Learning Rakugo through English, English through Rakugo

Yesterday was the final day of my English through Rakugo class at a local Tokyo university and I'm relieved to say that, despite the difficulty for both the students and myself, it was a modest success. A little back-story is needed. Last year I started teaching English part time at a local university in western Tokyo. Teaching for the first time at a university in Japan, most of the classes that I taught had a traditional curriculum focusing on comprehension, listening, conversation skills and such. Still, when organizing the curriculum for my five courses I wanted to teach at least one where I was able to use my knowledge of Japanese humor. While a course on manzai in English would be impractical because of the difficulty of finding routines that could be funny in English as well as Japanese I felt that using rakugo could be a potentially interesting and enjoyable course for students used to textbook based learning. There are a rising number of performers of rakugo in English (and other languages) in recent years with a handful of books also being published with translated stories. So, with some apprehension (because when I submitted the curriculum I had yet to teach at that school and be able to assess student levels), I planned for a course on rakugo in English for the winter semester of 2015. Here is a recap on the challenges and the successes of my first attempt to teach English through Japanese comedy. 

The Challenges:

Teaching Rakugo Itself

Although I have been studying rakugo for a few years now and performed a handful of times in Japanese I can hardly call myself an expert in the finer points of rakugo techniques. In an effort to shore that up I was able to have my teacher, professional hanashika Sanyutei Tomba come in and be a guest teacher for one class. The use of a guest teacher in the second half of the semester had two goals, to address specific questions that students had about how to act out their stories and to re-motivate students who may have been down from the practice of their material. It worked on both fronts as the students enjoyed Tomba-shisho’s class and were able to better grasp the fundamentals of rakugo. It was a definite highlight of the course.

Finding Material

Looking for stories that were translated or could be translated into English while still retaining their charm was a challenge. Already out of the running were stories with deep cultural references that made it difficult to translate. Also out were stories that depended on puns and other word play. Another obstacle was the length of the story. In an effort to adjust to the English level of the students and keep in mind the logistics of the class I reduced the length of the material to five minutes (rakugo stories usually can be anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes in length). I was aided greatly by the NHK show Ehon Yose, a five minute show targeting children with rakugo stories converted into animation. English subtitles were available on the DVD edition of the show and those of which I did not already own the DVD edition I was able to translate myself. These DVDs were also helpful in showing the students when they were choosing which story to tell. Being short and in Japanese enabled the students to get a grasp of the story in a short amount of time. In future classes, with the catalogue I have built in translated stories the process should be a lot less stressful.


With the difficulty of this course I anticipated a higher rate of attrition than the average college course in Japan and I was right. Facing the requirement of memorizing and performing a five-minute story in English in front of everyone I eventually lost roughly one-fourth the class. It was both regrettable and welcome. Although I would have loved to see everyone remain and enjoy the class, logistically having almost forty students perform a five (plus) minute story at the end of the course was unmanageable. It would have also made it impossible for everyone to get enough time practicing in front of others or one on one with me. Ideally the size of this class should be between ten and twenty at the most. Still, those who did remain were very loyal to class, working hard until the end.


The Successes

Leading up to the final class of the semester in which students would be required to perform their stories for a final grade I was understandably nervous. The final few practice performances in front of the class did not go well with only one student able to complete their story in the allotted time (between five and eight minutes). Fortunately the students came through big time. In the last class before the winter break I scheduled the final performance in an effort to avoid students having to wait over three weeks before the actual final class to perform. That plan turned out to be a bit too ambitious with only half the students being able to perform with the rest having to wait until mid-January for a chance to shine. Still, the performances that I was to see were encouraging with only one student being unable to complete their story. My worrying about the laziness of college students thankfully turned out to incorrect as the remaining students were able to perform their stories well even after coming back from the long break. As a final prize for the best performers of the two classes I awarded two students with tickets to the Asakusa Engei Hall, a mecca of live rakugo performance in the heart of Tokyo. The winning students seemed genuinely happy with the tickets. The class came to successful conclusion with the students taking home the mekuri (name sheets used on stage to tell who is performing) with their stage name.

Looking Back
Although there are many points to improve on I believe this class was successful in educating students on both English and the Japanese traditional performance style of rakugo. In theory, successful students of this class should leave with an improved level of confidence in public speaking (in English or otherwise) and a deeper understanding of their own culture. The traits that are important in rakugo: voice projection, gestures, intonation, and tempo are also necessary for any successful public presentation in any language. With one semester under my belt I can now make adjustments for a more effective course in the future. Putting any difficulties aside, the smiles on the faces of the students who stuck it out and enjoyed a new way to learn English really give me the motivation to continue this course. 

Laugh in Translation: English Rakugo with Tatekawa Shinoharu

Laugh in Translation: English Rakugo with Tatekawa Shinoharu

Ushering in a New Year with New Laughs

Ushering in a New Year with New Laughs