Japanese Studies Seminar Series - Deconstructing hierarchy in the traditional performing arts of Japan: A musical discourse of Kansai Rakugo

This week's presenter is Catherine Hallett, PhD candidate, School of Culture, History and Language, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. 


Rakugo is the oral tradition of staged comic storytelling that has been performed since the early Edo period (1600-1868) in the Kansai and Kantō regions of Japan. World War II ravaged the world of rakugo. All yose-theatres in which rakugo was customarily performed in the Kansai region were destroyed. In addition, a significant proportion of rakugo storytellers died during or soon after the end of the war. 

During this tumultuous period, Hayashiya Tomi (1883–1970), the only remaining female musician who regularly accompanied storytellers on the shamisen (three-stringed plucked lute) prior to the war, played a significant role in the revival and preservation of Kansai rakugo and its musical discourse. In the tradition of rakugo, men are customarily storytellers and women are musicians. Today, a man, Hayashiya Somemaru IV (1949–) promulgates Hayashiya Tomi’s legacy, exercising authority in the musical domain of yose-theatre. As part of fieldwork conducted in Ōsaka I undertook a temporary apprenticeship as a musician of the yose-theatre under the authority of storyteller Hayashiya Somemaru IV. The aim of the apprenticeship was not only to examine the structural and aesthetic aspects of the music of rakugo but also to examine the music as a social phenomenon. 

The literature on rakugo fails to adequately document the centrality of music in rakugo performance. In addition it fails to consider interactions of hierarchy and power between rakugo storytellers and musicians. During my fieldwork I observed that musical activities are subtle domains that disclose the intricacies of hierarchy and power relations.

In this study, I argue that music can act as a discursive formation for deconstructing and re-evaluating hierarchy and power relations in the traditional performing arts of Japan. My fieldwork has revealed that musicians and storytellers engage in complex networks of power relations, rather than abiding by strict vertical hierarchical structures. In this mid term review, I will unpack hierarchy and power relations in Kansai rakugo by demonstrating the ways in which select storytellers engage in innovation of tradition by employing music that is incongruous with the music promulgated by Hayashiya Somemaru IV.

The Japanese Studies Seminar Series is a fortnightly seminar hosted by the ANU Japan Centre during Friday lunchtimes.  Each fortnight an ANU Japan-related scholar shares their research with the group for discussion.  All are welcome to attend the series and engage with our Japan scholars on their research.

Updated:  27 November 2018/Responsible Officer:  JI Management Group/Page Contact:  Japan Institute