How a Canadian Became Japan’s Traditional Storyteller: Interview with Katsura Sunshine

Rakugo is the art of Japanese comic storytelling with 400 years of tradition.

By WORLD INSIGHT Editorial Desk

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Rakugo is the art of Japanese comic storytelling with 400 years of tradition. Canadian-born Katsura Sunshine is the second Westerner in history, and the first in 100 years to join the ranks of professional storyteller. He now also performs on Broadway. In this interview, Sunshine talked about his first encounter with rakugo, the apprenticeship to one of the most famous living masters, and his mission to bring rakugo to the rest of the world.

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

– When did you first encounter rakugo? What was the first story you heard?

Sunshine: I had already been in Japan for five years, and I spoke some Japanese. I first saw rakugo in a yakitori shop in Yokohama, where I used to go eight times a week. How much I love yakitori!

Often, they have rakugo shows at places like soba shops or yakitori shops. The owner was a big fan of rakugo and produced rakugo shows in his restaurant once a month. He’d take the tatami room on the second floor, and make a stage, and put some chochin lanterns and zabuton (cushions), and invite two young professional rakugoka, and each would tell two stories, so you get to hear four stories. He casually invited me, saying, “If you like Japanese culture, you’ll really enjoy rakugo,” so I went.

And the first story I heard was “Jugemu,” about the kid with the long name. I knew the story, because at the university where I’ve been teaching English, a student wrote out Jugemu, saying, “Sensei (teacher), if you memorize this child’s long name and say it while drinking, I promise your Japanese friends will buy you a beer.” But she didn’t say this was rakugo or explain rakugo at all, and just said it’s an old Japanese story. So I memorized it. And sure enough, when I was drinking with my Japanese friends, and said, “Okay, I’m going to say Jugem: ‘Jugemu, Jugemu, Go-ko-no-surikire……” They’d say, “Oh! Buy him a drink!”

So I enjoyed this for a year or two. Now, this storyteller started telling a story about Jugemu, and I thought, “Oh my god, he has the same drinking strategy as I do!” So I felt familiar with rakugo right away, thanks to my student for telling me about this Japanese culture.

RAKUGO IN ENGLISH – JUGEMU

– Many people in English-speaking countries may not know about rakugo. Could you explain what rakugo is?

Sunshine: Rakugo is a 400-year tradition of storytelling. The story is handed down from master to apprentice to master to apprentice to master to apprentice……through the generations up until the present day. Now, there are over a thousand active storytellers, the highest number in Japanese history. There would have been more yose (traditional theaters) in the Edo period, but now rakugo is performed not only in yose theaters but in normal theaters, temples, shrines, community halls, all over the place, and sometimes on TV. And now on Broadway.

– Are there similar performing arts in the West?

Sunshine: Not really. You have standup comedy in the West which is really popular. But with standup comedy, everybody has their own style.

In rakugo, everybody wears a kimono, kneels on a cushion, uses a sensu (fan) and a tenugui (hand towel). Even if I’m knocking on a door, “Hello, are you in?” “Oh, it’s you. Come on in,” there are rules for this. Every storyteller, if they’re knocking on the door, will be looking to their left. And if they’re opening a door, they’ll be looking to their right.

That rule is because of how a kabuki theater is structured. The hanamichi (runway) comes from off stage to right, so a traveler always comes from the right side. And if I’m opening the door to a traveler, if it’s a kabuki theater, I will always be looking right.

Rakugo was designed so that people can imagine the situation in a kabuki play. It’s all designed to be very simple for the audience. Same way, if a kabuki actor will be opening a door to a traveler, they’ll be looking right. Because it’s rakugo, you have to do the opposite way, so you knock on the left. Every single storyteller does that in the same way. I think that kind of strict, set way of doing things is very much original to Japan.

– In September 1995, while you were at the University of Toronto, you worked on your musical adaptation of the classic Greek comedy “Clouds.” Didn’t you think about pursuing your career in that field?

Sunshine: I did. Absolutely. Even as I came to Japan, I was still writing, composing musical theater. I had dreamed of going to Broadway with the musicals. And then I found rakugo.

– Your musical was a big hit, running for 15 months.

Sunshine: Yes, my show ran for a long time, but in Toronto, so no big deal. It’s different than being on Broadway. Actually, I talked to a Broadway producer, and went down to visit him. He really liked it, but the show had too many people for off-Broadway, but too specific a topic for Broadway, so it fell in between.

Anyway, I really wanted to go to New York eventually. But when I became a rakugoka, I gave up my dreams about New York. Because Broadway is amazing but being a rakugoka is even more amazing. Since there are no other foreigners in rakugo, I thought I could be an original figure here. And I just loved it. The gakuya (dressing room) and how all the rakugoka interacted with each other. Everything on stage as well as off stage, at the uchiage party after the show, all the storytellers discussing rakugo, talking about funny things this and that, I just loved the whole world of rakugo.

So I gave up aiming for Broadway when I became a rakugoka. I never would have expected that rakugo would lead me to Broadway. It’s interesting; sometimes you have to let one dream aside for something else, but this dream is not dead yet, still alive. I’m so happy to be performing in New York and London.

– You came to Japan in 1999. You probably didn’t have many contacts in Japan. How did you start your activities in rakugo?

Sunshine: Well, I’ve been here five years, so by then, I had close friends. But for three years, I just basically studied on my own. When I made friends with rakugoka, I did a performance called accordion mandan comedy. They would let me perform in small rakugo shows around Yokohama. I got to be friends with more rakugoka, and it just went on from there.

– From 2003, you started doing comic chat and English rakugo with the stage names Canada-tei Love Letter and Lucky-tei San-da. Could you tell us about those times?

Sunshine: The guy I was performing with said you should have a geimei (stage name).

You know there’s a Japanese song, “Love letter from Canada..[sings Japanese lyrics]…love letter from Canada.” How would you sing it in English? “Love letter from Canada. If you were here with me, oh what fun it would be…it would be such a fun trip. Here’s my love letter from Canada.” [sings improvised lyrics].

So they gave me the name Canada-tei Love Letter, using Chinese characters but pronounced “love letter.”

That was a lot of fun. There are a lot of amateur rakugo performers in Japan. It’s really popular. You have ochiken, the university rakugo clubs, you also have English rakugo groups; there’s rakugo clubs all over the place. A lot of people love it as a hobby. That’s so great because just watching is one thing, but if you do it yourself, you really come to love the artform. So those people are the most passionate fans and great supporters of the rakugo world. They also love to get their own rakugo name. I had a lot of fun participating in that when I was not professional yet.

– How about the name Lucky-tei San-da?

Sunshine: Well, that’s interesting. When I first asked my master, called Katsura Sanshi at the time, if I could become his apprentice, at first, he just game me the name Lucky-tei San-da. It was me and one other foreigner that wanted to study, so it wasn’t official apprenticeship. But he let the two of us form a gaijin (foreigner) section. It was more like minarai (trainee) and not official yet; he was happy to teach us in a free relationship. So I got the minarai stage name Lucky-tei San-da from him. San was from Sanshi, and da was from Canada. It’s a cool name. This is still armature performance. But it was a step before he accepted me as a formal apprentice.

Why did you enroll in the Osaka University of Arts Graduate School Arts Program in 2007?

Sunshine: That’s a good question. I was really interested in studying rakugo. It’s a typical Canadian or American thing to think, if I want a shisho (master) to take me, I should know as much as I can about rakugo to appeal to him.

There was a professor at Osaka Geidai (Osaka University of Arts) named Aiba Akio, who was an expert in rakugo, manzai (comedy), and taishu-engei (popular theater). And a very interesting man. So I thought, if I go to Osaka Geidai, I can study with him, and also check out Kamigata (Kyoto and Osaka) rakugo, which I had never experienced. I knew these two traditions of Edo (Tokyo) rakugo and Kamigata rakugo were quite different. So I thought I would go and study with him for a couple of years.

Now, I was very wrong about this. A typical shisho doesn’t care if someone who wants to become an apprentice has a lot of knowledge or experience. My shisho said the ochiken guys are the biggest pain in the ass, because they think they know a lot about rakugo, and have a lot of bad habits. Whereas like me, bringing someone in from zero, and making them into a rakugoka is much easier than trying to train someone who thinks they know a lot about rakugo. Being an amateur rakugo performer, and training to be a professional are two completely different things. It’s actually harder for the shisho. So I didn’t really need to go to Osaka Geidai.

But it was a great experience. Aiba-sensei was amazing. I learned a lot, and he introduced me to many storytellers. He taught me about Osaka rakugo, so it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing to do, but I realized later it wasn’t necessary. That was one of my lessons—how different traditional Japanese thinking is for the arts.

In the West, if I was going for an audition to get into a theater school, I have to try to be a good actor. At the audition, if they think I have talent, maybe they’ll take me. That’s the normal way of thinking.

But with the rakugo world, it’s actually very different. And I understand it now. If someone came to me now saying “I want to be your apprentice,” and then say, “Watch me, I can do rakugo, I’m really good,” I would say, “Go away, I don’t want to see you.” I totally understand. Because it’s not worth it. You start over any way. Don’t show me anything; I don’t want to see it.

(Continues in #2)

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