Penitentiary Rakugo II 刑務所落語 その二

And to the Oregon State Penitentiary I went.

Any chance to put on a kimono and perform rakugo is a great opportunity for me, so I almost didn’t have to think about going on September 21. I was simply happy to be performing rakugo. And, in a way, it was kind of like Johnny Cash going to perform at prisons beginning with Huntsville State in 1954, and more famously Folsom State and San Quentin State Prisons in the late ’60s, both of which resulted with hit songs and albums. So, like Johnny Cash, right?

Okay, maybe not…

Of course, there was no money in this for me, and clearly no hope for commercial success or fame to follow. Just the chance to meet an interesting group of men, and be “Japanese” for a couple of hours. And how rewarding the experience was!

Thanks to the people who organized this show, it was a wonderful and memorable evening. Despite the serious nature of their jobs, Officers Tavera and Blain were remarkably friendly and welcoming. After explaining the rules surrounding my visit, and checking my belongings, they corralled me through a metal detector then through a series of heavy bolted doors. Next, I found myself walking through an inmate compound. I have to admit, I was a somewhat nervous at first, but when I met a few of the men in the group I would be performing for, all that went away. After all, they are people just like me, right? In this, they were more courteous and hospitable than some people on the “outside.”

I soon arrived in the auditorium where I would be performing. I wasn’t there for five minutes when a man walked up with a warm smile and asked, “Would you like a cup of juice, Mr. Shores? How about a cinnamon roll, Mr. Shores?”

“Sure, that would be great,” I answered, grateful. The cinnamon roll he brought must have been as big as my face. What a treat!

A number of other members of the Asia Pacific Family approached me, very friendly and eager to assist. I told them that I didn’t need much help since I only had to set out my zabuton, kendai, and hizakakushi. Their sound technician made sure the microphone was in place, and got the CD ready for cueing.

I changed out of my street clothes into my kimono behind one of the several standing partitions lined up on the stage.

“Shores, we’re going to run ’em in!” Mr. Tavera projected from across the auditorium.

“Thank you.” I replied.

After I finished tying my obi, I waited to be introduced. I peaked through a small gap between two partitions. I guess the nerves were coming back. I didn’t see anybody that looked “mean.” There were no disorderly inmates in need of reprimand. Other than the supervising officers, locked gates, and “prison blue” inmate attire, there was nothing else that made this place stand out as a penitentiary. Maybe this shouldn’t have come as a surprise. No, I did not see inmates sitting before me through the partition gaps. I saw men who looked no different than my friends, brothers, uncles…

Sure, these men were inmates, but they were also people. But the nerves still remained. Oh, yes, I still had something challenging ahead of me. Performing rakugo.

I entered to the to the song Ishidan then proceeded to do my set, which consisted of two stories — Unagiya (The Eel Shop) and Ko wa kasugai (Children are Staples) — and a Q&A session that followed. The audience was very responsive and seemed to enjoy the show. I appreciated their close attention and insightful questions. I also appreciated the opportunity to practice, and introduce an art that almost no one in the room had ever heard of.

Ko wa kasugai is one of Somemaru’s specialty pieces (ohako). It is a tale of deep human emotions and sentiment (ninjôbanashi). Really, it is a quite difficult piece and probably too early for me to be performing it. But I just love this story. The version that Somemaru tells is about a man who is reunited with his son, then later his wife, from whom he has been separated from because, basically, he was was a dysfunctional husband and father. We learn that the man has in his time away made important life changes, and, while the wife may not necessarily be ready for the man to come back into the home, the parents together decide that this may indeed be the best thing for their child. In the touching ending to the story, we realize that, like the title says, children indeed are staples. In a classic, rakugo-style ending, the young boy blurts out, “Oh! That’s why you said you were going to pound me with Daddy’s hammer!”

I shook the hands of numerous thankful men following the show. It was gratifying to see that my visit meant something to them.

“Will you come again?” one man about the same age as me asked.

“Yes, I will,” I told him, and meant it.

After changing clothes, I was allowed 15 minutes to visit with several Asian Pacific Family members. They asked questions about my life, and I asked questions about theirs. I tried to finish the huge cinnamon role they gave me when I first arrived, but couldn’t.

Performing rakugo is challenging, but the hardest thing about my visit was actually leaving, or leaving all the men behind rather. After my belongings were checked a second time, and I retraced my steps through the same heavy doors to freedom, it was hard to leave my new friends behind in the penitentiary. I have no idea what the men are in jail for, or for how long they will be incarcerated, but I hope that they will continue working on their rehabilitation and one earn the opportunity to rejoin regular society. After repaying their debts and making amends, I know each and every one  of them could do something to contribute to the world we live in.

I was incredibly fortunate to be able to perform for the Asian Pacific Family, and share with them Japan’s great comic storytelling art. Rakugo entertains people and makes them laugh, but I also learned on this evening that is makes unique meetings like this possible.





















2 thoughts on “Penitentiary Rakugo II 刑務所落語 その二

  1. Hello,

    Came to your site and your art through the research for a viable renku stanza. I’d love to learn more – will visit again.

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