It's Fun, so I Want to Tell the World
Rakugo (Japanese Sit-Down Comedy) has a history of almost 400 years as a traditional Japanese speaking art. Just one person performs an interesting story. There's a British woman who challenged rakugo.
At the filled to capacity theater, you can hear loud laughing voices arising. Young and old, men and women, the laughter of 250 people spreads like a vortex. In the middle of it all, there’s a woman rakugo (Japanese sit down comedy) performer, who was born in England, named Diane Kichijitsu. She sits on cushions on the stage, wearing a flashy kimono, and using big gestures, she tells interesting stories with lively expressions. The audience watching looks like they’re having fun, and the one giving the performance, Diane, looks like she is having even more fun.
Rakugo is a type of traditional Japanese speaking art that originated over 400 years ago. It uses episodes from the lives of ordinary citizens to tell interesting and funny stories, performed by a single person on a stage. Traditionally, the rakugo performers have always been men, so a woman, one who has come from a foreign country at that, on stage giving a performance is the unique of the unique. She comes out on to the stage to “Yellow Submarine”, a song by a band from her hometown of Liverpool, the Beatles. At the beginning, the audience is quiet, but as soon as they hear her lively voice and see her performance, the tension in the audience is lifted and the sounds of laughter spread.
I only intended to stay in Japan for 3 months...
Diane came to Japan in 1990. As someone who was interested in foreign picture books and dolls, Diane was a backpacker traveling around the world. The reason she came to Japan is because a friend where she was staying told her that “Japan is interesting!” From the beginning, she only intended to stay in Japan for three months, but she became enthralled with Japanese culture, like kimono, flower arrangement and tea ceremony. With large, bright eyes, she said “Once I realized it, I’d been here for more than 20 years! It’s been a long three months!”
She met rakugo when she was invited to help out around the stage by a famous rakugo performer. That performer was a pioneer in English rakugo and her job was for example, fixing the cushions he sat on while on stage. Diane, who knew absolutely nothing about rakugo, thought of it as a chance to wear kimono, which she loves, and so she replied immediately. Then, she saw her first rakugo performance. She was fascinated right away. Despite only one person sitting on the stage talking, she saw that he went to many places and talked with many people. “I thought it was a great performance. A imaginative world made by just one person. He wasn’t holding chopsticks or a bowl, but in the scene where he was eating udon noodles, he was able to convey the hotness of the bowl, as well as the deliciousness of the soup, so I started to crave udon noodles.”
Diane, who moved quickly, started to attend a rakugo school. In rakugo, with just two tools in the form of a fan and a handkerchief, drinking Japanese sake, cutting the branches of a bonsai tree, as well as eating a baked potato can be expressed. Even while sitting, the performer can walk and run around. By adjusting where they look, they are able to play the roles of 2 or even 3 people, or even a crowd. One day, Diane, becoming very infatuated with rakugo, was invited to go on stage. Despite liking to make her friends laugh from an early age, she was embarrassed to speak in front of a crowd. But, she found the courage to perform. Diane was nervous on the stage, but she received power from the audience. “When the audience laughed, I was really happy. From that, I got some confidence and some power. Now, anywhere I go, I’m fine.” She learned from rakugo masters and her seniors, and she received energy from the audience, so she started to like rakugo more and more.
Diane doesn’t just perform rakugo in Japanese and English, she also has a very wide repertoire, from old classic rakugo to stories she made herself. In the stories she created, she sometimes incorporates stories about her own experiences, like things that surprised her since she came to Japan, things she thought were interesting, and others. “There are many interesting discoveries, like the free tissue paper handed out in front of stations, the salaryman that fell asleep on the train suddenly awakening, and others,” she said. She can connect everything from daily life to rakugo.
To make rakugo enjoyable for all
Recently, the number of Japanese rakugo performers that do rakugo in English or Korean, and other foreign languages has increased. To the performers that try to perform in English, Diane is a strong supporter. When giving rakugo in a foreign language, there are many times when just a simple translation wouldn’t work for conveying the meaning, so there are many things to do be done.
For example, there is a famous story, “Manjuu-kowai” (Scary Manjuu). In a group of people discussing what the scariest thing to them is, one person says that manjuu is the scariest thing. The people who heard that decided to play a trick on him, and put many manjuu in his room and lock him in. In reality … is how the story goes. Diane changed manjuu to sushi. “Well, because foreigners don’t know what manjuu is.” Sometimes she has to explain in detail what certain things are. For example, when two men are talking to each other in the bath. “The explanation about Japan’s large baths was necessary. Please try to imagine two adults together in a tiny bathtub. It’s very strange, isn’t it?” she said. Also, “What people understand and what they don’t understand, the person who knows that the best is me, I think. At the beginning, I didn’t know anything at all,” she laughs.
People who need explanations about the objects or the situation aren’t just foreigners. Diane has a lot of opportunities to teach English rakugo to junior high or high schools, but, “Really, the children of Japan, there are a lot of things they don’t know about old customs. That’s why some explanation is needed now.” Also, when she’s performing for Japanese people who are learning English, she sometimes speaks both English and Japanese, as to not make the same lines sound unnatural. For example, when there’s a scene where a Japanese person is talking to a foreigner, the thoughts in their head are said in Japanese, but the actual conversation is in English. It’s very thoughtful of Diane, who wants people to understand English or rakugo even just a little and wants them to have fun. It may be kindness because she has experience struggling with language in a foreign country, in a different culture.
Smile and the power to challenge
The name Diane Kichijitsu comes from the Japanese for “Taiankichijitsu”, or very lucky day. She says “The luckiest is me. It’s because I met the job of rakugo, where I can make people laugh. Of course, there were many times where I didn’t know the meaning of words and it was difficult, but now, every day is very fun.” Also, according to her, the importance of being able to experience life in a different culture is “smiling and the power to challenge”. When you see the always bright and smiling Diane living, you realize what she means.
Diane loves traveling, and even now, she goes overseas several times a year. She actively holds various events introducing Japanese culture, such as rakugo, and also kimono, tea ceremony, flower arrangement, and furoshiki cloths. “I want to introduce the world to the culture of Japan that I love. And, I want to make everyone laugh. It’s a waste if people don’t know this wonderful thing, if they aren’t introduced to it!”
Red bag, red socks, red framed sunglasses. Her body is wrapped in her favorite color, red. Today too, Diane is running around Japan and the world.