Katsura Sunshine and Rakugo

I was recently invited to lead a workshop on Aikido during a four-day symposium on "MA" (間) taking place at the University Tohoku located in Sendai, Northeast Japan. The symposium featured a fifteen or so people from science and the arts, all recognized experts of their respective disciplines. Among these many encounters, I was able to meet Katsura Sunshine (桂三 輝), from his real name, Gregory Robic, a Canadian who can boast of being the only non-Japanese master of Rakugo (落語, literally "the falling words") to be officially recognized by the Kamigata Rakugo Association.

Rakugo is a form of Japanese humor that dates back to the beginning of the Edo Era (1603 - 1868), but whose roots go back much further, in the 9th or 10th century. It consists in telling stories from a seiza (正座, lit. sitting properly) positon with as sole accessories a paper fan and a piece of cloth. The actor plays several roles and the form, the tone, and the level of language, are extremely codified. The practitioner of Rakugo is called a Rakugoka and just like in Budo, learning Rakugo occurs from master to disciple, over many years, several of which spent as uchi deshi (内弟子), a live-in student who learns close to his master and serves him in household chores, and as kaban mochi (鞄持ち), the bag carrier, who follows his master and assists him in his travels. Sunshine was the uchi deshi of the famous Katsura Bunshi VI (六代桂文枝) for three years. Both appear regularly on Japanese television and Sunshine is currently establishing his show on Broadway in New York.

sunshine bunshiKatsura Sunshne with his master, Katsura Bunshi VI

Quite naturally, our discussion focused on our respective disciplines and their learning, as well as on the preservation and dissemination of these Japanese cultural heritages. We agreed that one can only really know one's art if one immerges oneself at least for a time in the socio-cultural context which saw its birth. In Sunshine's words, "living in Japan and serving your master has nothing to do with Rakugo, but it has everything to do with it." I could easily quote his words and make them mine because I completely agree. Although one can practice and enjoy Aikido, one can truly understand it only by studying its culture and the language that gave birth to it. For example, the simple etymological study of its terminology or its history can completely reorient the practice.

Katsura Sunshine on CBC

Sunshine, however, is not a traditionalist, on the contrary, since he strives to make Rakugo known outside of Japan, and he even performs some of his shows in English. Anyone who speaks more than one language knows that humor is extremely difficult to translate or adapt, but Sunshine manages to carry his novice audience beyond cultural differences and make his stories as funny to Japanese as to English speakers.

Katsura Sunshine presenting Rakugo in English

Actually, this encounter was not my first experience of Rakugo since Miki Kyoaki Sensei, who is one of my teachers of Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu is himself is an enthusiastic practitioner of Rakugo, which he sometimes even presents in Shakespeare's tongue. He can actually be briefly seen in this other documentary presenting Sunshine.

Documentary on Katsura Sunshine

It was really interesting for me to be able to think about this kind of questions within the framework of Sunshine's positive and innovative approach, but one which is rooted in a strong tradition. I think it will be a great source of inspiration for me during the preparation of my upcoming seminars and conferences outside Japan.

Guillaume Erard
Author: Guillaume Erard
A resident of Japan for nearly a decade, Guillaume Erard trains at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo, where he received the 5th Dan from Aikido Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba. He also holds a 3rd Dan in Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu, the secretive art that Morihei Ueshiba learned from Sokaku Takeda. Erard is the Information Director of the International Aikido Federation and the Deputy Secretary of International Affairs of the Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu Shikoku Headquarters. He is also passionate about science and education and holds a PhD in Molecular Biology.
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