Renowned “rakugo” (comic story) raconteur Yanagiya Sankyo has been honored for his commitment to spreading appreciation of the Japanese language among foreigners in Japan and overseas.
He received a 2014 Japan Foundation Award, which honors people or groups who help deepen international friendship over the long term.
“Rakugo has a history of 400 years and countless ‘rakugoka’ (storytellers) have devoted their souls to the traditional performing art,” Sankyo said. “I’d like to promote this wonderful Japanese culture.”
Rakugo stories are often difficult to appreciate for those without a good command of Japanese. But Sankyo’s policy is to try to convey the story in Japanese the best he can, instead of translating it into other languages.
“The audience should listen to Japanese, imagine in Japanese and be moved in Japanese,” he said. He believes Japanese culture cannot be truly appreciated in other languages.
He remembers once performing at a U.S. university a classic rakugo story titled “Shibahama” about a man who sells fish. His description of the scene was apparently so vivid, one student came up to him and said, “Shisho (master), I was actually able to picture the ocean.”
Recalling the experience, Sankyo said the heart of rakugo can be understood by foreigners despite the language barrier. This makes him happy.
Sankyo was apprenticed to Yanagiya Kosan V in 1967. He achieved the highest rank of rakugo performer — known as “shin-uchi” — in 1981. He excels at telling classic stories about human nature.
He started performing for foreign students at the University of Tsukuba in 2001 at the request of a professor who was a big fan of rakugo.
He has also taught overseas, including an audience of about 100 students on a 10-day intensive summer course at Middlebury College in Vermont, which is known for its rigorous Japanese school. Subjects he lectured on included ways to describe stories using a fan.
“When a foreign student’s rakugo story made the audience laugh and his classmates raised their fists in celebration, it made me cry with joy,” Sankyo said.
He has also performed in South Korea, Singapore, Czech Republic, France and Poland.
Noting that rakugo and other Japanese cultural aspects such as “washoku” (traditional Japanese) cuisine and kimono are appreciated around the world, he criticized Japanese schools for not putting the country’s culture more centrally in their curriculum.
“Why do Japanese schools not teach shamisen in their music class?”
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