Sanyūtei Aiba:
A Rising Female Voice in the Rakugo World

The recently promoted to shin’uchi, Sanyūtei Aiba in front of the Asakusa Engei Hall.

The recently promoted to shin’uchi, Sanyūtei Aiba in front of the Asakusa Engei Hall.

In the culmination of 15 years of dedication to rakugo, the traditional Japanese art of storytelling, female hanashika Sanyūtei Aiba was promoted to the top rank of her craft, the position of shin’uchi, this month (May, 2019) in Tokyo. In the highly regimented world of rakugo female performers are still a rarity so when I first met her a few years ago I made sure to get an interview with her at the time so I could get unique perspective. Unfortunately, things came up at the time and the translation and transcribing of the interview got put on the back burner. However, with her recent promotion I felt this was the perfect time to come back to this interview and give it the attention that it deserves. So, please enjoy this interview with Sanyūtei Aiba when she was known by her previous kōzamei (stage name in the rakugo world), Tachibana Futaba.

From humble beginnings...

Shawn: Thank you for coming today. May I ask you to introduce yourself?

Aiba: My name is Tachibanano Futaba of the Rakugo Geijutsu Kyoukai. I joined in 2005, originally under the name “Mika” and I performed the story “Kohome” at Asakusa Engei Hall as my first performance. In 2009 I rose to the rank of futatsume (the second rank in rakugo) and am now in my 11th year (this was recorded in 2015). I am working hard toward my goal of becoming a shin’uchi. Was that too long?

Shawn: Haha, no it was wonderful. It covered many of the questions I planned on asking. Anyway, why did you first want to become a rakugoka?

Aiba: The reason I first wanted to do rakugo was because I thought it was a fantastic form of entertainment. One person acts out all these different roles and, of course, the performer makes people laugh. Not only that, the performer also acts out scary stories, love stories, stories about fools, and so on, while acting out all these different characters alone on stage.

Shawn: How old were you at that time?

Aiba: I was 17. When I was a high school student I saw rakugo for the first time.  

Shawn: Where did you first see it?

Aiba: I think it was Asakusa Engei Hall. I thought it was great. I then went to different solo performances, futatsume rakugo shows, and I just remember it being so interesting. I thought about becoming one at that time. I just thought it was an amazing form of entertainment. It looked so difficult. I remember wondering how they remembered all those stories.

I thought about becoming a rakugoka and when I graduated from high school; I talked with my mother about it. At that time there weren’t many female rakugoka, around eight in total back then in Tokyo. I wasn’t sure if I could make it in that group of female rakugoka and thought about it for four years. Finally, at the age of 22, I decided to try to become a professional rakugoka.

Shawn: Did you mother approve of that decision?

Aiba: No, of course she didn’t, so I became a hair stylist. My mother ran a salon; so she told me to at least get a license as a cosmetologist because you don’t know how things are going to go. Maybe I’ll quit part way through; maybe things won’t work out, so I got the license with the possibility of taking over the family salon just in case. She thought I would probably give up. I tried to think of a way that would be the least burdensome for my mother because she raised me alone. In fact, I tried to help out by going to high school in my final year by mail. This way, I could work at the same time and contribute to the family. I did want to leave home too though.

Shawn: Where is your hometown?

Aiba: I’m from Oji, in Tokyo but I studied cosmetology at a salon in Yokohama. There was a dorm there so I lived there.

Shawn: At that time did you go and see rakugo?

Aiba: Somewhat, but at that time everyone was studying cosmetology so hard. At that time the “charisma stylist” was all the rage and everyone was trying to become a successful stylist.  

Shawn: Like in the television drama “Beautiful Life”?

Aiba: Yes, and like in “Beauty Coliseum”. So, they were all trying to be great hair stylists in that way, studying hard and such and there I was kind of trying half-heartedly. These people were at the salon practicing after the shop closed until midnight chasing their dream to be a stylist and I started to wonder, “Is it okay for me to be here?” I realized that, like these people doing what they dream of doing, I wanted to chase my dream. These stylists really seemed to full of energy, glowing while doing what they really wanted to and here I was not really 100% invested in it. I thought, even if I fail, for once in my life I really wanted to go for it (in rakugo).     

Getting a foot in the door and finding a master…

Shawn: So what came next?

Aiba: I joined a group of amateurs who did rakugo and that’s where I met Enman-san who would later become my ani-deshi (a more senior apprentice of the same master).

Eleven years ago, like kabuki and sumo, etc. the thinking among the masters was that women were not suited for rakugo.

Shawn: So he introduced you to your current master?

Aiba: Not exactly. Through him I found out about the existence of my (future) master, Tachibanano Madoka, and went to go see him perform. Actually, the attitude of many masters at that time was that it was hard for women to become professional rakugoka. Eleven years ago, like kabuki and sumo, etc. the thinking among the masters was that women were not suited for rakugo. Among those veterans, my shishō (master) was one of the few who would accept a female apprentice.

Shawn: So you went to him and asked for him to make you his apprentice?

Aiba: Yes.

Shawn: And what was his reaction at the time?

Aiba: My shishō was a very open-minded and caring man who felt that he had encountered a comrade with the same resolve as he, and he felt that he couldn’t abandon me. He felt that he couldn’t just look the other way and ignore me so he took me on as an apprentice with the attitude that, in the end, the responsibility for being successful or not in the rakugo world was my own.

Shawn: So ultimately it was up to your effort?

Aiba: Well, he wouldn’t really say it so directly, but I believe that’s how he felt. So he would help me become a rakugoka despite my being a woman. I mean, I don’t know how it is elsewhere with women not being able to do certain jobs but especially in the past the subjectification of women in Japan was pretty bad. Nowadays, there are lots of women making waves like the recently elected Governor of Tokyo Koike Eriko and it must have been tough for her to get that position…

Shawn: Yes, but perhaps it would be more difficult for a woman to become a rakugoka than a politician.

Aiba: Well, it is difficult but…

Shawn: I mean in the traditional arts it might be more difficult.

There’s an expression that is often said in dressing room: “If you can’t read the room, it doesn’t matter if your storytelling skills are good or bad.”

Aiba: Yes, well, when I perform koten rakugo the stories are often written by men and are from the viewpoint of a man so that can be difficult. Performing rakugo is really difficult. However, after doing this for 11 years, my feelings regarding this have changed recently. Recently, the comedian Beat Takeshi said on television that it takes a comedian ten years to be able to build up the strength to make people laugh. I really have to agree with him. At the beginning, no matter how hard you try, because you haven’t performed that much you don’t have a bag of tricks to rely on in certain situations: In this situation I should do this; today there is this kind of audience so you should tell this kind of story and such – you  don’t have the ability to read the room yet. There’s an expression that is often said in dressing room: “If you can’t read the room, it doesn’t matter if your storytelling skills are good or bad.” So basically when you go to some place you have to read the room and be able to change that atmosphere into something humorous. And that is why training and experience is necessary. With experience you make a lot of mistakes and there are times when you feel down but these are good experiences in the long run.

Shawn: I see. So you became your master’s apprentice and took the rank of zenza (the first rank of a rakugoka) and that lasted four years?

Aiba: Hmm. A little bit more than four years but yes. From the period I was allowed in the dressing room it was about four years.

Shawn: At that time did you also clean your shishō’s house and do other chores like that?

But no matter what happened during the day I found that I could return to my shishō’s house with his wife, daughter, the neighbors…all welcoming me with a smile.

Aiba: Yeah, I did. My shishō was the kind of master who said I didn’t have to do such stuff but I liked my master and wanted to gain his affection and approval so I went to help his wife. I liked doing it actually. It was fun. The training for zenza took place every day so there were difficult times and it was hard to find a change of pace. But no matter what happened during the day I found that I could return to my shishō’s house with his wife, daughter, the neighbors…all welcoming me with a smile. It was really nice to have someplace to return home; I have a real home as well, but this was another place where I could “come home to” and it was quite a comfort. Another thing that my shishō said when we first entered the backstage area was, “Once we enter the dressing room we are master and apprentice but when we stop outside this environment we are father and daughter.” There aren’t many people in your life you meet who will say such a thing. Maybe he was too nice to me at times though, ha ha. I really thought of him as my father.

Shawn: Your shishō also had other apprentices who were male, right?

Aiba: Yes, there were many.

Shawn: Was he stricter with them?

Aiba: Well, (maybe) in the case of his first apprentice, Emba, although my shishō was young at the time. The first apprentice is like your first born so you take a lot of care in raising them. But I guess if you had to say, you could say that he wasn’t that strict of a master. He was a warm person.

Shawn: So, in the beginning did you learn a lot of stories from your shishō?

Aiba: At first, I was told to learn the techniques and stories from his top apprentice Emba, because he had taught him everything he knew.

Shawn: So you were taught by his top deshi (apprentice)?

Aiba: Yes.

Shawn: And even now is that the case?

Aiba: Now I go and learn from different rakugoka.

Shawn: Because your shishō passed away?

Aiba: Not because he passed away, but because it was okay for me to learn different stories from different rakugoka as long as I ran it by my shishō first. For example, I would say, “I’d like to learn this story from this rakugoka. Is that okay?”

Inside the program for Aiba’s promotion and performance. The ceremony and performance is just part of a day at the  yose  with many other performers taking the stage.

Inside the program for Aiba’s promotion and performance. The ceremony and performance is just part of a day at the yose with many other performers taking the stage.

Shawn: Ah, I thought that the world of rakugo was strict and that you just learned from your master. Are things more flexible?

Aiba: It depends on the person. In my kyōkai (a professional organization for performers) there are only a few rakugoka who are that strict. The Rakugo Geijutsu Kyōkai is a lot more flexible when it comes to that.

Shawn: Yes, they were a lot more flexible when it came to giving me access too, so I personally like them more than other organizations.

Aiba: Ha ha.

Shawn: Rakugo Kyōkai didn’t grant me any access.

Aiba: Actually, I’ve heard that from audiences as well. I hear that Rakugo Geijutsu Kyōkai is friendly. The geinin (comedians) of Rakugo Geijutsu Kyōkai are friendly too.

Shawn: So, it’s been seven years since you’ve risen to the rank of futatsume?

Aiba: Yes, this is my 7th year.

Shawn: How long will it be before you can become a shin’uchi? Do you know how long? Is it vague?

A ticket to the promotion ceremony and performance for Sanyūtei Aiba

A ticket to the promotion ceremony and performance for Sanyūtei Aiba

Aiba: It's up to the judgment of the board members and depending on balancing it out with other kyōkai. For example, with my generation there weren’t many zenza. There were only eight in total. There hadn’t been a new rakugoka in the two years before I entered. Now there are like 31 zenza. So, with so few zenza at the time even if we wanted to make some money on the side to make a living we weren’t able to (because we were busy helping out).

Shawn: So how did you make a living at that time?

Aiba: Well, I was living at home at the time so that was okay. I also took pride in the fact that I was protecting the yose (yose = ) by being a zenza. I took a lot of pride in my job. Once you become a tate zenza the yose can’t function without you.

Shawn: What is a tate zenza? Is it a rank inside zenza?

Aiba: Yes. The lowest rank of zenza is ocha kakari (those who take care of giving tea to the masters) and then in the middle there is taiko kakari (in charge of playing the drums) and then there’s the tate. That’s about it.

Shawn: Is the tate zenza the one who writes down the netachō (this is a book kept backstage where there is a record of the stories that are being told by the rakugoka on that day).

Aiba: Yes, but the tate also keeps track of the schedule and puts everything in order. They also ask the shishō to go on and such. The tate is in charge of how the day progresses at the yose. And, this is an extreme example, but if a shishō forgets to come and then says, “I’m on my way” it’s the responsibility of the tate to say, “I’m sorry but we had someone else perform in your place.”

Shawn: Did something like that ever happen?

Aiba: Hmm, I’ve never heard of something that bad happening but being a zenza at a yose is all about having pride in the place where the shishō performed and treating that place with care.

Shawn: Did you mainly work at Asakusa Engei Hall?

Aiba: Well, when it comes to yose there is a thing call honseki (roughly meaning the main theater) and Shinjuku and Asakusa are the honseki. The Rakugo Geijutsu Kyōkai and the Rakugo Kyōkai share these theaters with each organization playing ten days in a row at each theater and then switching off. So, aside from the 31st of the month, one of the two organizations is performing at the two yose.

Shawn: So when you were a zenza you never had a day off?

Aiba: No, never. After all I had a shishō every day. (Ha ha)

Shawn: Because your shishō never took a day off you never had a never had a day off as well?

(Being a zenza was difficult) but more than that, it was an honor. It was very tough but it was what I really wanted to do.

Aiba:  Basically, you don't have any days off, other than when you are sick with the flu or something. Ha ha, you don’t want to get anyone else sick.

Shawn: Yes, some of the shishō might die! Ha ha.

Aiba: Yeah, so basically no days off.

Shawn: But it was fun, right? I mean, difficult but fun, right?

Aiba: Hmm, yes, but more than that, it was an honor. It was very tough but it was what I really wanted to do.

In celebration of their promotion rakugoka often create a signature tenugui (cloth) and sensu (fan). This is the tenugui for Aiba with the paper it came in.

In celebration of their promotion rakugoka often create a signature tenugui (cloth) and sensu (fan). This is the tenugui for Aiba with the paper it came in.

Shawn: Once you became a rakugoka did you have any second thoughts?

Aiba: Once I became a rakugoka? Yes, many times.

Shawn: Were you wondering if you could make it in this world, second thoughts of that nature?

Aiba: I was worried about a lot of things actually. I was often told by a more senior rakugoka that there is a lot more to worry about when you become a futatsume. Even though you never have a day off, have to deal with some strange shishō, and an endure a difficult training in a strict environment as a zenza it’s much tougher when you go out on your own as a futatsume. Up until then you could count on the yose as your foundation. But then as a futatsume you have to take the leap and strike out on your own and in my case, with the name of “Tachibanano Futaba” as a kind of business or shop in a way. So, in the end, you are the CEO of this “company” as well as being responsible for performing and running the business end and everything else.

Shawn: So you are an independent business in a sense.

Aiba: Yes, like a shop that is named Tachibanano Futaba. To keep up that motivation is unpleasant at times to be honest. Well, some people might feel differently.  

Shawn: So, how are you gaining experience currently?

Aiba: Well, I perform at the main yose and a small yose which features futatsume. In addition to that, I do odd jobs for the kyōkai and also organize my own benkyō kai (performances that also serve the purpose of practice/study) once a month. I also perform with my ani deshi (ani desh = ) once every three months, at schools sometimes, and even at a cat café.

Shawn: Is there anything in the rakugo world that you’ve had trouble with because you’re a woman?

Aiba: Hmm. As a woman it’s hard to play Yōtarō, a character who appears in stories that is kind of a fool. He’s not really dumb but he’s a pretty foolish character. It’s difficult for a woman do play the part of a male fool. Because of Yōtarō’s appearance it’s hard for me to go and to say, “Aa-chan, Aa-chan!” (in this character’s voice). It might be funny for a male rakugoka who is a bit round and charming to say these lines and appear cute. Of course, there are some female performers who are a bit overweight who could do this as well. Someone with a strong character could do this. If I try this it’s a bit different. So, I try and say, “Aa-chan, Aa-chan!” in a different manner, not purposely trying to sound like a fool. It’s hard for me to play a male fool so I change it a bit to match my character.  

Shawn: I think I’m really well suited to play the fool. (ha ha)

Aiba: Ha ha. Actually, you know how I am but if you don’t know me and I come out in a kimono I kind of look sharp. But that’s not how I really am. I’m a little bit uncool, right?

Aiba shows off her custom-made  obi  with her signature logo of a “dark horse” and her new name.

Aiba shows off her custom-made obi with her signature logo of a “dark horse” and her new name.

Shawn: You’re not cool?

Aiba: Not that cool at all. (Ha ha) But the issues of how the audience sees me, how I look as certain characters, and how I can match myself to certain characters and get the audience to accept me as that is something I, and all geinin, have to deal with.

Shawn: How do audiences react to a female rakugoka?

Aiba: They’re very interested. When I perform somewhere other than the yose, where core fans are used to rakugo, people are like, “There are female rakugoka?!” When I see reactions like that I feel that being a woman is a benefit, a plus.

When I perform somewhere other than the yose, where core fans are used to rakugo, people are like, “There are female rakugoka?!” When I see reactions like that I feel that being a woman is a benefit, a plus.

Shawn: But are people who regularly watch rakugo more critical?

Aiba: There are some people like that. Recently, I went drinking with a someone who was the granddaughter of a famous comedian and when she was growing up she would often go do different comedians’ homes. And actually she confided in me that at one time she wanted to become a rakugoka. She was a fan of Shincho-shishō and Kosanji-shishō. Well, of course she liked them. They were quite handsome. Anyway, she told me that the reason she didn’t become a rakugoka was because she hated it when women played the traditional roles of Hacchan and Kuma-san. She was very blunt with me. Well, I’m well aware of such opinions but there are people who feel the need to say that to me.

Shawn: I’ve heard that women can sometimes be harder on female comedians.

Aiba: Yes, that is true. So, there is that hurdle of being the same gender as female fans. This is even true when you’re running a shop or business. It’s very important to be accepted by female fans, especially when it’s usually the woman who recommends a shop to others. So, I think it’s very important to get those female fans if you want to become popular.

Shawn: In politics, with the election between Hillary and Trump, even some women have said that they don’t think a woman should be president. It’s surprising that some women feel that way regarding their own gender.

Aiba: Yes. Everyone’s different. If there are a 100 women, even if all of them don’t become a fan of me, some do come out and say, “We’re rooting for you.” And that encourages me.

Shawn: So you should just listen to those that are positive?

Aiba: I guess I have to. If I only listen to those who are negative I wouldn’t be able to live. Ha ha.

Shawn: So you could say that being a female rakugoka has its advantages and disadvantages? Are there any disadvantages?

Aiba: There probably are. For me at least, I often hear that there are many stories in rakugo which men are better suited for.

Shawn: Well, that can’t be helped to a point.

Aiba: Yes, but I think that’s a disadvantage.

Shawn: How many female shin’uchi are there currently?

Aiba: There are around eight in Tokyo.

Shawn: That’s a surprisingly large number.

Aiba: Yes, but when you think of the female population overall that’s really not many.

Shawn: Yes, that’s true and this might be harsh but I can’t think of any female rakugoka who have become widely famous, besides in the yose.

Aiba: Yes. There is Katsura Emi-shishō in the Kansai area and Kikuhime-shishō is on television sometimes.

Shawn: Do you get along well with these other female rakugoka? Are you close?

Aiba: Hmmm.

Shawn: Do you consider them rivals?

Aiba: Well, they are rivals as well as comrades. I’m also aspiring to reach that level.

Shawn: So, you don’t think of them that much as rivals? You’re just more concerned about working on your art?

I’m just thinking about how to make the audience laugh. And I want to be a rakugo “craftsman”. I just want to concentrate on keeping my head down, continue my training, and work on my craft.

Aiba: Well, there are times when I think of them as rivals but that can’t be helped. I’m more concerned about myself. If I think too much about how others are doing that could drive me crazy. I’m just thinking about how to make the audience laugh. And I want to be a rakugo “craftsman”. I just want to concentrate on keeping my head down, continue my training, and work on my craft. That’s all. I’m not that skilled of a person.  

Shawn: Even though you studied to be a hair stylist and such?

Aiba: I mean a different kind of skilled. I mean the ability to be myself and shine. Really funny, really charming people have that special something right? If I can find a way to be myself and shine it’s fun for the audience as well as myself.  

Shawn: And you are still looking for your identity?

Aiba: I think I have finally discovered, after 11 years, that I am this kind of person.

Shawn: This is who “Futaba” is. Something like that?

Aiba: Yes, that’s why I’m changing my picture and such.

Shawn: Your picture?

Aiba: Yes. I told you before that I wanted to start a website, right? I’ve been thinking that I need to promote my best points so I’ve started using facebook and other social media.

Shawn: So, what is the one thing that only you can do?

Aiba: The thing that only I can do is tell original stories and notice things that other female and male rakugoka don’t. I am married to a former-sumo wrestler so there is that and I’m good at drawing portraits so...

Shawn: You draw?

Aiba and I after her promotion and performance at the Asakusa Engei Hall.

Aiba and I after her promotion and performance at the Asakusa Engei Hall.

Aiba: Yes. I don’t know how people react to my drawings of them (ha ha) but yes, I do.

Shawn: Yes, many comedians try to integrate their personality into their act to set themselves apart from others.  It’s just how you package all those traits up into a product.

Aiba: Yes, and that’s what I’m doing right now. I trying to figure out how to package myself through trial and error. It’s fun.

Shawn: Yes. When I was researching manzai, I noticed, especially in the case of Yoshimoto, that often they are like “ugly idols.” Where their selling point is that this one is fat or this one has a strange face, etc. Everyone is changing what would usually be a minus into a plus.

Aiba: Yes, and I realized that some people are suited for that and some aren’t. So, I think those people should just try and go on the stage and try rakugo. If you had to be honest, rakugo is not really suited for television. Many years ago there were many rakugoka on television but nowadays everything is compact, the length of comedy routines and such. In the case of rakugo, you have to listen carefully for a while and the laughs come at the end. That kind of thing isn’t really in demand now on television and if it’s not in demand by television it won’t be wanted by audiences. If you think of it in an English context, it’s kind of similar to a one-person play although it’s more comedic. So anyway, I’m doing my best to work hard so that the audiences will even accept my shortcomings. Actually, although there may be some minuses when it comes to being a woman in this world, I also feel that it can be a weapon. It’s very easy to remember me, right?

Shawn: Yes, it is. In the comedy world in Japan it is very hard at first to get remembered if you are just an average looking Japanese male. You really have to be good to be remembered at first in that situation. Entertainers that stand out because of their appearance, whether it’s because they are overweight or female, etc. are certainly easier to remember at first. In the case of rakugo as well, with the scarcity of women in this world it’s easy to leave an impression.

Aiba: Yes, so, I think that although being a woman can be a minus it’s also a plus.

Shawn: Well, thank you so much for your time. It was quite an interesting interview!

Aiba (then Futaba) instructing me at the Nittere Gakuen rakugo class for amateurs in 2014. (photo by  Nittere Gakuen staff )

Aiba (then Futaba) instructing me at the Nittere Gakuen rakugo class for amateurs in 2014. (photo by Nittere Gakuen staff)