Challenging Japan’s Traditional Performing Arts—Breaking Through Old Customs

Interview with Katsura Sunshine.

By WORLD INSIGHT Editorial Desk

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Interview with Katsura Sunshine.

(This is story #2 of a four-part series. Related stories: #1, #3, and #4.)

– On September 1, 2008, you were accepted as an apprentice to Katsura Sanshi (now Katsura Bunshi VI). It must have not been easy to become an apprentice. How did you approach him?

Sunshine: I wore a kimono, and I waited in the rain at the stage door of the theater. When he came out of the car, I did a dogeza (down on hands and knees) on the rainy sidewalk, and said, “Shisho! Make me your apprentice!” And he ran away. No, he didn’t really. He said, “Okay, okay, come in.”

From then on, I was talking mostly to some of the senior apprentices. Not directly to him. And they said, “Look, shisho doesn’t know if he could take you or not, but you could come to his rakugo performances. We’ll tell you when to come. And you can come every week to watch the recording of the TV show ‘Shinkon-san Irasshai (Welcome, Newlyweds).’ You can talk to him. He gets to know you and you get to know him. We’ll see. No promises.”

So, my minarai started there. I went to “Shinkon-san Irasshai” every week, and we greeted the master, “Good morning,” and he said, “Oh.” That’s all he said to me.

I waited two hours in the hallway until he came out of the dressing room, then he did the show. It was great. My shisho is a genius. He recently retired from the show after 50 years, but he’s funny as hell. They would record about an hour’s worth, but the show is half an hour. I would watch these moments, and think, I can’t wait to see that on TV in three weeks, and the scene would be cut because there’s too many funny parts. I got a great appreciation for how much a comic genius my master was during my minarai period.

Then eight months later, after “Shinkon-san Irasshai,” he said, “If you want, get in the car.” He never asked me into his car before. He said, “Come in. Let’s talk.” We spent two hours just doing stuff. He didn’t talk about me being apprentice or anything.

We went to visit his friend in a hospital, and he said, “Pretend you can’t speak Japanese. It’ll be funny.” So I pretended I couldn’t speak Japanese, but his friend in the hospital said, “I can see by his face he speaks Japanese. Stop teasing me.” And then we went to a game center and played a couple of games. We had a bite to eat, and then got back in the car, and shisho went shopping for some clothes. Then we got back to his condominium. Although I was happy with him being nice and talking to me, I thought, what was this, hanging out for two hours?

And just before he was going to go in, he said, “Oh, you know, if you want to learn rakugo, I’ll teach you anytime. If you want to turn rakugo into English, especially my sosaku (original) rakugo, and do it in other countries, that’ll be amazing. But, if you want the name Katsura, and you want to be part of the family, and part of the 400-year tradition of rakugo, and you want to say you’re a rakugoka as your job, you have to move close to here. I have an apartment for apprentices. And study with me for three years or so and help out. And you don’t have to answer me now. If you want, you can take a year to study as an amateur. And then you can decide next year if you want to be professional. I promise I’ll accept you any time, so it’s totally up to you. I don’ care which you do. I’m happy to teach you either way. ”

And I said, “Shisho, please, I want to start tomorrow.” He said, “That’s fantastic.” Then, “Please move to our apartment here, say the beginning of next month.” That was it. Finished.

That was probably the happiest day of my life. I’ll never ever forget how I felt that day. I was finally going to become a professional rakugoka. Because this was a dream for three-and-a-half years, ever since I saw rakugo, I wanted to do it professionally. Not as an amateur. I wanted that part of life, that world. It took eight months for him to decide after I asked him, so this moment was very special to me.

Then one month later, he asked me up upstairs in his office building and said, “Have you ever heard of the Japanese word ‘kagayaku’?” I said I didn’t, and he told me to look it up. I had one of those electronic dictionaries Son Masayoshi-san invented, because there was no Google at the time. I looked up ‘kagayaku,’ and it said, “shine, shining.”

He said, “Yes, you are Katsura Sunshine,” and he gave me the shikishi board with my name, his signature, and meimei (naming): Katsura Sunshine on it. That was the second happiest day of my life. Sunshine is such a great name. Just makes everybody happy. Makes me happy.

– There are many famous rakugo performers in Japan. Why did you choose Katsura Sanshi-san for you master?

Sunshine: I saw a lot of performances at the time and had not decided if I prefer Edo rakugo or Kamigata rakugo. So I didn’t choose Kamigata, I chose my shisho. But why I fell in love with my shisho? I went to see his show, where he did three original stories which were so funny. He wrote these stories, were performing them, and they were hilarious. He was keeping the tradition, but still giving it this modern flavor. I thought, if I made his stories into English for people in Canada or America, people would just love it.

I was impressed by his stories, but also saw how the audience loved him as a person. He did an almost three-hour show at the Hanjo-tei theater in Osaka. Afterward, he was outside the theater for an hour, signing autographs, taking pictures, and talking to the fans. He was a very famous guy, so nobody would argue if he just went home. But he didn’t do that. The way he really appreciated his fans and his supporters after all those years, made me fall in love with him. Not just his comic genius, but also as a human being. I thought this is the person I want to be my shisho

– The life of a rakugo apprentice must be very strict. What was your daily life like? There must be many old customs in the world of traditional performing arts. Could you tell us about the surprises or difficulties you encountered?

Sunshine: Very straight: the hardest thing for me was the language. Even though I’ve been in Japan eight years, I spoke only the normal Japanese. I didn’t know the keigo (honorifics) at all. So, everything I said sounded rather rude to him. Not just that. He was very worried that if I talk to other masters like that, it looks bad for everyone, my shisho and the apprentices.

So he said, “Sunshine, don’t talk,” though I was here as an apprentice to be a comedian. “Don’t talk until you can talk properly.” He was very strict. I appreciate that because he didn’t just let it pass for being a foreigner.

So I stayed quiet for a few weeks and listened to my seniors. I noticed, one of them Sandan, when he thought shisho would want some tea, say the Japanese version of, “Shisho, if you would not mind, could I make some tea for you?” Whereas I would have said something like, “Shisho, do you want some tea?”

So I memorized his phrase for a couple of weeks, then told Sandan I would get him tea next time. He said, “Are you sure?” And I said I can do it, and he told me when to go. So I went up to shisho in the office, and said the phrase I memorized. He didn’t even look up. He said “Ah, sure……” and I was like, “Oh my god. I did it!” pouring tea.

And all the other seniors said, “Good job! Okay, Sunshine, you’re in charge of tea from now on.” They’re being kind, protecting me from making a mistake. After that, I’d go up to shisho three times a day and say, “if you would not mind, could I make some tea for you?” again and again. Now. I can communicate.

Then I heard from Sandan ni-san a couple of days later. When they were talking, shisho said, “Sandan, do Canadians really like Japanese tea or something?” Sandan ni-san says, “Shisho, I’m not so sure. Why do you ask?” And he says, “That Canadian deshi, the only thing he talks about is tea, tea, tea. He doesn’t talk about anything else. I think he really must love tea.”

– When was your first stage, and where did you perform? Which story did you do? Do you have any episodes of hardships or joy regarding your first stage?

Sunshine: It was my master’s show in Singapore. My shisho used to travel a lot. I think “Shinkon-san Irasshai” did shows at least once or twice a year in other countries at the time. And sometimes they would do a rakugo show at the same time. Also, some times, the Japanese Chamber of Commerce in other countries would invite him to do shows for Japanese people.

So he took three deshis including me to Singapore, and I did his “Lost and Found Office” story. The rest of the show was in Japanese, but I did mine in English. I wasn’t nervous about the audience, but I was really nervous about shisho, looking at me sternly from the side of the stage, but it went okay.

My second performance was at a big show in my hometown Toronto, by a pure coincidence. I was the top batter. He’s a joker, right? So he said, “Sunshine, ask the theater if they have the Canadian national anthem.” They had it. “Your debayahi (entrance theme music) is not shamisen, it’s O Canada.” So, they started playing O Canada, and I went out on stage.

As shisho looks on from behind the curtain, the whole audience stands up to the national anthem. “Sunshine, he’s famous in Toronto. I’ve never seen a standing ovation for a zenza (opening-act) in my life.” It was a crazy situation.

– How was your first stage in Japan?

Sunshine: I can’t remember. I’ll tell you why I don’t remember. My shisho had a tour of Japanese theaters every year, going somewhere twice a week. And that year he was hosting oogiri, a kind of wordplay show. In oogiri, the host asks questions to a panel of fellow rakugoka, and they try to come up with witty responses. I was the newest deshi, so he asked me to dye my hair blond so I would really look different on the oogiri stage. Since we performed that two, three times a week, I can’t remember where I first did rakugo as a professional in Japan.

– Could you tell us about your life in Japan? Were you confused or surprised by the different cultures and customs?

Sunshine: I really love Japanese culture. Some people from a country, I won’t name it, but it’s America, complain, “Japanese people never give their straight opinion, I never understand what they’re talking about.”

Actually, I really like that. Japanese people are very concerned about the other person. Concepts like Omoiyari (consideration) and kizukai (concern). I may have an opinion, but if it hurts someone else, then maybe no need to be straight about everything. This kind of culture, I really like. I was originally like that myself. I’d rather people get along. Canadians are little bit like that; more like the Japanese than Americans. Americans make fun of Canadians, because Canadians always say, “I’m sorry.”

– Really?

Sunshine: Yes. Automatic apology. So when I came to Japan, I thought, “Oh, Japanese people also enjoy apologizing.” I love Japanese interpersonal relations. All the manners, and really caring about other people.

But in the end, when you’re drinking with your friends, everybody says what’s on their mind. No one is hiding their deepest hearts from their friends. But when you’re working or when you want to make sure everybody’s getting along properly, there’s a little more respect for the other person, instead of just me, me, me. So I really love that about Japanese personal interactions.

I first fell in love with Japan during my first day or two here. I was walking around Shinjuku at night. There are more lights than Las Vegas—very modern, and almost futuristic. But then, you go down a tiny street, and there’s a third-generation kimono shop. And they have a hibachi, and the old lady who is the owner of the shop is smoking kiseru and having tea with the customers. That slow pace and the traditional way. So I saw traditional Japan, and very super modern, futuristic Japan exist together in a seamless way.

Nobody thought, “Japan’s too modern,” or “traditional Japan is being lost.” And people who love the modern side doesn’t say, “Traditional Japan is too old and boring.” Everybody I knew loved both. Most of my Japanese friends seem to have at least one interest or hobby that is traditional Japanese stuff, like shodo, sado, or wearing kimonos.

Europeans, and especially like my parents who immigrated from Slovenia to Canada, think they have to put in an effort to preserve the old culture. I was in the Slovenian choir, and we went to a Slovenian church. In Japan, my friends who do traditional things don’t say we have to do this to preserve Japanese culture, they just did it because it was fun, and it made them feel good. It could be the only place in the world where it’s so seamless between super modern and super traditional. And they’re very relaxed about it. Both is good.

(Continues in #3)

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