’ A rakugo artist will say ‘watashi,’ ‘sessha’ or other words that mean ‘I’ to identify separate characters. Japanese audiences understand the character being portrayed depends on the word being used. But in English, all you have for ‘I’ is ‘I.’ So, if you have a lot of characters, an audience can lose track of who’s who if the rakugo artist is saying ‘I’ all of the time,” he said.

“And then there is the question of whether there is lots of action. I have to think about the visual aspects of the story being told and tend to translate stories with lots of movement,” he added.

Bill Crowley, an American who helped pioneer and popularize English-language rakugo in the U.S. more than a decade ago, once noted it was the universality of the experiences the stories told that foreign audiences connected with. One story Katsura performs is that of a customer seeking a jinrikisha driver to get him some place in a hurry, an experience familiar to anybody who has ever hailed a cab.

But Katsura does more than just tell the story.

“To foreign audiences, I have to explain the history and background first, and introduce new vocabulary. For example, in the jinrikisha story, I explain what ‘kurumaya’ means. It’s probably more natural to translate that into ‘rickshaw man,’ but I want to teach some Japanese words to the audience. So I explain what the word means, and then use the word in the story.”

For Katsura, the most amusing thing about performing in the U.S. was the fact that many audience members had a hard time believing he actually made a living as a comic storyteller.

“People said, ‘Oh, your performance was great. And, by the way, what do you do for a living?’ They couldn’t believe that this was my living even after I was introduced as a professional rakugo artist,” he said with a smile.

Katsura has performed English rakugo in more than a dozen countries. While audiences have been mostly appreciative, like all comedians there have been times when attempts at humor have resulted in reactions the performer didn’t expect.

“In 1998, I was performing in the U.S. It was during the time when the sex scandal involving U.S. President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky was all over the TV news. I attempted to insert a joke about that into one of my performances, but some audience members got offended, saying that I shouldn’t be talking about things like that because it was too embarrassing.

“And in India, I was once performing a rakugo story that involved a man who mistook a cow for a woman. In a country where cows are considered sacred, that didn’t go over too well,” he said.

In Japan, Katsura performs mostly in Japanese. But he said that he’d like to return to the U.S. and perform again, and perhaps even work in Hollywood.

“I’d love the opportunity to be able to work with people like Robin Williams and Tom Hanks, comedic actors, not just comedians. Rakugo is comic storytelling and acting, a form of sit-down comedy as opposed to standup comedy,” he said.

In the meantime, Katsura said he will continue to cross borders, both geographic and cultural. A trip to Singapore is planned for later this year and he does occasional English rakugo in Japan for foreign and Japanese audiences, serving as modern translator and interpreter of an ancient comic art form, and debunking the stereotype the outside world has of Japanese of not being very funny.

A rakugo performance in English by Kaishi Katsura will be held at The Japan Times-Nifco Hall in Tokyo at 3 p.m. Sept. 18. Visit jtimes.jp/rakugo for details and reservations.