Studying Japanese

Laughing and Learning: How Diane Kichijitsu Picked Up Japanese

Global Exchange Culture Language

Diane Kichijitsu barely spoke a word of Japanese when she arrived in the country as a backpacker, but she now performs rakugo, a traditional form of comic storytelling, in the language. Humor and the overwhelming desire to communicate have driven her journey to proficiency.

Diane Kichijitsu

British rakugoka, born in Liverpool. Arrived in Osaka in 1990 and began performing rakugo in 1998. Performs in both Japanese and English, including classics, modern works, and her own pieces. Holds teaching licenses for ikebana and tea ceremony and graduated from kimono school. Received the Nakasone Yasuhiro Award in 2013 for her support of Japan’s traditional arts. Also performs as a balloon entertainer.

Route to Japan

Diane Kichijitsu is a performer of rakugo, a traditional form of usually comic storytelling. Kneeling throughout, with minimal props, the British rakugoka inspires the imagination of her audience, speaking in Japanese, English, or a mixture of the two, depending on the venue. Some of her performance pieces she writes herself, while for others she adapts existing stories from Japanese. It is a long way from her childhood in Liverpool, where she had almost no connection to Japan.

Diane Kichijitsu during a rakugo performance.
Diane Kichijitsu during a rakugo performance.

There were some hints to her future career, however, as she explains: “I always loved storytelling.” She enjoyed learning French, although one teacher’s assessment—“You have absolutely no ability for languages”—was a blow to her confidence. Her route to Japan came via a recommendation while backpacking that led to her arrival in Osaka in 1990. Initially, she did not even know konnichi wa (hello), so she says, “I went to the bookshop and I got a little dictionary.”

While hitchhiking across the country, the dictionary was always there as Diane sat in the front and talked to people. If she steered the conversation, she could practice her new vocabulary. “Make a situation where you have to use what you’ve just learned,” she says is still advice that she gives to others. As she spent longer in Japan, moving into her own apartment and buying furniture, she realized that she was not just passing through.

Even so, as she never planned to stay for good, she did only occasional formal study of Japanese. Living in her own apartment in a neighborhood where she had to speak the language spurred her on, and her studies of pottery, ikebana, and tea ceremony brought more situations where she could not get by with English. It was not all high culture though. “My first Japanese teacher was Crayon Shin-Chan,” she says, recalling that the TV series with the crass five-year-old taught her words like benpi (constipation).

Pursuing her interest in ikebana.
Pursuing her interest in ikebana.

Art of Imagination

In 1996, she was introduced to Katsura Shijaku, a pioneer of rakugo in English, becoming his ochako or stage assistant. She knew nothing about rakugo at that stage, but she was drawn by the allure of stories, and the chance to wear a kimono on stage. Between performers, she turned over the zabuton (cushion) where the rakugoka kneeled in the seiza position, flipped over the paper on the mekuri to show the name sheet of who would talk next, and made occasional announcements in English.

She soon fell in love with the comic art, and how everything is based on the imagination, with no stage sets, and only a fan and a tenugui (hand towel) as props. Although Shijaku performed in English, she naturally became interested in rakugo in Japanese too. After a year or two, she joined a rakugo dōjō. While the other Japanese members performed stories in English, she wrote her own in Japanese. Thus, she says, “My first actual rakugo performance was in Japanese.”

Shijaku passed away before she had the chance to perform with him, but she found that she soon got a lot of bookings. Among other things, this meant that she had to study how to put on a kimono by herself. She says that learning all these aspects of Japanese culture helped her to pick up the spoken language, as they were all visual, and she did not use a textbook.

Wordplay and Laughter

Overcoming her initial shyness, from the beginning Diane was determined to practice her Japanese all she could, in her own playful way. “I had a notebook with loads and loads of phrases that I hoped I would use at some point,” she says, “Like, when you’re laughing a lot is heso de cha o wakasu, or ‘I laughed so much that I boiled tea in my belly button.’”

She adds, “When I first came to Japan, to Osaka, what was really popular was ‘Moukarimakka?’Bochi bochi denna.’ It’s like, ‘How’s business?’ ‘Ah, not too bad.’ I learned a lot of these phrases, because they made people laugh. Little jokes and stuff, which were icebreakers.” She might throw these into conversation with her neighbor on a train platform to convey that she knew something about Japanese culture, even if her speaking was still not great.

Punning is part of her act today, in which she might present mnemonics for Japanese vocabulary from essential variants like “alligator” for arigatō (thank you) and “don’t touch my mustache” for dō itashimashite (you’re welcome) to words learned later, such as “hot chicken soup” for hocchikisu (stapler). Her original pieces sometimes revolve around the confusion of a foreigner new to Japan, tripped up by the language and cultural differences.

Her stage name too is based on wordplay, deriving from a combination of her real name Diane with the phrase taian kichijitsu, which refers to a particularly auspicious day. She played on this with a rakugo story she wrote called Butsumetsu no Hi, which means an unlucky day. “It’s a day where everything goes wrong,” she says.

For her, Japanese is not a difficult language to get started on, despite its reputation. “I think you can pick up basic words easily, even if you can’t string them together properly.” While keigo or honorific language takes it to another level, and reading and writing is hard for those who have not studied kanji, she also says that the phonetic alphabets (hiragana and katakana) are pretty easy to pick up.

Just as laughter is at the heart of Diane’s career as a rakugoka, it has also been a vital element driving her Japanese learning. What makes her chuckle sticks in the memory, and can create connections with others too. “Humor and comedy are the shortest distance between two people,” she says, and it seems a little laughter can supplement one’s best efforts to communicate, making it possible to bridge the linguistic divide.

(Originally written in English. Photographs courtesy Diane Kichijitsu.)

Japanese language rakugo