Amusing Grace
Brigitte Rozario 
Kichijitsu was backpacking in Japan when she decided to remain in the country and master the art of rakugo

She visits several countries every year to perform rakugo, the Japanese art of comedic storytelling. For the performance, she wears one of her many kimonos – she has almost 400 pieces – and sits delicately on a cushion, regaling the audience with classic tales from the Land of the Rising Sun.

She usually shares three stories during her 90-minute performance, where her only props are a folding fan and a small handkerchief. She relies a lot on facial expressions, gestures and hand movements.

While a blonde Englishwoman in a kimono telling Japanese stories may seem like a gimmick, Diane Kichijitsu just wants to share her passion for storytelling with the audience, and she works hard to ensure it is as credible as possible.

“I want the audience to enjoy rakugo because of the story. I don’t want them to think, ‘That’s cute – it’s a foreigner trying rakugo and it’s not really authentic,” shares Kichijitsu.

She was first introduced to the art form as a young backpacker on holiday in Japan. She arrived as Diane Orrett for a three-month holiday but ended up staying much longer and even getting Permanent Resident status and taking on the stage name of Diane Kichijitsu.

She now counts herself lucky, or destined even, to meet Katsura Shijaku, a famous storyteller in Japan and the first Japanese to perform in English. She became his stage assistant, never dreaming it would lead her to a life in the spotlight.

“The first time I saw rakugo I didn’t really know what to expect. I think the charm for me was that everything was based on the imagination. I’ve always had a vivid imagination. As a child, I used to cut out the figures and animals from birthday cards and use cardboard boxes to build a village for them. I would speak to the characters in foreign languages. Watching rakugo took me back to my childhood and gave me goose pimples because I thought, ‘Oh, we’re going on an imaginary journey!’,” says Kichijitsu.

She explains that in rakugo, the storyteller plays all the characters in the story in a very simple setup. The audience has to “participate” by imagining the scenes as the story unfolds.“That was refreshing for me because it’s so simple and yet it works. It’s very powerful for one person to hold the whole thing together without walking around,” she says.

Kichijitsu decided to immerse herself in Japanese culture by not just learning rakugo but also pottery, flower arrangement, tea ceremony and even how to wear a kimono.Although there were other foreign female performers when she started in 1998, none of them were doing it full-time, so she became the first.

Initially, she heard comments like, “Girls can’t do rakugo, it’s a man’s world, so you should go learn how to play the shamisen or something else”, as well as, “As a foreigner, you will never understand the Japanese heart”.

Kichijitsu performing at a cultural street night festival in Johor Bahru last year

She didn’t let these negative words stop her as most of the reactions were encouraging and supportive. “To be honest, the support has been really good. There were no foreigners doing it full time when I started so when I travelled overseas, I always had the feeling of being a fake Japanese person. I was concerned that people might think I was trying to be Japanese, but that was never the case. It was always very positive and people would ask me when I was coming back to perform again,” admits Kichijitsu, smiling.

Some born-and-bred Japanese even abashedly admitted hers was their first rakugo show. They enjoyed it so much that they wanted to watch rakugo in Japanese after that. It is not surprising that her audience has been full of praise, given that she invests time into researching her stories and the characters. She once visited a samurai in Osaka to understand the way of the warrior.

“I always want my show to be the best performance it could possibly be. I never want people to say, ‘Yes, but you’re a foreigner’. I want them to say, ‘I enjoyed the show, it was great’,” says Kichijitsu, who was in Malaysia last month for eight shows in Kuala Lumpur, Perak, Penang and Johor.

Because rakugo was traditionally performed by men, most of the stories were written by men and the characters also tend to be male. Kichijitsu initially thought she had to be faithful to the story and only after speaking to other rakugo performers did she discover she could adapt the old tales. Then, she started introducing female characters or changing the characters in the story while still keeping it genuine.

She has performed in about 30 countries so far and in each country she visits, Kichijitsu adapts her stories so that the local audience can understand the tales. Although Kichijitsu loves traditional art of all types, she concedes there is a need to make it relatable to the younger generation so that they can connect with it.

“If you only keep a traditional art in its true form, you’re going to lose some audience because people can’t relate to it. In Japan, before marriage, all women studied flower arrangement and tea ceremony, and they all had kimonos. Today, the women are working and don’t have time to learn tea ceremony and flower arrangement. Before, they were just going to be housewives. Now, they have their own ambitions and dreams.”

“In fact, when I wear the kimono, a lot of Japanese women admit to me that they don’t know how to put on a kimono. Sometimes, I have workshops to teach them about kimono-wearing. They are learning from an English person because they never learned how to do it.”

She continues: “The culture can be lost, so what you want to do is keep it 100% authentic. Traditional arts might have an old musty image for a lot of young people and they are not interested. So you have to find a way to pull them through the door and once they become interested, then they will go deeper and become more traditional, I think.”

This travelling storyteller has been bucking the trend for many years. She wants to catch the attention and ignite the imagination of her audience. The Japanese storyteller is no longer an old man in dowdy earth-toned traditional wear. It is a cheerful Englishwoman in a bright kimono and flowers in her hair … and her name is Diane Kichijitsu.

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 259.