Katsura Fukuryu - Carving a New Path in the Traditional Japanese Performing Art of Rakugo

Have you ever heard of “Rakugo?” Although this traditional Japanese performing art has been around for centuries, its fan base remains small, whether it be within Japan or abroad. And yet, a Canadian man is one of the people at the forefront of the internationalization of this unique Japanese form of entertainment. In this edition of our People of Japan series, we got to speak with Canadian Rakugo performer Katsura Fukuryu to learn all about his journey in the fascinating world of Rakugo and find out more about this underrated art.

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Katsura Fukuryu: A Unique Addition to the World of Rakugo

When beginning the interview, Katsura Fukuryu greeted us with a warm smile and laughed while giving the disclaimer that as he is a storyteller by profession, there would be no short answers to our questions. True to his words, he gave insightful, captivating answers entwined with humor and passion, offering a glimpse of the charisma he exudes on stage.

Katsura Fukuryu is one of only four non-Japanese professional “Rakugoka” (Rakugo performers) in its 400-year-long history. He performs Rakugo in both English and Japanese, and he has also added Japanese Sign Language to his repertoire as well. In order to understand the cultural impact he has had, we first need to delve into “Rakugo,” the focus of his profession.

Rakugo According to a Professional Rakugo Performer

Rakugo is the art of storytelling, with “one person on stage telling all the parts of a story.” Katsura Fukuryu explained that there is a theory that Rakugo originated during the Edo period (1603 – 1867) from sermons Buddhist priests would give to the masses, and although the stories have changed over the years, “there is a basis for trying to teach the audience a moral.” While Rakugo stories are mostly comical, they can be dramatic as well, and can range from ten to thirty minutes or more.

Kansai vs Kanto Rakugo

Apparently, there is a long-standing debate as to whether Rakugo originated in the western Kansai region or eastern Kanto region, and there are differences that still separate the two styles today. Katsura Fukuryu, who is based in Osaka, is a practitioner of “Kamigata Rakugo,” which is the Kansai style of Rakugo, while “Edo Rakugo” is the Kanto style.

“I find Edo Rakugo a lot more straight and serious,” Katsura Fukuryu told us, explaining that traditional Edo Rakugo originated indoors and the only companions of the Rakugoka are a cushion, a handcloth, and a folding fan. On the other hand, not only is Kamigata Rakugo often also accompanied by music (consisting of drums, flutes, and “shamisen” played by other Rakugoka) and other sound effects to give emphasis to the performance, but as it originated outdoors, it uses louder voices and larger gestures that were originally utilized to capture the attention of the audience.

Rakugo performances also contain “bakusho,” which Katsura Fukuryu described as “guaranteed laugh points.” He recalled how he didn’t hear any laughs during his first professional performance, which was held in the Kanto region. “I had the carpet pulled out from under me, but I was like ‘finish the show,’” he laughed. Afterwards, audience members came up to him to praise him on his performance and tell him he was very funny. “But I didn’t hear them laugh?!” They then told him that they “laughed in their heads,” to which Katsura Fukuryu chuckled and said, “I’m from Osaka. We need laughs out loud.”

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A Timeless Art That Is More Than Just Simply Telling a Story

Katsura Fukuryu stated how he loves the “timelessness” of Rakugo. “Something I found fascinating about Rakugo is that a lot of these stories are 400 years old and have been performed by many people, but fans still come to see performances, even if they know the ending.” He attributes this to each Rakugoka having their own “spice,” with no one telling the story the same way. Even the same Rakugoka will never tell a story the same way twice, making every performance unique.

Furthermore, as we learned during our conversation with Katsura Fukuryu, Rakugo is more than just getting up on stage and performing your piece. A Rakugoka has to be sensitive to the atmosphere, often using “makura” (lit. “pillow”) talk before the actual performance to test the waters with the audience and get a sense of what sort of stories they are in the mood for. “Rakugoka don’t usually list what stories they’re performing beforehand,” Katsura Fukuryu explained, which allows the Rakugoka to change their potential set in the moment depending on what they feel the audience is looking for.

According to him, “a true artist of Rakugo can keep the audience’s attention for long periods of time.” With one person playing all the parts in a story with only two props they can utilize to portray a variety of scenarios, the Rakugoka must paint a picture for the audience “as ‘acapella’ as possible, without making it seem too memorized.”

Keeping This Centuries-Old Performing Art Relevant in Modern Times

The use of language is, unsurprisingly, extremely important in Rakugo. “If it's a story set in the Edo period, it would be weird if the characters were speaking in modern slang, wouldn’t it?” Katsura Fukuryu laughed. He explained that as most “koten” (traditional) stories take place in the Edo period, to transport the audience back into the past while still being understandable, most current professional Rakugoka use Taisho-era (1912 – 1926) dialect.

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The Long and Arduous Path to Becoming a Rakugoka

Originally from Canada, Katsura Fukuryu found his passion for performing and storytelling long before discovering Rakugo, having acted as a magician and balloon artist in his home country. Although now a highly regarded Rakugoka, “I didn’t know anything about Rakugo when I first came to Japan, but several years ago, a Japanese friend asked if I knew what Rakugo was.” He recounted how he told her what he knew from Japanese television programs, but said friend told him that wasn’t true Rakugo.

She then proceeded to show him a video of the Rakugoka Katsura Shijaku, a pioneer of English Rakugo, and Katsura Fukuryu was drawn to the storytelling and the fact that it was only one person who was playing all the parts. His friend then introduced him to an English-speaking Rakugo group, though Katsura Fukuryu mentioned that it was more for people to practice and receive feedback from other members than to be formally taught.

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Becoming the Apprentice of a Renowned Rakugoka

In order to become a professional Rakugoka, hopefuls first need to find the tutelage of an established Rakugoka who becomes their “master.” For about five years, Katsura Fukuryu bounced around a few Rakugoka who were willing to let him participate in training, but would not officially acknowledge him as an apprentice. That is, until he gained the favor of Katsura Fukudanji, one of the top Rakugoka in the field.

“When I met him, I knew he had said that he had retired from taking on apprentices and was only going to perform,” Katsura Fukuryu explained, “so I wasn’t even going to bother asking him.” But while conversing with Katsura Fukudanji after one of his performances, Katsura Fukuryu was told by the renowned Rakugoka to go do a set on the empty stage. “I wasn’t even wearing a kimono,” he laughed while recounting the event, but did as he was instructed and proceeded to perform a 10-minute set of a popular Rakugo story. He explained that when he first moved to Japan in 2001, he taught nursery and pre-school children and would use props such as storyboards in his lessons. “I basically just did the same thing, but without the props.”

Although Katsura Fukuryu himself isn’t too sure what drew in Katsura Fukudanji, he theorizes that part of it was because he had happened to tell a story that the house his master is from specializes in. “Three months later, we were talking in the same place, and he told me I should have the Katsura name.” He described how flabbergasted he was, exclaiming “It had been 10 years since he had taken on his last apprentice!” But Katsura Fukuryu did not let this opportunity bypass him, and excitedly asked the Rakugo master if he could become an apprentice, which to his delight, Katsura Fukudanji agreed.

Katsura Fukuryu recalled how he gave Katsura Fukudanji and a couple of other members of his party his business card with his phone number written on the back and was told he would receive a call in about a week. “One week goes by, nothing. Two weeks go by, nothing. I was starting to feel down,” he chuckled, “Until in the middle of the week, on a Wednesday, his manager called me to tell me that the master had lost my business card and they had been trying to figure out who had my phone number.”

After that, things flew by. “They asked me if I could meet the following day, and from that Saturday, I started my apprenticeship with him.” Normally, Rakugoka hopefuls would have to continuously ask a Rakugoka for several years to allow them to become an apprentice, as there is no guarantee for success and it is not an easy process. “When I asked him why he agreed to take me on as an apprentice, he told me it was because he thought I could make it.”

The Taxing Years Spent as an Apprentice

Katsura Fukuryu likened Rakugo apprenticeships to “prison sentences,” a metaphor that he had heard from another professional Rakugoka. “You basically go to prison for a minimum of three years, and then you’re ‘released,’” he explained. The time spent under the tutelage of a master is strict and unforgiving, with apprentices being grilled for every mistake, not only by their master, but senior apprentices as well.

During this time, the master will also decide whether or not apprentices are fit to become professional Rakugoka, and if the master tells you to quit, then your name is essentially erased from the Rakugo records. Katsura Fukuryu himself spent about two years as an apprentice of Katsura Fukudanji before he was “released” due to his master considering his time working with other Rakugoka and English Rakugo experience as “time served.”

Although it sounded grueling, Katsura Fukuryu’s love and respect for his master shone as he painted stories of his time as an apprentice, from carrying his master's bags to taking care of his (extremely expensive!) kimono and cleaning his entire house. Though he was already experienced in various aspects of Rakugo, such as how to use the minimal props to illustrate what was going on in the story, his time with his master allowed him to gain invaluable knowledge about Japanese Rakugo stories.

Katsura Fukuryu is now ranked as “Futatsume,” which is the second-highest rank in Rakugo, and he technically could take on his own apprentices. However, taking on apprentices is far from his priority, as he wants to treasure every moment he can to learn more from his master. “Even now, I want to learn as many koten stories from him as possible,” Katsura Fukuryu told us. 

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A Performing Name That Perfectly Encapsulates His Journey

Although now known by the name Katsura Fukuryu, when he first started out, he went by the self-given name of “Duke Kanada.” Utilizing kanji to make his name look more traditional, he chose characters that were phonetically similar to the pronunciation of “Duke Kanada,” including using “Ryu” (which means “dragon”) for “Duke.”

Katsura Fukuryu also designed a “mon” (crest) for himself, incorporating the “dragon” in his name and a maple leaf to represent his home country of Canada. Once he entered the house of Katsura, he was permitted to add the “hanabishi” (flower-shaped crest) to his mon, which was the crest of his master’s master, Katsura Harudanji III. Thus, his mon has become a symbol that perfectly represents his journey as a Rakugoka.

Masters decide their disciples’ names, and Katsura Fukuryu received his current Rakugo name one month after becoming his master’s apprentice, with the “Katsura” coming from the name of the Rakugo house. One character is taken from the master’s Rakugo name and given to the disciple, hence the “Fuku” from “Fukudanji,” and his master decided to keep the “Ryu” from his first performing name, thus becoming “Katsura Fukuryu.” Katsura Fukuryu laughed when talking about how happy and lucky he is with his name. Though all his senior apprentices have puns in their names which count from one to ten, he is the only one without a pun in his name, instead getting “dragon.”


Breaking the Mold in Traditional Japanese Rakugo

Katsura Fukuryu, who is fluent in both English and Japanese, performs English and Japanese Rakugo in about a 7:3 ratio respectively. With his steadily growing Rakugo reputation, Katsura Fukuryu has gained his own following, but he still enjoys the surprise on new audience members’ faces when they see his kanji name and then his unexpected appearance. Other than his country of origin, there are several other factors that make him a unique Rakugoka.

Traditional Japanese arts are largely right-hand dominant, with even left-handed Rakugoka having to use their non-dominant hands during their performances. However, Katsura Fukuryu mentioned that he may be the only Rakugoka that uses his left hand on stage. “The senior apprentices tried getting me used to using my right hand, but it didn’t work well,” he laughed. “My master finally said it was alright for me to use my left hand, and if my master says so, no one else can say otherwise.”

Katsura Fukuryu has come face to face with several other challenges. “I get along with most Rakugoka, but there are still people who have the traditional way of thinking, and I’ve had to walk the walk to prove myself.” Even so, he noted how many of them have come around and now accept him as part of the Rakugo world. 

Paving the Way for the Internationalization of Rakugo

As it is a traditional Japanese performing art, Rakugo has its own difficulties when it comes to sharing it with international audiences – the most obvious hurdle being the language differences.

One of the main characteristics of Rakugo is its use of puns, which, of course, cannot translate directly into other languages in most cases. Katsura Fukuryu is careful when preparing his English Rakugo, even having to swap out puns from the original Japanese story and create new ones to have the jokes make more sense in English. “Rakugo is ‘punny,’ so the punchline is important, but it’s not the most important – it’s just the way to close off a story,” he explained. “As long as you can close the story acceptably, it’s fine.”

Not only does Katsura Fukuryu use his makura time to feel out the vibe of the audience, but he also explains Rakugo to help the audience understand more of the nuances of the art and enjoy the performance even more. His efforts have not been in vain, as Katsura Fukuryu feels that his Rakugo is easily enjoyed by non-Japanese audiences as well. In fact, he proudly recounted having performed multiple sold-out shows in Las Vegas and receiving standing ovations in the Philippines and Singapore, and he was also recently able to have his first one-man performance in his hometown. “I love going to places where people love to laugh,” he beamed.

Spreading the Joy of Traditional Japanese Entertainment to the World

Katsura Fukuryu has been a pioneer in the internationalization of Rakugo, performing on stages worldwide and making the content more accessible to non-Japanese audiences. With his passion and expertise, we are excited to see how he continues to flourish in the Rakugo world! Whether you speak English or Japanese, be sure to check out Katsura Fukuryu’s performances if you are interested in Rakugo!

Katsura Fukuryu also wrote an article about his visit to the Museum of Hanshin Koshien Stadium, click here to check it out!

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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Kim S.
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