While many junior high school boys spent their summer vacations on the beach in their swimwear, Ichikawa Fukutaro III got very little fun in the sun, spending much of his day in a kimono in the backstage dressing room of a kabuki theater.

But he feels his role as apprentice to one of the most popular and talented kabuki actors alive today is such a privilege that having classmates to hang out with is not at the top of his agenda.

“I don’t have close friends at school but that’s OK. It’s always been that way,” Fukutaro says.

The well-mannered 15-year-old has set out on a unique career path, training under Japanese kabuki star Ichikawa Ebizo and hoping one day to shoot into the limelight and take center stage himself.

But for now, he is happy to take a back seat to Ebizo, dubbed the “Prince of Kabuki” in Japan, who is his idol as well as a father figure.

Fukutaro made his debut in the entertainment industry as a kindergartner appearing in TV programs and commercials, unaware at the time that the public exposure he gained would separate him from his peers and land him in the glamorous world of kabuki, a traditional form of stage drama with a 400-year history.

With few exceptions, being a kabuki actor is a hereditary profession for sons born into a kabuki family, and all actors are given a stage name that is passed down by the head of the family who is the top actor.

If you are looking to enter a kabuki family outside of a blood connection, your only chance, and a slim one at best, is through apprenticeship.

One can either become a deshi, a path made available to graduates of the National Theater’s Kabuki Actor Training Program, or a heyago, who are accepted into the household through invitation only and given better treatment because they are considered “the golden eggs.”

As a 12-year-old, Fukutaro, whose real name is Yusuke Akiyama, impressed Ebizo’s father Ichikawa Danjuro XII and was asked to join the distinguished Naritaya house as the heyago, literally translated as “room child.”

But shortly after Fukutaro was entrusted to the Naritaya family, the grand master Danjuro passed away. Ebizo was next in line to look after the heyago, and the responsibility was unexpectedly handed down to the 38-year-old, whom Fukurato refers to as his waka danna (young master).

In return for receiving lessons and being given roles to perform, Fukutaro is kept occupied by backstage chores. One of his main duties is to stand in the stage wings and hold on to the okamochi, a wooden box containing various items for actors.

According to Fukutaro, Ebizo keeps something to drink in the okamochi, while other kabuki actors may place things like candies, washcloths, sewing kits, mirrors, makeup and kimono accessories.

“I watch him dress and undress, and learn how to wear a kimono. As a token of my appreciation I help him when I can,” he says.

When asked to define the role of a heyago, Fukutaro answered after a long silence.

“It’s really difficult to explain. As a position it’s very unclear. Your future depends on luck. You may end up at the top or at the bottom, and nothing is guaranteed for a heyago,” he says.

The ever-humble Fukutaro says he is still a trainee and has not considered what his next career step will be. Being a nadai (qualified kabuki actor) is generally the next level for an apprentice after heyago, and one must pass an exam to be promoted.

Currently Fukutaro is enrolled in a junior high school that offers a flexible curriculum for students who pursue a career related to the traditional arts, and he is absent more than half of the school year.

Friendship, in the ordinary sense, with classmates is out of the question, making such time spent more precious.

“I haven’t grown up in an environment where I play with friends every day, so the few occasions that I do get to spend time with them feel special,” he says.

He signed up for a kendo class like other classmates when he started junior high school, but ended up having to pull out because he was too busy for practice.

The lessons that he does learn are all intended to make him become a better kabuki actor. He studies traditional Japanese dance from three different teachers as well as ohayashi music accompanying performances and the tsuzumi hand drum — not activities that come to mind for the average teenager.

Nagauta (Japanese classical music), koto, the tea ceremony and shamisen are also popular to study for young kabuki trainees, says Fukutaro, but at the moment he has more than enough on his plate.

When traveling, Fukutaro always carries a yukata, a casual summer kimono usually made of cotton, and prefers to use his spare time going through choreography in his head rather than playing smartphone games.

Fukutaro, who has yet to decide whether to pursue male or female roles, regularly appears on Ebizo’s blog posts and already has fans asking for autographs, but he does not forget that he is one of the supporting cast who is lucky to be where he is.

“Of course I must first be grateful for receiving the invitation to become a heyago. The best thing about being a heyago is that you get good roles, and when you hear the audience applaud after a show it’s rewarding,” he says.

“Waka dannna really cares for me. The more I watch how he acts on and off the stage, the more I realize how serious he is about what he does. I really look up to him as a role model.

“But at the same time, I don’t want to be like him. I want to find my own uniqueness, and I want to be a one-of-a-kind actor.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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