Contemporary Culture Going Global

Rakugo Without Borders: Exporting Japanese Comedy


Rakugo, the traditional art of comic storytelling, is generally seen as almost impenetrable to those without a strong command of Japanese. But the Rakugo Without Borders project is changing this view with its subtitled shows that are making audiences laugh around the world.

A Challenging Art for the Modern Age

In Tokyo’s bustling Shinjuku district, twice a day each day—at 11:00 AM and 5:00 PM—long queues form in front of a wooden building festooned with large, colorful flags. This is a traditional Japanese theater, the Suehirotei. Few foreign-language tourist guides mention this structure, which houses activities that require a very high level of Japanese proficiency to appreciate. The theatre is dedicated solely to rakugo, the traditional Japanese art of comic storytelling.

The Suehirotei theater in Shinjuku, with wooden plates above the doors announcing today’s performers. (Courtesy Justin Choulochas)

Rakugo has been a highly popular performing art for centuries, particularly in Japan’s main urban centers of Tokyo and Osaka. It is far from a flashy art form: performers sit alone on the stage and do not move from the cushion on which they sit during their performance, no matter how animated their storytelling may be. In the blink of an eye, though, rakugo performers switch between different characters in the tales they tell by using different intonations, gestures, postures, dialects, or mannerisms.

As you can imagine, this performing art—involving no physical comedy and presenting nothing more than a person kneeling on a cushion, talking for 15 to as long as 90 minutes—requires excellent listening comprehension skills in Japanese, not to mention a broad vocabulary that can range back to the eighteenth century, depending on the comic act being performed.

When I first went to see rakugo, an Austrian friend took me along. He laughed uproariously, but I did not understand much. I first started learning rakugo vocabulary and stories so I could laugh along with him. This was the genesis of my fascination with the art that has led to my founding Rakugo Without Borders.

In 2011, a milestone year marking the 150th anniversary of diplomatic relations between my home country, Germany, and my country of residence, Japan, I took Master San’yūtei Kenkō on a trip to Germany on what was little more than a whim at the time. The shows were so successful, and Kenkō so enthralled with the local audiences, that soon after we received and accepted invitations from venues for the following year. What started as a one-off trip has thus turned into a full-time, ongoing project. Seven years later, as of 2017, Rakugo Without Borders has taken 15 performers to perform in 16 countries in front of a total of 4,900 people.

Master Shunpūtei Ichinosuke performing at the University of Vienna, Austria, in 2013. (Photo by Kitchen Minoru)

Does Traditional Comedy Translate?

I must note that I am not the first to take rakugo abroad. For decades, rakugo performers have been giving performances in English. A handful of native Japanese speakers perform in English, but none has the advantage of Tatekawa Shinoharu—the only professionally trained performer who spent part of his childhood in New York and graduated from Yale University. Unsurprisingly, he speaks English like a native and performs just as naturally and skillfully in English as he does in his native Japanese.

However, the vast majority of performers are not so lucky to grow up bilingual and lack the time to master a second language. The performers I take to Europe, therefore, perform in the language in which they are most comfortable: their native Japanese. Local audiences understand the shows by following along with translated subtitles in their languages. All the rakugo performers I have taken to Europe admit that this approach make them nervous: This is an art that usually calls on them to improvise on the fly as they adapt to their audiences, so they find it difficult to stick to a script fixed in advance, without the leeway to react to audience responses.

Master Ichinosuke performing at the University of Ghent, Belgium, in 2013. (Photo by Kitchen Minoru)

Before a tour, we always organize a show in Tokyo, inviting the performers’ longtime fans along with foreign residents in the metropolitan area. But once they find themselves in front of audiences in Europe, these rakugo masters are more nervous than usual, as San’yūtei Kenkō attests:

“During a rehearsal, I just mechanically rattled off my lines. None of the staff was laughing. It was my first show abroad, and I was really afraid nobody would laugh during the actual performance. But then, when I did the story as I usually do in Japan, well . . . people were laughing, reacting like they usually do back home. I was very relieved.”

Master Irifunetei Sentatsu and his disciple Kotatsu during the post-show question and answer session in 2015, at Riga, Latvia. (© Rakugo Without Borders)

This performing art has gained fame outside Japan thanks to Shōwa Genroku rakugo shinjū (released in English as Descending Stories), a rakugo-themed manga aired in anime form beginning in 2016 in both Japan and foreign markets. This program was also one of the reasons that Maciej Pogorzelski of Nami, the Polish-Japanese Friendship Foundation, decided to host a live performance in Poland. “Many of our members love the show and had already begun to learn more about rakugo. When they heard that Tatekawa Koharu, one of performers touring with Rakugo Without Borders, had voiced one of the characters in this anime, you could hear the “wows” of delighted surprise going through the audience,” says Pogorzelski.

Master Ichinosuke performing in the Ghent Stadhuis in Ghent, Belgium, in 2016. (Photo by Kitchen Minoru)

A Positive Experience for All

The stay in Europe can be very stimulating for performers. Every country brings different audiences, different venues, and new encounters. I always try to arrange for local students of Japanese to show the masters around their hometowns. Master Shunpūtei Ichinosuke remembers an encounter in Belgium:

“A Japanese learner who was guiding us around Ghent had spent the entire night looking up vocabulary for the medieval armory and torture instruments he was showing us in the castle. It was impressive to see how dedicated students everywhere are to learning the language.”

These young guides even share their local comedy in addition to cultural information, says Master Ichinosuke. “Some of them tell me their own favorite jokes—one of which I now regularly use on stage.”

Audience members are equally enthralled. As one Finnish audience member commented after seeing Master Ichinosuke perform the story Kasago (A Game of Go Under a Bamboo Hat): “I was dragged here by a friend. I didn’t expect I would be crying my eyes out at a story about two old men fighting over a match of go . . . Just wonderful!”

Still another audience member, after seeing Master Tōgetsuan Hakushu’s Kamiire (The Wallet), enthused: “I couldn’t even convince my friend to laugh at my favorite comedy show, and we’d both grown up in the same city and spoke the same language. So I was very skeptical that I’d find a Japanese comedian amusing. But I laughed so hard I was crying tears. Please come again, Master Hakushu!”

In November 2017 Rakugo Without Borders will once again tour Europe. Before that, we will give a show in Tokyo, complete with English subtitles. We are already planning spring and fall 2018 tours as well—maybe we’ll see you at a show near you!

Rakugo Without Borders Tokyo Show

A solo show by Master Tachibanaya Bunzō with English subtitles will take place as follows.

  • Time: 19:00, May 24, 2018
  • Place: EuroLive, Kinohaus 2F (Maruyamachō 1-5, Shibuya)
  • Tickets:
    Standard ¥3,300
    Non-Japanese adult ¥1,500
  • Non-Japanese student ¥1,200
  • Japanese/non-Japanese pair ticket (admits two) ¥2,800
  • Contact:

Photograph of Shinjuku Suehirotei courtesy of Justin Choulochas.

(Originally written in English. Banner photo: Master Yanagiya Kosen performing at the “Nihon no Nami” festival in Wroclaw, Poland in June 2017. Photo by Maciej Pogorzelski)

rakugo performing art Descending Stories