World Universities! Part 5: The University of Sydney, Dr Matt Shores’ ‘Kamigata Rakugo Research Tale’

This article was written in Japanese and originally appeared on the website Hontondo 0-Yen Daigaku. To read the Japanese version follow the link below or click on the photo to the right.

21 May 2020
By Okada Masaki
(translated by M.W. Shores)

Kamigata rakugo is traditional comic storytelling performed in Japan’s Kansai region—the Osaka and Kyoto area. The art is performed for a general audience, funny stories for the cost of a ticket. The first people to make names for themselves performing comic stories were active at the turn of the eighteenth century. They appeared around the same time in Kyoto, Edo (modern Tokyo), and  Osaka. The first was in Kyoto, so the history of Japan’s comic storytellers began in Kamigata (modern Kansai). Today if one goes to Kyoto’s Kitano Shrine or Osaka’s Ikutama Shrine, one can find monuments dedicated to Kamigata rakugo’s ‘founders’.  

Meanwhile at The University of Sydney in Australia, there is a lecturer called Matt Shores in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Prior to moving to Sydney, he was a lecturer at the University of Cambridge. He is originally from Oregon, USA. 

Matt’s research focuses on rakugo, and particularly Kamigata rakugo. At University he has taught units on traditional entertainment and humour, among others. What’s more, he has experience as a rakugo apprentice. 

There are not many scholars who specialize in Kamigata rakugo, and one can imagine they are quite rare outside Japan. What could have inspired Matt, born and raised in America, to take interest in Kamigata rakugo and undergo apprenticeship? And what of the research he’s carried out at his positions in England and Australia? Wondering about these things, and considering that Australia was home to someone who played significant role in modern Japan’s rakugo, entertainment, and media, I wanted to reach out. This writer, a rakugo fan himself, recently conducted a remote interview with Matt in Sydney.  

Of the many problems that the novel coronavirus has posed, sadly, the world of rakugo has also been affected. The rakugo circuit has seen one cancellation or postponement after the next, and rakugo halls have closed. Hoping I could report something positive about rakugo, Matt answered the call. He is without a doubt a specialist and spoke in Japanese with great enthusiasm—like water flowing down a washboard—about his research and apprenticeship.

Matt Shores performing rakugo

Encountering Rakugo—Tezukayama University and the Four Greats

“I first attended university in Oregon, at Portland State University. It was there that I met Professor Laurence Kominz, respected scholar of Japanese theatre. From Kominz I learned about kabuki and kyōgen, and we later staged English kabuki productions together.”

Matt learned about kyōgen and kabuki at university, but it turns out that he did not hear of rakugo during this time. Some twenty years ago, around the year 2000, “I guess this had to do with the fact that rakugo wasn’t really looked at as a subject for study.” It was only when Matt studied abroad that he encountered rakugo.

“In order to learn more about Japanese culture, I enrolled in a postgraduate course at Tezukayama University, in Nara. It was there I began my research under Professor Michio Morinaga, a scholar of Japanese performing arts. Actually, with Morinaga-sensei, a major part of my research activities was drinking (laughs). One day he said, ‘I want to introduce you to an interesting man—let’s go to a hot springs resort’. Of course we drank there, too, and he introduced me to a very kind man. I think I must have been told his name, but I didn’t know who he was and didn’t recall after the fact.”

The man Matt’s postgraduate supervisor introduced was none other than one of the ‘Four Greats’ (shitennō) of Kamigata rakugo. He was a master storyteller.

“Sometime after that, Morinaga-sensei invited me to attend a rakugo show in Osaka. So, on 8 September 2002, I saw rakugo for the first time. Morinaga-sensei said, ‘Matt, do you remember who that man is? That storyteller is the man you met at the hot springs resort’. It was Katsura Bunshi V.”

Rakugo was extremely popular in the Kansai area in the Meiji and Taishō periods (1868-1926), but, due to popular performers dying, and the art being overshadowed by modern manzai—Japan’s two-person stand-up comedy—there were only a few rakugo artists left after World War II. 

Katsura Bunshi V, along with Katsura Beichō III, Shōfukutei Shokaku VI, and Katsura Harudanji III, helped revitalise Kamigata rakugo. These are the men who came to be known as the art’s Four Greats.

“The audience hardly stopped laughing. It was one great line after the next. The only problem was that I, who had studied Japanese for five or six years, could understand next to nothing of what master Bunshi was saying. Rakugo consists of three parts—prologue, story proper, and punchline. I could get the opening greeting and pleasantries, but that was it. It was quite frustrating. So, I told myself, ‘I’ve got to learn about this art.’ And that was when I decided to study rakugo.”

Matt in his office at The University of Sydney

Rakugo Apprenticeship—Two Masters

When Matt began his research, he also became an observing apprentice.

“It was arranged for me to be master Bunshi’s observing apprentice (minarai deshi). He gave me the stage name ‘Mosquito-Repellent Incense Mat’ (Katori senkō matto), a play on my name of course. I was with Bunshi V from 2002 to 2004, right at the end of his life. I wasn’t a live-in apprentice (uchi deshi), but he would call when he had something for me to do. I would go assist in his dressing rooms at shows, go on trips with him. One day he called:

Hey Matt, can you come out to Osaka?

Yes master, I’m on my way!

Um, no, not now… I meant this weekend.

He was a warm, kind master.”

With Katsura Bunshi V (at a Tokyo Bunshi Fan Club event, circa 2003)

Matt later lived in Japan from 2010 to 2012 to undergo an apprenticeship with Hayashiya Somemaru IV. Master Somemaru has written a book on rakugo music (yosebayashi) and is known for being a scholar-storyteller.  

“I went to master Somemaru’s house every morning. I did the shopping, cooking, cleaning, cared for his kimono, and was his driver. I hoped to be named after him something like Matt-maru, but he instead named me ‘Front Door Mat’ (Genkan matto), another pun on my name. At the time he quipped:

You’re Front Door Mat for now, and if you do well you’ll become Toilet Mat.

Master, why is that?

Well, the toilet is just upstairs from my front door isn’t it? You’d be moving up in the world!

Matt had the opportunity to learn rakugo stories from master Somemaru. When I asked Matt what his best stories are, he responded with the following.

“Rakugo artists learn stories from their masters and they aren’t allowed to perform them in public without permission. In my case, I’ve received permission to perform just one story. Any rakugo I do aside from this, I’m doing on my own for educational purposes.  

“I can’t really say that I’m good at any particular story,” Matt says with clear respect for the rakugo world. The one story he did receive permission to perform was ‘Sake Lees’ (Sake no kasu).

“I was once asked to perform for international students at The University of Tokyo. My first rakugo job.” I asked master Somemaru about it and he suggested ‘Sake Lees’. It’s a short, ridiculous story about a young man who gets drunk from eating sake lees. One day when master Somemaru was giving me a lesson, he said, ‘Let me hear it in English.’ So, with eyes closed, he listened to my English version. When I was done, he looked at me for a moment then said, ‘I guess you’re pretty good at English after all.’ (laughs)

“In ‘Sake Lees’, the protagonist’s name is Kiroku. Master Somemaru didn’t think that Kiroku sounded right in the English version, so he suggested that I change it to ‘Kiki’. It sounded a bit like a budgie’s name to me, but I performed it just the way he told me.”

With Hayashiya Somemaru IV (left) and his eighth pupil, Hayashiya Someza (at the Wahha Kamigata Lesson Room, circa 2011)

Life as a Kamigata Rakugo Scholar

Looking back on his time as a rakugo apprentice, Matt speaks as if he was ‘half apprentice, half researcher’. Considering that he was exposed to his masters’ arts so intimately, it must have been hard for him to look at other artists’ rakugo without some degree of prejudice. He did, after all, enter a world structured by strict hierarchy, and he served two apprenticeships. Surely it must be difficult for him to look at rakugo and its artists from a distance. 

“I think was able to be objective in my work because I read books and did my ‘homework’ before apprenticing. I was also aware of my role as somebody who would introduce and spread knowledge about rakugo in other countries and academia.”

His research moved forward with the help of books and apprenticeships, but it there were still a limited number of academic studies on rakugo, and it appears as though subjects were not always treated evenly. 

“There was English monograph on rakugo published in 1990.1 But it wasn’t really about the rakugo my masters did. This is because it was written with Tokyo rakugo in mind.”

There are numerous differences between Tokyo rakugo and Kamigata rakugo. These include stage properties, performance styles, and the way in which the class system is treated. Matt expounded on Kamigata rakugo’s ‘flamboyance’.

“Compared to the Tokyo tradition, Kamigata rakugo is more flamboyant and cheerful. There is also far more music incorporated into stories. Kimono are different too—in Tokyo they prefer more subdued colors while Kamigata rakugo kimono seem to have a wider range of colors, including purples and pinks. Even the way artists enter is different. There’s something about the way a Kamigata artist prances onto stage. It just brightens the room.”  

Edo-Tokyo rakugo developed largely indoors during its history while Kamigata rakugo was performed outdoors for a large part of its history. Some say that it is this that led to Kamigata rakugo becoming a more flashy art, one that could easily appeal to any passerby. As it turns out, most rakugo research treats the Tokyo tradition, so Matt’s work on Kamigata rakugo serves as a corrective.

“I became interested in Kamigata rakugo for its use of music and incorporation of other performing arts. I’m also curious about merchant stories. One case in point is the story ‘Octopus Kabuki’ (Tako shibai). Set in the home of a well-to-do merchant, everybody from the master down to his shop boys are obsessed with kabuki. Whatever they do, even when cleaning, they end up doing scenes from their favorite plays. Even the octopus they buy from the fishmonger strikes its own kabuki poses!

“I think a key difference between the two traditions is that Kamigata rakugo is merchant-centered. But the interesting thing about the merchants and their house employees in Kamigata stories is that they aren’t depicted as ‘upstanding’—they tend not to be hardworking, spendthrift, and they don’t steer clear of so-called ‘bad places’. Rather, they’re irresponsible, weak to temptation, and they’re constantly running off to the pleasure quarters and theatre districts. I’ll soon be publishing a book about Kamigata rakugo’s humour and satire, much of which derives from the contradictions between the general image of real merchants and those in rakugo.”2

Australia’s Curious Connection to Rakugo

Here, hoping my own love for rakugo might be indulged, I showed Matt something from my collection during our remote interview: an old Japanese record album.

“Wow, is that an original?” What I showed him was one of Japan’s very first records, this one produced in 1903 by Great Britain-based Fred Gaisberg, who had traveled to Japan. As the photo above shows, the record features rakugo artist Yanagiya Kosan III, who also happened to receive mention in Natsume Sōseki’s famous novel Sanshirō. I didn’t want to ask Matt about this record per say, but I did want to talk about the man who introduced Gaisberg to a number of Japanese entertainers, and interpreted for him in order to make the record possible. 

“You mean Henry Black. Yes, he was born in Australia in 1858 and came to Japan in 1865 after his father, who was a newspaper reporter/editor in Yokohama. Henry took the stage name Kairakutei Burakku in 1891 and became a well-known rakugo artist.”

The Australian Kairakutei Burakku arrived in Japan in the Meiji period and became an entertainer. He also assisted with a recording session that would make history. Is it too much of a stretch to say that the Australia that Matt now calls home is tied to the dawn of modern rakugo? On this note, I asked if Kairakutei Burakku is widely known in Australia. 

“As it turns out, I recently attended an English rakugo performance in Sydney, by Kanariya Eiraku. Eairaku showed the audience a photo of Burakku and asked if they knew who he was. Almost nobody did.3 They were surprised to hear that somebody like this had come from Australia.”

It appears as though rakugo itself is not well known in Australia—or the UK or US—either.

“I’m sure most Japanologists have heard of rakugo. And more students have become interested in rakugo thanks to the manga Shōwa Genroku rakugo shinjū (Descending Stories). But, unless one has attended English rakugo events that aim to foster education and cultural exchange, I doubt most people know what the art is. Unfortunately, for most, it’s still Japanese cars and electronics that come to mind when they think of Japan.”  

Sharing Rakugo Overseas

Rakugo is occasionally introduced to Western countries through diplomacy and social education programs. But, because the art is an oral tradition and stories are typically set in the Edo period (1600-1868) to the early twentieth century, one might think rakugo would be a tough sell outside Japan. 

“Katsura Shijaku, the ‘King of Laughs’, was known for his English rakugo, and his example serves as one approach. But if one ends with, ‘And yes, we have this art in Japan’, it’s difficult to give people a sense of rakugo’s allure. I encourage rakugo artists performing in English to strive to become English rakugo masters. Master Shijaku wasn’t a native speaker of English, but he could capture audiences and his timing was impeccable. His art was at the level of mastery to the point that one simply forgot he was performing in a foreign language.”

On the other hand, the visual aspects of rakugo are important, too. 

“Stories with a good deal of physical action, such as ‘Zoo’ (Dōbutsuen) and ‘Butt Mochi’ (Shiri mochi), are popular outside Japan. When there are a lot of comical gestures, rakugo tends to be a hit even if it’s performed in Japanese, or with titles. I think it is just fine, but I’d still like artists to challenge themselves by performing in English more complex stories that have music and other interesting elements.”

Matt says he wishes to do more as a scholar and educator to get the word out about rakugo. I could sense a strong will in his words.

“Even now, in Western academia, rakugo isn’t properly recognized as a subject of study. When lecturing about Japan, people are quick to reference the ‘classics’, such as ‘Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems’ (Kokin wakashū) and ‘Tales of Genji’ (Genji monogatari). And some of these same people ask, ‘Well, is rakugo a performing art? Is it literature?’ As far as Western scholarship has been concerned, rakugo falls too far outside these parameters. To make matters worse, rakugo content can occasionally be ‘frivolous’ or ‘vulgar’. For me, however, rakugo remains important. And if I hadn’t met Morinaga-sensei, master Bunshi, or master Somemaru, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’ll continue researching rakugo. After all, I feel as though it’s my mission to help develop research, invite collaboration with artists, and spread rakugo around the world.”

Matt performing rakugo. Before him are a short wooden screen, table, and clappers (all unique to Kamigata rakugo), which he made at home in Oregon.


1. Heinz Morioka and Miyoko Sasaki, Rakugo: The Popular Narrative Art of Japan (Cambridge: Harvard Council on East Asian Studies, 1990); see also Lorie Brau, Rakugo: Performing Comedy and Cultural Heritage in Contemporary Tokyo (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008). These monographs focus primarily on the Tokyo tradition. 

2. M.W. Shores, The Comic Storytelling of Western Japan: Satire and Social Mobility in Kamigata Rakugo (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming). For some of Matt’s work in Japanese, see ‘Rakugo wa kaigai ni dō miseru beki ka’ (How Should Rakugo Be Presented Overseas?) in Rakugo to media (Waseda University Theatre Museum Exhibition Catalogue, autumn 2016).

3. Matt attended Eiraku’s performance with Australian friend, writer, and journalist Dr Ian MacArthur. MacArthur has researched and written widely on Kairakutei Burakku, so he naturally knew of Black. His publications include Henry Black: On Stage in Meiji Japan (Clayton: Monash University Publishing, 2013) and (in Japanese, translated by Naitō Makoto and Horiuchi Kumiko) Kairakutei Burakku (Tokyo: Kōdansha, 1992).

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