Something Old and Something New:
Rakugo and Japanese Culture

--Linguist Studies the Structure of Humor in Traditional Comedy--

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Professor Watanabe of the Modern Languages and Comparative Literature department

Professor Watanabe studies rakugo, an ancient form of humorous storytelling from Japan.

--photo by Jerry Speier.

It’s common knowledge that a bad storyteller can ruin a great story. But when scholars endeavor to study oral/folk literature, they often put more emphasis on the story than on the telling, the what rather than the how. Baruch’s Noriko Watanabe, an assistant professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Comparative Literature, doesn’t make that mistake. Outside the classroom, Watanabe, who earned her bachelor’s degree in the psychology of information processing at Kwansei Gakuin University in Japan and her master’s and doctorate in linguistics at SUNY at Buffalo, studies rakugo, the centuries-old Japanese storytelling genre based on comical monologues.

To what American form might rakugo be compared? “Rakugo is like a sitcom with one person playing all the parts,” says Watanabe. “It is verbal art and a humorous entertainment at the same time. It’s not just a series of jokes, in discrete segments; it’s a continuous story. Rakugo is interesting because when you think about Japanese culture you don’t think about humor—and rakugo is all about humor.”

Rakugo traces its origins to Buddhist sermons, Watanabe explains. “The earliest rakugokas [storytellers] parodied the allegorical stories that were used in preaching.” The tradition began with street people who entertained passersby. Later, they performed at the parties of the wealthy and then in vaudeville-type urban theatres (called yose), which offered, among other entertainments like juggling and magic, rakugo storytelling. “It became a profession that way,” says Watanabe.

Becoming a professional storyteller is a lengthy process. Aspiring rakugokas train in two centers in Japan. And although some of the classic rakugo tales have been transcribed from performance, the art of rakugo storytelling is handed down by oral practice. “Rakugokas learn by listening to their masters perform, and they learn conventions specific to this comic art form,” explains Watanabe. “They learn how to create characters, use various linguistic devices, and extract the essence of a story.” Rakugokas also become masters of two minimalist props: a fan and a kerchief.

Both the performance and the story are stylized. A band plays music to announce the entrance of the rakugoka. The storyteller, wearing ceremonial dress, enters and bows to the audience. He (and it is usually a he) sits down on a cushion. The stage is usually bare, maybe with a small table: there is no set or scenery. The rakugoka greets the audience. The story he will tell is made up of three parts: the makura, or prelude; the hondai, or main story; and the ochi, the closing/punch line. More than anything, the punch line defines the genre. Performances are generally one half hour in length, although the teller must be agile enough to lengthen or shorten the piece as needed, on the spot.

Watanabe clearly enjoys the art form, but what is her scholarly interest? “I’m interested in how humor is accomplished verbally and non-verbally. As the theory of verbal humor predicts, rakugokas must control what information the audience gets without giving too much away. As a linguist, I’m particularly interested in what leads to the punch line, which has to be surprising and often delivered by one of the characters. Cultural schema, that is non-verbal knowledge, plays a role in humor interpretation. The stories must be strategically structured.” In Fall 2004, Watanabe received a Whiting Foundation Teaching Fellowship, which recognizes teaching excellence and which allowed her a semester off to devote to her research in this area.

Watanabe is quick to point out that however stylized rakugo might seem it survives today because there is improvisation. New stories are being created and added to the hundreds of classic stories. Storytellers often incorporate references to current issues, change phrasings, or ad-lib a line or two. They patch together traditional and more contemporary storytelling techniques. In this way, each performance is personalized and unique. Verbal artistry is valued among those who follow rakugo.

According to Watanabe, “the genius of the genre is that it is so flexible. It can be performed in many different places. . . . It was never considered high art, and the government didn’t recognize it with cultural awards until recently. But now rakugo is getting greater play in the whole spectrum of the Japanese entertainment-media world. Rakugokas are hosting TV shows and making DVDs. Nobody’s sure how this will impact the genre, whether it’s good or bad for the future of rakugo.”


--Diane Harrigan