National

'Rakugo' comedy no joke for students keen to hone English skills

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

Japanese tend to be known for their shyness and stoic demeanor. But as Japanese companies increasingly think more globally, workers are feeling the need to communicate and express themselves clearly in front of people of various nationalities.

As a result, some are turning to traditional rakugo comedy to brush up their skills.

“It does help you liven up the atmosphere and better communicate,” Takuya Omine, 43, a native of Okinawa who works at a printing firm in Tokyo, said as he attended a workshop in Tokyo’s Adachi Ward in September.

Omine, whose rakugo stage name is Yuntaku, or “talker” in the Okinawan dialect, has been attending an English rakugo class, run by Tatsuya Sudo, 57, an English teacher and rakugo performer, for the past five years.

Fascinated by the lessons, Omine spread the word among his colleagues, some of whom later joined the class.

Rakugo is a traditional form of verbal entertainment dating back to the Edo Period (1603-1868). Donning kimono, performers sit on stage to unravel stories based on puns and wordplay, told through dialogues with several characters. They act out different scenes by changing the tone and pitch of their voice, turning their head to help the audience identify the speaker, using only sensu fans and tenugui handkerchiefs as props.

At Sudo’s class, students perform rakugo in English, hoping to improve communication skills that will help them in a global business arena.

On a day last month, students were preparing for a show held twice a year at Oedo Ryogokutei, a rakugo venue where well-known storytellers, including the late Danshi Tatekawa, have performed.

Tatekawa, a former host for the popular “Shoten” TV rakugo show who was also known for his sharp tongue and foul temper, was Sudo’s inspiration and tutor.

Sudo, also known by his stage name Eiraku — which roughly translates to “Fun English” — established his school in 2007. He has about 50 students aged in their 20s to 60s, who meet once a month to brush up their English skills and get feedback. Students perform rakugo based on a script Sudo has translated into English.

One of the students, Tomomi Takeshima, 42, joined the class this spring, with English a necessity in her job at a U.S. health care consultancy firm.

After living two years in the U.S., Takeshima first enrolled in an English course on speech training. But it was not enough for her to learn how to better express her thoughts.

“Here, I can learn how to communicate emotionally,” she said.

While many come to the class to brush up their communication and language skills, it also helps them discover the treasures of traditional culture.

Student Yasuhisa Takemura, 51, a college administration staffer, says performing in English gives her knowledge of cultural differences, helping her to better explain the intricacies of Japanese culture and customs.

“There are so many interesting stories to tell and we need to think hard how to do that,” Takemura said. “The stories are fun to watch not only because they’re good stories but also because the performers are doing their best to convey it.”

Sudo, who has been learning English since elementary school, said he believed rakugo can help performers become more confident speakers. He instructs his apprentices to speak louder and more clearly, and encourages them to overcome their shyness even when they make mistakes.

For Junya Otsuki, 36, rakugo classes are a good way to practice speaking in front of many people — a skill required at his work.

While Otsuki says acting is a pure pleasure and an escape from his busy schedule, it also helps him better prepare to convey a message to the audience.

“In rakugo, you need to pay attention to the smallest details to convey the story in the most realistic way,” he said. “This is something rakugo and work-related presentations have in common.”

Sudo, who teaches English at the Kanda University of International Studies and the Kanda Institute of Foreign Languages, encourages his apprentices to use creativity when performing.

“There are rules that rakugo performers need to obey … but they’re allowed to make changes in the script and even translate parts of it (from Japanese) on their own,” he said.

In the future, Sudo hopes to invite foreign tourists to his class to experience Japanese culture, an idea he came up with after a British visitor joined the group during a brief stay in Japan last year.

“If more foreigners knew about the course, more would probably come to learn rakugo,” Sudo said.

“Through performing it in English, we can showcase our tradition to foreigners. (They) tend to think that Japanese people lack humor but it’s not true. We have this traditional form of (storytelling). This is something I’d like to help foreigners discover.”