“Rakugo” comic storyteller Kikuchiyo Kokontei hopes to spend this summer breaking down cultural barriers on both sides of the Korean Peninsula.
Kikuchiyo, one of only two women to ever attain the rank of rakugo master, plans to hold performances in Pyongyang and Seoul, where popular Japanese culture and entertainment have been banned throughout the postwar period.
“Giving people a laugh — that is the aim of a barrier-free rakugo, which transcends damage or national borders,” the 44-year-old Tokyo native said.
Rakugo is a traditional Japanese form of storytelling. The performer sits alone in front of the audience armed only with a hand fan and towel as props while delivering a comic monologue. The stories end with a pun-based punch line.
Interaction with the audience is important throughout the performance.
“The aspects not communicated through words are provided through facial expressions,” Kikuchiyo explained.
Her upcoming performance will not be her first in North Korea. About a year ago, Kikuchiyo was aboard the Peace Boat, which is operated by a nongovernmental organization, when the ship called at a North Korean port.
At an onboard reception, she gave a performance for an audience of North Koreans, who responded warmly.
After returning to Japan, she was asked whether she was interested in going back to North Korea for another performance. “Definitely,” she answered.
Her South Korean performance is also expected to be a big achievement, given the country’s long-standing ban on Japanese culture, which has gradually been easing.
In recent months, Kikuchiyo has been busy preparing her scripts so that they contain aspects of both Japanese and Korean culture. Around a dozen pages have been transcribed into the Korean script of Hangul.
Nearly a decade ago, Kikuchiyo and Sanyutei Karuta became the first women in rakugo’s 400-year history to attain the rank of “shinuchi,” or master storyteller. Kikuchiyo’s career has been filled with professional challenges ever since.
She embarked on her rakugo career in 1984 at the age of 27. Earlier, she had worked at an advertising agency after graduating from Obirin University and Tokyo Designer Gakuin College.
In March, she performed in Rio de Janeiro for audiences of mainly first- and second-generation Japanese-Brazilians. When Kikuchiyo first expressed interest in becoming a professional storyteller, she was told that rakugo masters would never accept a female apprentice.
Kikuchiyo’s ambition and determination helped break down that centuries-old barrier.
While on the Korean Peninsula, she hopes to break down the barrier of culture.
“Cultural exchange is important if we are to understand each other,” she said.