Rakugo (Japanese Traditional Comic Storytelling, or the Comic Story Itself) (落語)

Rakugo is a traditional Japanese narrative art handed down through the generations that was established in early modern times. It is also called otoshi-banashi (a story that has a punchline), or in abbreviation, hanashi (a story). The movement of the population to urban areas enabled rakugo to become an independent performing art. In the early days of rakugo it was performed by a variety of people having another main occupation, but at present it is usually performed by professionals. It is a unique performance using gesture and narration rather than costume, props, or music, and requires a high degree of skill to perform.

Originally, rakugo referred to otoshi-banashi, performances which were humorous and had a punchline, but at present, rakugo is used as a general term which includes otoshi-banashi, ninjo-banashi (a story with human interest), and shibai-banashi (a story with an element of drama).

Mostly, rakugo has been performed at yose (storytellers' halls), but in recent years small live rakugo performances by young comic storytellers have also appeared. The stage that a comic storyteller goes on to is called a koza.

Edo rakugo (rakugo performed in Edo) and Kamigata rakugo (that performed in the Kyoto and Osaka region) differ in terms of props and routines.

Varieties of rakugo performance

There are several methods of classifying rakugo, each of the methods categorizing and dividing performances in a different way.

Classification by production period

Categories: Classical rakugo, new rakugo (also known as original rakugo)

Classical rakugo refers to those performances which were established in some form between the Edo and Meiji periods, and which were staged World War Ⅱ. New rakugo has mainly been performed either by the authors themselves or young or inexperienced storytellers, and most of the performances do not constitute the common property of the whole rakugo community. However, many of them have been quick to respond to social trends by including topical references and introducing satirical elements. The distinction between classical rakugo and new rakugo is not always clear, and a number of works such as Little Flute (a new rakugo performance created by the third Beicho KATSURA and performed by many storytellers) are deemed to be ambiguous in terms of which category they belong to.

Classification by method or structure of the production

Categories: Otoshi-banashi, ninjo-banashi, shibai-banashi (including kaidan-banashi ghost stories, and onkyoku-banashi stories with background music)

Within classical rakugo, stories characterized by their comic content and punchlines called "ochi" or "sage" are categorized as otoshi-banashi.

Stories which aim to depict the subtleties of human nature are categorized as ninjo-banashi. Mostly ninjo-banashi form a long series of connected works, so in the past the central storyteller, or tori, performed a sequence of ninjo-banashi for ten consecutive days, but nowadays only individual sections of the sequence are performed in many cases. As a result an individual performance may not contain a punchline.

Otoshi-banashi and ninjo-banashi are both performed simply by talking, but in contrast shibai-banashi are staged like a shibai (theatrical performance or play), in which a kakiwari (stage setting) and music are used, and occasionally the performer may stands up and pose as part of the performance. Kaidan-banashi ghost stories, which come under the category of shibai-banashi, mostly consist of a ninjo-banashi-like story with a shibai-banashi-like ending. In a broad sense, shibai-banashi may also include performances where the central topic is derived from a shibai or performances that parody them. In these kinds of shibai-banashi, the story is similar to an otoshi-banashi as a whole, and some parts contain dramatic, kabuki-like lines and gestures, but the performer does not stand up or pose as part of the performance.

Performances called onkyoku-banashi unfold with background music but do not use exaggerated gestures. In Kamigata rakugo (from the Kyoto and Osaka area), it is usual to include the music of a geza (background musician) in every genre of rakugo as the hamemono (musical accompaniment for stage effect) during the storytelling, but in Tokyo (Edo rakugo) it is not. Therefore, it is only in Edo rakugo that the category of onkyoku-banashi is particularly fixed.

Classification by difficulty of performance

Categories: Zenza-banashi (an opening story relating to travel, and Oneta

The first stories learned by comic storytellers when they are new to rakugo are called 'zenza-banashi.'
Most performances of zenza-banashi are simple and short, so they are suitable for acquiring basic storytelling skills, and they are also used for improving a storyteller's vocal technique and letting a beginner become accustomed to performing. Regarded as a relatively brief and light story, zenza-banashi are never performed by established storytellers called tori, although they may be played by futatsu-me performers, situated between the zenza beginner storytellers and shin-uchi skilled performers, and occasionally by shin-uchi themselves.
In contrast, within the category ninjo-banashi, or of those performances which are considered masterpieces, works which are particularly difficult to perform are commonly called 'oneta.'
In Kamigata rakugo, a series of performances relating to travel are often performed as zenza-banashi. This is because it is said that the performance is convenient to punctuate for the next performer who is about to appear on stage.

Classification by type of sage or ochi within otoshi-banashi

Otoshi-banashi have various kinds of sage or ochi, such as niwaka-ochi (punchlines using a pun), hyoshi-ochi (forming part of a rhythmical story), sakasa-ochi (which have been hinted at to the audience early on), kangae-ochi (which might make the audience think or may be difficult to understand), mawari-ochi (which link to the beginning of the story), mitate-ochi (which liken something to a different thing), manuke-ochi (ending in nonsense or absurdity), totan-ochi (which add plausibility to the story as a whole), buttsuke-ochi (where characters' words are at odds with each other), and shigusa-ochi (using gestures) (see the article Ochi for details). While incomplete, this is the most popular current classification. In addition to the classification above, the second Shijaku KATSURA classified otoshi-banashi into four categories according to the type of punchline, namely, donden (punchlines which amuse the audience with an unexpected twist to an ordinary story line), nazotoki (that suggest the answer to a riddle presented to the audience within the story), hen (that amuses the audience by taking the story on a tangent), and awase (punchlines that amuse the audience by bringing together two separate things mentioned earlier in the story).

Methods of expression in rakugo

Methods of expression in rakugo can be classified into five categories as follows :


The performer's voice is the primary method.


Gestures are used, but they are minimized, and storytellers basically do not stand up or wander about the stage.

Props for the gestures

Only five props may be used, a sensu (fan), tenugui (hand towel), kendai (bookstand), hyoshigi (wooden clapper), and a harisen (a fan used as a stick-shaped object), the latter three being used only in Kamigata rakugo.

Additional accompaniments for special performances

In Kamigata-rakugo and onkyoku-banashi there are some further accompaniments to performances such as hamemono, and kakiwari and tsuke (sound effects produced by striking a wooden board called a tsukeita with a clapper) are both used in shibai-banashi.

Other components of the rakugo stage

Debayashi (background music played when a storyteller appears on stage), kimono (Japanese traditional clothing worn by a storyteller), zabuton (a traditional square floor cushion for sitting on), koza (the stage that a storyteller goes onto) and mekuri (paper cards stitched together and stood up on stage, the name of a storyteller written on each card) are all additional components of the rakugo stage. Words and gestures are the most significant, and they can be said to be the essence of the rakugo performance. Further details regarding the components are given below.

Generally, classical rakugo has a fixed model of narration, and a storyteller memorizes and reproduces this on stage. The model does not always exist in written form. In most cases, the model has been handed down orally. For this reason the most basic component of rakugo can be said to be the spoken words, rather than any physical element.
From the perspective of words, some specific characteristics can be pointed out as follows:

A rakugo story consists of descriptive parts and dialog, and when the story comes to a point the conversations between the characters are exchanged in an increasingly lively rhythm and the descriptive parts become fewer; this characteristic is not seen in another narrative art called kodan (vaudeville storytelling).

The details of the descriptive parts which are difficult to narrate, such as subtle changes in the feelings of the characters and the background to their feelings and conversations, are expressed by gestures as a complement to the spoken words.

Regardless of the number of characters, the whole story is told by a single storyteller. Therefore, the storyteller contrives to convey the personality of each character by differentiating their tone of voice, choice of words, way of talking, and other factors.

When a conversational part precedes a descriptive part in the story, and vice versa, or when conversations take place among many minor characters, it is unclear sometimes as to which character is speaking, and the storyteller may change character without being noticed, but this does not sound unnatural to the audience.

In rakugo, gestures are an important complement to the words. In other words, rakugo differs from theatrical performances that are accompanied by gestures in every part of the story, and gestures in rakugo are added to complement the words when it is difficult for them to convey the meaning of the story on their own. The parts of a story which are difficult to convey with words range from simple ones, such as actions that words cannot express in a straightforward way, or sections of the performance which complement the descriptive parts mentioned above, to highly artistic ones that are added as improvisation to stimulate the imagination of the audience. Just as a single storyteller uses a variety of verbal communication styles to differentiate between the characters as dictated by the story, an array of gestures are also used to convey the various characters.

Major gestures are as follows:

Facial expressions: the storyteller uses different facial expressions for each of the characters of a story. Occasionally, he or she pulls a funny facial expression in an exaggerated way if necessary.

Line of sight: in scenes where an elder character talks to a younger one the storyteller looks to the left of the stage (seen from the audience), and in scenes where a younger character talks to an elder one the storyteller looks to the right of the stage. Within a dialog such a switch of the line of sight effectively conveys to the audience differences between the characters.

Eating gestures: in rakugo there are a range of gestures to represent the act of eating something, using a folded fan like a pair of chopsticks, or moving a hand in a way that conveys the image of eating something with bare hands. There are various tricks or moves to illustrate the eating of a variety of different foods and in a range of situations. As an example, the consummate performances of the master Bunraku KATSURA are well-known, such as his gesture of eating sweetened adzuki beans in the performance of Ake-garasu (A Crow Nesting at Dawn), and the gesture of eating boiled green soybeans in Umanosu (The Hair of a Horse's Tail).

Walking: kneeling formally while resting the buttocks on the heels or being in a half-kneeling position, a storyteller swings the arms and moves the knees left and right. Generally, the storyteller does not get up and walk around the stage in imitation of a character.

Writing: most commonly a storyteller uses a tenugui to represent a notebook or a piece of paper, and uses sensu fan like a writing brush. In Kamigata rakugo the kendai is used like a desk.

Rowing a boat: this is an exceptionally showy movement for rakugo, using a sensu like a pole or an oar. The storyteller should make the gesture look like heavy work.

Lying down: storytellers cannot lie down on stage so they often use their own arm to represent a pillow. This is another technique for stage effect.

Pointing a finger or staring: rakugo does not allow the storyteller to bring objects mentioned in the story onto the stage, so he or she skillfully acts as if the object were on stage by pointing a finger at an empty space, or by staring at a particular point on the stage. For example, there is a tradition within the rakugo community that the gesture of drawing a sword can be well conveyed to the audience by moving a folded fan like the hilt of a sword, and then by shifting the eyes from the end of the fan to a point of empty space representing the point of the sword to indicate the length of the blade.

Crying: this gesture is often seen in ninjo-banashi. The storyteller dips a finger into a cup of tea or hot water brought onto the stage, and he or she draws a vertical line under the eyes with the finger.

To make the performance lively, actions such as eating, drinking, walking, running, dressing, and so on expressed in a defined manner without moving from the zabuton play quite a significant role in rakugo, though the action is not part of the art of storytelling in a strict sense.


In principle, the props to be used in rakugo are limited to sensu and tenugui, but in rare cases a teacup is also used. The sensu and tenugui are given a great deal of versatility in rakugo as they are used to symbolize a range of things, for example, the former may be used to represent a pair of chopsticks or a sword, and the latter a wallet or a document.

Sensu are called 'kaze' within the community of storytellers, and the width is a little wider than a standard sensu. When folded, a sensu is used like a sword, a pike, chopsticks, a writing brush, a kiseru (traditional Japanese cigarette pipe), or other things which are long and thin, and when unfolded, the sensu is used like a letter or paper lantern.

Tenugui are called 'mandala' within the rakugo community. A tenugui is used to represent a wallet, a document, a cigarette case, a book, any object made of cloth or in the shape of a bag, such as a drawstring money pouch, and even a string or a rope.

In Kamigata rakugo a simple bookrack called a kendai or a low single-leaf screen called a hiza-kakushi are sometimes placed in front of the storyteller.

Costume and sound effects
A storyteller should wear Japanese clothes with little or no pattern. There are also some additional rules in relation to when a storyteller should take off their haori (Japanese half coat) during the performance. Firstly, the haori is taken off to signify that the story is progressing from the makura (a related topic, or the background to the story, which serves as an introduction to the performance) to the main topic. Secondly, the haori is not taken off during performances where a merchant house, especially a large one, forms the focus of the story. Thirdly, the haori is taken off in performances where an ordinary merchant or artisan, typically named Hattsuan or Kumasan, appears. Moreover, the ability of the storyteller to slip the haori from the shoulders in a moment is also worthy of note. By adhering to these rules the storyteller attracts the attention of the audience to his or her art of narration. In rakugo the focus is on the art of narration, so music, sound effects and the like are not used when the storyteller narrates the story. However, in some areas, or in some specific performances, music and sound effects are used when the storyteller narrates the story.

Structure of the story

Before getting into the main topic, a storyteller warms up with a funny little tale that is related to the performance called a makura. The makura fills a variety of roles in rakugo, such as to amuse the audience and get them to relax before the start of the main topic, to lead the audience into the main topic of the story using a related scene, or as a tool to set up the final punchline, among others. Some classical rakugo performances contain words and customs that are obsolete today, and the audience may not be able to enjoy the whole story or the punchline fully without previous knowledge, so the makura is often used to provide the audience with assistance in this regard.

The storyteller also sometimes inserts a humorous tale which is not seen in the original plot called a 'kusuguri.'
Generally, audiences prefer kusuguri that are connected to the plot of the main story.

In general, otoshi-banashi should conclude with a punchline, but nowadays they often end before the punchline because of such factors as time constraints (a storyteller generally has only about fifteen minutes on stage) and for the reason that some punchlines are difficult for modern audiences to understand.

As mentioned above, most ninjo-banashi and shibai-banshi have no punchline.

Differences between rakugo and other performing arts
Being an art based on a fixed model that is reenacted on stage rakugo can be distinguished clearly from other performing arts such as theatrical and dance performances because storytellers do not dress up as each character but rather appear as themselves, whereas theatrical and dance performers usually dress up as a character. In rakugo, storytellers convey the attire and appearance of the characters they portray not with various physical objects such as costume, props, the stage setting, kakiwari, stage lighting, and sound effects, but with words and gestures. Accordingly, methods of expression in rakugo can be classified into two categories, basic factors (words and gestures) directly linked with the art of the storyteller, and restricted tools (props and costume) that complement these basic factors through their versatility. The fact that the art itself, rather than the costume or scenery, is central to the performance is the overriding characteristic of rakugo.

In addition to rakugo there is another amusing, narrative art called mandan (comic chat) which is performed by a single person. Mandan is in the style of a monologue, while rakugo is mostly occupied with the dialogue between several characters, which could be said to be the remarkable characteristic of rakugo. In rakugo the main topic centers around the dialogue between the characters, and the remainder is minimal background description (called ji) or a monologue which is separate from the main story and has the aim of relaxing the audience, though the structure of the introductory makura is different.

Stories made up of so-called descriptive parts and few dialogues are called 'ji-banashi,' exemplified by "Kishu Rakugo."

History of rakugo

The origin of comic story telling can be traced back to the tales included in "Taketori Monogatari" (The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter), "Konjaku Monogatari" (Tales of Now and Then), and "Uji Shui-shu" (Collection of Tales from Uji). The first collection of amusing stories in Japan was "Seisuisho," which is said to have been written in 1623 by Sakuden ANRAKUAN at Seigan-ji Temple, based on the tales he told to Shigemune ITAKURA, the Governor-General of Kyoto. Several stories still performed today are derived from this collection, such as "Kohome" (A Flattered Baby), "Ushihome" (A Flattered Cow), "Tonasuya-seidan" (A Pumpkin Vendor) and "Tarachine." Some people say Shinzaemon SORORI (a tea-drinking companion and one of entertainers of Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI) was the first comic storyteller in Japanese history, but others say Shinzaemon was a mythical figure.

In the latter half of the seventeenth century, Buzaemon SHIKANO from Osaka began 'Zashiki Shikata Hanashi' (theatrical comic storytelling performed inside a house) at playhouses and bathhouses within Edo. Around the same time at Shijo Gawara in Kyoto, TSUYU no Gorobei (the first) was busily engaged in rakugo, and he sometimes performed in front of the imperial princesses of Emperor Gomizunoo. In Osaka Hikohachi YONEZAWA (the first) became popular and performed in Nagoya. It is said to have been the first Hikohachi who made the original story of "Jugemu" (a well-known rakugo program).

In the latter half of the eighteenth century, hanashi (comic stories) began to be collected in Kamigata by people who wrote zappai (a lighthearted form of literature which originated from haiku, a Japanese poem in seventeen syllables having a 5-7-5 syllabic form) and kana zoshi, a story book written in kana characters. These stories were introduced to Edo by Bouun HAKURIKAN, a writer of comic tanka (a Japanese poem made up of thirty-one syllables), who gave birth to Edo-kobanashi (short Edo comic stories). A gathering of comic storytellers was begun in Kamigata in 1770s, and also in Edo in 1786 by Enba UTEI among others. Before long, in 1798, Mansaku OKAMOTO and Karaku SANSHOTEI (the first) each opened two storytellers' halls in Edo, and thereafter the number of venues increased rapidly.

Encho SANYUTEI, a popular storyteller who performed from the last days of the Tokugawa shogunate to the Meiji period, was known as a historic master of storytelling, and the book based on shorthand notes of his storytelling had a great impact on the literature of the time, particularly in relation to sentences written in a colloquial style.

In August 1917, the Yanagi Group and Sanyu Group (both storyteller groups) merged, and the core members, Enzo TACHIBANAYA (the fourth), Enu SANYUTEI, Kosan YANAGIYA (the third) and others, established Tokyo Vaudeville Co. Ltd, and Ryutei SARAKU (the fifth) also established the Sanyu-yanagi Friendship Association (commonly called 'Mutsumi-kai' in Japanese). In the following year the former company was renamed into Tokyo Entertainment Limited Partnership (TELP). In 1923 the Mutsumi-kai and TELP merged to form Tokyo Rakugo Association (the predecessor of the Rakugo Association).

From the 1940s and 50s rakugo study associations known as ochiken began to appear in several universities as a form of extra-curricular activity, Tokyo University and Waseda University being among the first. Today, the All Japan Students Rakugo Championship (Sakuden Award), a nationwide rakugo competition for students, is held annually in Gifu City. The award is named after Sakuden ANRAKUAN, who is said to have begun rakugo.

Groups to which comic storytellers belong

Professionals who perform rakugo in a show at a storytellers' hall or an entertainment hall are called rakugo-ka in Japanese. A storyteller is not called a professional if he or she does not belong to a guild of rakugo-ka. Being a guild, it has an apprentice system.

Associations or schools to which rakugo-ka in the Kanto region belong

Rakugo Association (in abbreviated Japanese, Rakkyo)

Rakugo Art Association (in abbreviated Japanese, Geikyo)

Enraku School of Storytellers

Tatekawa School of Storytellers

Associations to which rakugo-ka in the Kansai region belong

Kamigata Rakugo Association


Eastern Rakugo Association

Collections of rakugo sounds and images

Compact discs and cassettes of recorded rakugo stage performances are on the market, and some people have recorded rakugo aired on the radio on media such as cassettes and minidiscs.

Others have collected standard-playing records (SP records) of famous storytelling performances by rakugo-ka before World War II, which are unavailable today. The eighth Utaroku MIYAKOYA and Norio OKADA are well-known collectors of SP records.

"A collection of CDs reproduced from SP records: Excellent Rakugo Performed by Rakugo-ka in the Showa Period before World War II"

"The 80 Years' Chronicle of the Rakugo SP Records" written by the eighth Utaroku MIYAKOYA

Sadakichi KAWADO accumulated media (other than SP records) containing recordings of rakugo aired on the radio and other locations. He accumulated more rakugo cassettes than any other person in Japan. He not only recorded performances broadcast on the radio, but also live performances at storytellers' halls.

"Great Masters of Classical Rakugo/Storytelling at Storytellers' Halls/Storytelling at Entertainment Halls" (the first term/the second term): A set of CDs selected by Sadakichi KAWADO (produced by Geo Corporation)

Hiroshi TAMAOKI acknowledged in 'Hall of Masters on the Radio' that he was also a collector of the rakugo storage media. Shunichi KUSAYANAGI is a recording engineer who knows more about the sound source of rakugo than any other person in Japan, and he participated many times in the recording of rakugo as a recording engineer. He is also one of the originators of the Gokuraku-tei Project. The Gokuraku-tei Project is a project that collects, appraises, and conserves media recordings of rakugo performances (aired in the past on the radio and other formats), and this project aims to establish a "Sound Museum" in the vaudeville world in the future.

"An Introduction of CDs and DVDs Recording Excellent Rakugo": cowritten by Seiichi YANO and Shunichi KUSAYANAGI (ISBN - 978-4479300168)

Besides this, there are three collectors who collect every kind of material related to rakugo (books old and new, media containing sound recordings, prints, related merchandise, items signed by storytellers, and so on).

Bunga KATSURA (the Fourth)

Norio OKADA (mentioned above)


Since the Meiji period some comic storytellers have had a hard time in earning a living only through receiving a percentage of box-office revenues. Some received a stipend from sponsors called danna or odan, relied on their wives' income, or earned money for themselves by putting on entertainment at Japanese-style banquets. The kind of side job and how much was charged differed from person to person.

[Original Japanese]