Rakugo is among Japan’s more humble performing arts: a solo performer, dressed in traditional kimono, sits on a plush cushion and narrates stories lasting twenty or thirty minutes, assuming the roles of every character. A simple folding fan and handkerchief stand in for anything from a writing brush to a roasted sweet potato.
While rakugo has been described as “sit-down comedy”, it’s far from an Eastern analogue of what we know as stand-up comedy. It is an orally transmitted art with a much longer history. With two distinct traditions based in Osaka and Tokyo, rakugo as we know it dates back about 150 years, but precursors go back centuries.
Today more artists than ever (around 850) call rakugo their occupation. Respected as knowledgeable conveyors of history and cultural heritage, many are also on radio and TV. But it has always been a traditionally male art form. The first woman, Tsuyu no Miyako, joined the profession in 1974, and still today women make up only 7% of rakugo artists.
A young apprentice
Women began to gain a quiet presence in the art form in the 1980s.
In the 2000s, there was a surge in new rakugo performers, notably women. This was partly thanks to books, movies and TV shows spotlighting rakugo, some, such as Life’s Like a Comedy and Rakugo musume featuring women undertaking arduous apprenticeships to a happy end.
These no doubt enticed some of the young adults weighing their options as Japan’s “lost decades” – or decades of economic stagnation – idled on.
When she was in her early 20s, Nishii Fumi saw a famous rakugo artist on TV and went to see him in a live show. She knew nothing of rakugo at the time, but kept going to shows until she determined she wanted to be the one making audiences laugh.
After veteran rakugo artist Katsura Yoneji agreed to take on Fumi as an apprentice at 24 in 2011, he followed convention by giving her a stage name: Katsura Niyō. For her, rakugo seemed like the perfect job: it would allow her to play the clown full-time.
“I was a meek, quiet girl when I was small but looked up to the boys who could act like idiots, shamelessly running through halls in spite of the teachers”, she told me this weekend.
But Niyō understood women behaving improperly isn’t something that Japanese society looks highly upon: “men act like fools all the time, and get applauded for it, but not women”.
She viewed rakugo as a road to freedom, to be herself. Yet, though a handful of women had been on stage for decades prior to her beginning, she wasn’t blind to the fact women were rarely viewed as true artists.
Read more: Japan's gender-bending history
A man’s domain
Niyō asked to work with Yoneji because she wanted to do “real rakugo”. The art form’s first professional woman, Miyako, had formed a growing school of female pupils, but Niyō didn’t want to be identified as a woman storyteller. She wanted to be seen as a rakugo artist, full stop.
She faced numerous hardships during her training. Everyone training in rakugo must memorise long stories, but Niyō also faced the perceived “awkwardness” of a woman playing in a man’s domain. Some were awfully explicit with their view that women have no place in rakugo, but Niyō refused to give up.
Rakugo artists establish authenticity and advance their careers in various ways, including winning televised contests and receiving honours from local and national government.
Early on, Niyō began entering contests to challenge herself and assert her legitimacy. Last year she was a finalist at the influential NHK Newcomer Rakugo Awards, and this year, with the traditional story Long-Nosed Goblin Hunting (Tengu sashi), she took the Grand Prize over 106 other professionals from Osaka and Tokyo.
She is the first woman to win the award in its 50 year history.
The new face of rakugo
Niyō is now upheld by NHK as the “new hope for the rakugo world”.
Her perfect score at the contest seen as nothing short of monumental, drawing even The New York Times to interview her over several days, to Niyō’s surprise (and honour). The Hanjōtei, Osaka’s premier rakugo hall, will honour her with a full week of shows from January 31.
Niyō’s success is noteworthy for other reasons. Unlike some women who came before her (whom she thanks for opening doors), she insists on performing rakugo without modifying repertoire pieces or changing male characters to female. “It made me pretty happy that I could win top prize doing that” she told me.
Niyō has been told time and again women don’t have what it takes to perform traditional rakugo, but this only convicted her further. Having received such an esteemed prize, there’s no question she has changed some narrow minds.
Off stage she’s relishing the fact she could do something to face down gender bias. And to her detractors, she has one thing to say: “did you see what I just did? Eat that!”
Correction: one quote from Niyō has been updated to better reflect the translation from Japanese.