The World’s First Poem about Rakugo Performers in English?

One of the things I have meant to share on this website is this possibly the first poem about rakugo performers in English.

It was written by a narrator/ actor/ writer, Stuart Atkin, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of my rakugo master’s English rakugo school in October 2017.

I had a permission to share this on my website but somehow never happened until now (I did write about it on my Japanese blog, though).

So… ladies and gentlemen… this is possibly the first poem about rakugo in the English language! There are a few Japanese terms you might not understand. Please comment if you need any explanation. I’ll be super happy to answer!

The Good Old Days (Song of Rakugoka)

Yes, folks, this is it indeed:
Stories from the past we tell-
Trad Japan on a cushion,
And lots of laughs as well!
With just our voices, hands, and eyes,
A tenugui and a fan,
We build up pictures in your mind
Of life in Old Japan.
In kimonos yellow, turquoise, mauve,
Red and brown, sky-blue and green,
We talk of mochi, soba, fish,
And the bustling Edo era scene;
Chonmage, netuske, hibachi, nagaya,
Cats and doctors, tea and manju,
Wrestlers, travellers, vendors, bo-san,
Con men, courtesans, actors, too,
Not to mention roamin’ ronin,
Their swords just worn for fashion….
Stories we have on all of these
Here in our yose, told with passion;
Tales of folk life you and me,
Funny in lots of silly ways,
So sip your sake, sit back and laugh,
And enjoy with us the good old days!

― Stuart Atkin

Super Quick Intro to Rakugo Stories!

By far, this is one of the silliest things I’ve ever done online.

I am very much used to act like an… feel free to fill the gap… on stage, but I’ve always had a strong aversion to record my performance as it somehow feels permanent.

But the time is ripe for exposing my insanity a little bit to the digital world for the sake of getting people interested in rakugo. I will be an… whatever you like… if I can be a cupid between rakugo and the world 🙂

I am starting a video series called “Super Quick Intro to Rakugo Stories”. Through this series I will talk about rakugo stories and their history just enough to encourage people to listen to actual stories.

So, here you go. The first one is on “Jugemu”. His full name is at the bottom of this page 🙂

I was a bit inconsistent with the way I said his name, but the second one is the most standard way.

Here’s how to say his name (in hiragana and Roman characters):

ひらがな Hiragana

じゅげむ じゅげむ
すいぎょうまつ うんらいまつ ふうらいまつ
ぱいぽ ぱいぽ ぱいぽのしゅーりんがん
ぐーりんだいの ぽんぽこぴーの ぽんぽこなーの

ローマ字 Roman characters

Jugemu jugemu
Gokouno surikire
Kaijari suigyono
Suigyoumatsu unraimatsu furaimatsu
Kuneru tokoroni sumutokoro
Yaburakoujino burakouji
Paipo paipo paipono shuringan
Shuringan no gurindai
Gurindai no ponpokopi no ponpokona no
Chokyumei no chosuke

Zabuton Hunting Completed… Finally!!!

One of the weirdest challenges in my English Rakugo career is finding a zabuton (Japanese traditional cushion) to perform on. Buying a decent one in New Zealand is so much harder than you think.

Last week during a performance, my zabuton finally gave in and ripped without any warning whatsoever.

Perhaps, I do move around a bit too much. Sometimes enough to reveal my legs (or even more… undies?). My rakugo master always tells me to minimize movements to let my words elaborate stories more.

This baby has been with me since my first NZ performance in 2009.

It was a gift from a Japanese friend. It’d already been at least 10 years old so must be over 20 years old now. I am very much attached to it after spending hours and hours, practicing and performing on it.

By the way, this zabuton looks like this if you flip it over. This fix was done by my lovely neighbor. It added about one extra year to it.

I started hunting for a new one about a year ago.

Initially, I tried to buy it online from Japan, but I gave up as the cheapest one would have cost $280 including postage…

No zabuton made in NZ was good enough for me. They were either too rectangular, thin, or small… and often looked too western.

Then, I bumped into Auckland Zen Centre’s website the other day. They sell zen cushions!

I quite liked the idea of using a zen cushion for my rakugo, which sort of reflects my stoic approach to the art. Spending thousands of hours on zabuton, perfecting the skills, is quite zen.

Also, as a rakugo performer permanently based in NZ, it is quite symbolic to use one from here. I am trying to create something Kiwi inspired by the Japanese art after all.

I called the zen centre, and it was out of stock…

But they said they could make one for me!!!

So I ordered it on the last day of Heisei Era. Again, it was symbolic. I am not superstitious but enjoy ‘symbols’ as they make life events even more special.

Then, I finally received this one a few days ago.

I preferred a purple one and it doesn’t have tassels like Japanese ones do, but I am very happy to finally have a new one. This one is so sturdy that it would probably last a few decades!

A few days ago, I came up with a brilliant idea to save the old cushion. It was to only buy a zabuton cover from Japan, which was $40 including the shipping cost.

According to the EMS tracking, I’m supposed to receive it today!!!

Photos to follow!

The Definition of Rakugo?

“Rakugo is the acceptance of human nature.”

— Tatekawa Danshi

Excuse my language, but…

everybody is screwed up.

At least a little bit.

The world of rakugo is full of imperfections. Something is almost always wrong with those lovable characters.  Perhaps with a few exceptions of the female characters, which, in my humble opinion, is an accurate reflection of the reality.

Rakugo is full of half-witted thieves, smart arse kids, and self-proclaimed wise men to name a few.  They are full of quirks and usually “off” unlike those extraordinary heroes in kabuki plays.  Sure, I enjoy watching kabuki, but I can only truly relate to the residents of the rakugo world.

The quote at the top is the rakugo legend Tatekawa Danshi’s definition of rakugo.  It has always given me a sense of hope that it is OK to be me: a misfit, a rebel, and an antihero.

The original Japanese text is “落語とは業の肯定である。” (Rakugo towa gou no koutei dearu).  “Gou” literally means “karma”, but I translated it as “human nature” as I think it captures the essence of this maxim.

If we are to be 100% honest about ourselves, most of us have flaws.  I am not sure about you, but I do.  Taking the seven deadly sins as examples (for the sake of the western audience), I experience at least one of them daily.

I don’t think I am greedy, but I can be vain i.e. proud.  I am definitely a glutton. 

Just last Sunday, I had a huge Vietnamese lunch followed by a Chinese bun and a Japanese cream puff for afternoon tea… then Afghan kebabs for dinner and Kit Kat chocolate bars (plural) for dessert… all on the same day.

Sloth.  Yes.  I am perfectly happy being a couch potato and watching Netflix all evening.  Lust?  Yes… 😳

Of course, rakugo doesn’t encourage us to indulge ourselves in human desires, but it simply reveals who we REALLY are behind the masks.

However, the true beauty of rakugo is that it teaches us there is always a place for everybody in this world.  Every single person is indispensable, no matter how insignificant we may feel about ourselves at times.

I perform rakugo to share this message with the world.

The Art of Gift-Giving: The Best Gift I Have Ever Received

The following is an article that I had posted on another blog I used to run. I have decided to repost it as I am holding the very gift in my hands right now 🙂

As I type this, I wrap my hands off and on around the most precious gift I have ever received.

It is a bone carving that a local Maori carver made especially for me.

To respect their tikanga i.e. Maori cultural protocols, I will not post the image of the carving, but the process of its creation was unimaginably warm and beautiful. In fact, I actually got teary when he finally gifted it to me.

The carver is one of my favourite customers at work. We have become good friends over two years or so. One day he dropped by my work and asked:

“Can I get your permission to carve something for you?”

“What do you mean? You don’t need MY permission”, I replied.

His answer was, “Yes, I do. I cannot carve without YOUR permission”.

The way he thinks was eye-opening and made me appreciate the great Maori tradition even more.

Of course, I said “YES, PLEASE!”, and the long journey began.

Every other week or so, he came in and told me about the progress. He said he was struggling a little because it was hard to encapsulate my life in the carving. Borrowing his own words, “your life is… so big” (thank you!).

He consulted me about every single detail of the work and each time asked me if I felt right about… everything.

There was more.

One morning he asked me how to draw an authentic samurai sword… I was baffled as it was such a random question. He then revealed me that he was considering making it a part of the design, honouring my family’s samurai warrior background. He said it would be the first time ever to include a non-Maori design in his art.

This touched me deeply and made me happy for the rest of the day. Even before receiving the gift!

When it was nearly done, he explained to me the meanings of each symbol used: the guardians, waves, and sword to symbolise my journey from Japan to New Zealand.

After half a year or so, the day arrived. He presented the carving to me and said, “It’s done”.

Both of us got teary. He is a kind of person who doesn’t like receiving too much appreciation, so he simply said, “It is all yours now.” and left.

I am half teary right now, just by imagining how much thought, effort, and love must have gone into this carving.

Being a selfish person by nature, I don’t think I can display the kind of love and generosity he has shown me. But this Art will be a constant reminder of how deeply a genuine gift can move a person for the rest of his/ her life and the generations to come.

Rakugoka (落語家) vs. Hanashika (噺家)

In Japanese, Rakugo (落語) means a story with a punchline, and Rakugo storytellers are called Rakugoka (落語家).

Another common way to call them is Hanashika (噺家), which simply means a storyteller. In my personal opinion, this expression captures what Rakugo performers do more accurately.

Even though Rakugo is almost always accepted as a form of comedy in Japan and also introduced overseas as such, Rakugo is not always funny. If you have ever listened to stories like “Shinkei Kasanegahuchi” (真景累ヶ淵), “Bunshichi Mottoi” (文七元結 ), or “Tachikiri” (立切り), you would understand this.

“Shinkei Kasanegahuchi” is a pure tragedy, a horror story with very little humour. “Bunshichi Mottoi” is a human drama that would make you cry (I cry every time I listen to it!). “Tachikiri” is a heartbreaking love story, which also brings you tears.

I do not think Rakugo would have received the same kind of popularity if it was just comedy.

It is an all inclusive storytelling art.

I really appreciate that the manga/ anime/ TV drama
“Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju” (昭和元禄落語心中) has captured this multifaceted nature of Rakugo rather well.

The beauty of the expression Hanashika (噺家) is that the kanji “噺” is used instead of “話”, which is the most common character to mean a story.

The character “噺” can be broken into “口” (mouth) and “新” (new), so as a whole it means uttering something new.

As a traditional art, the Rakugo World has faced two missions: one being to protect the tradition and the other being progressing it so that it will remain relevant for generations to come.

To me personally, the act of “uttering something new” captures what they do as performers of this traditional art.