Nanshun Kyokudo is not your typical Sakamoto Ryoma fan. For starters, she only found out about the Japanese rebel while at university — much later than most Japanese people did. That introduction came via two photographs: one of Sakamoto and the other of Nakaoka Shintaro, both given to her by a Japanese friend in America.
The pictures of the two samurai friends were presented as a kind of riddle by Kyokudo’s friend. He told her the pair were famous, but deliberately left out that they were assassinated on the same night.
Years later, Kyokudo can still recall the picture of a grave-looking Sakamoto dressed in a kimono and hakama, with his sword sheathed through his obi. One detail of his attire that was especially striking: he was wearing western-style boots.
“I remember thinking, ‘What is a traditional samurai wearing boots for and why was this so special that he had to take a picture with them on?’” she said.
That photo was the hook for Kyokudo, the one that really led her down the rabbit hole of Japanese history. The image of Sakamoto stayed with her as she moved from Georgia to Osaka, where she’s lived since 2007. For the last six years she’s been a professional kodanshi performer, a true Japanese storytelling art form which mines history to deliver short, invigorating, and informative performances.
For the uninitiated — including me, until Kyokudo patiently filled in the gaps — kodan is a lot like rakugo, another storytelling art form, albeit one with a much higher profile.
But, as Kyokudo explains, kodan has a longer history.
Broadly speaking, rakugo, which is younger by about two centuries, has its origins in Buddhism. It is similar to “a Catholic sermon,” and Buddhist priests would deliver a witty tale that had some sort of moral in it. “The thing that you should or shouldn’t have done,” explained Kyokudo.
Kodan’s origins are mixed, but mostly come from the samurai class. Specifically, it was a form used by wounded warriors who took to the road as roving reporters when they were no longer able to fight.
“They were the traditional newscasters of their day,” said Kyokudo. The news cycle moved much more slowly — literally as long as it took for the samurai to get from one fiefdom to the next — whereupon the samurai would recount to his audience tales of a battle or some newsworthy events. In return, the retired samurai would be fed and lodged. As news dissemination went, it was pretty slow, but the oral tradition put down roots and has stayed with us.
Rakugo is usually comedic. According to Kyokudo, “With kodan, on the other hand, we mostly talk about history.” But those history lessons can be on anything from a consequential battle to the origins of jazz.
After a brief stint learning Japanese as an exchange student at Kansai Gaidai University, Kyokudo moved to Osaka to take a position as an English-language teacher on the government-sponsored Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme in 2007.
Her first exposure to kodan was in Osaka, when a group of local performers showcased a few different native art forms, one of which was kodan.
For Kyokudo, discovering a storytelling art based on history was a eureka moment. After the event, she talked with one of the kodan performers and explained her interest in Japanese history, especially that of Ryoma Sakamoto.
The initial reaction was positive. It was all uncharted territory in the beginning, Kyokudo explains. Unlike in rakugo, there were no other foreign-born kodanshi at the time, and they didn’t know if she would be able to go pro.
In the end, it wasn’t an especially big deal. A more senior person in the storytelling art introduced her to their kodan master, and Kyokudo explained her case again. As is tradition, the master formulated her stage name — Nanshun Kyokudo — and she became a professional in 2013.
The Stories We Tell
A typical kodan performance lasts between 10 and 15 minutes. At its core, it’s a history lesson which draws the audience in through the performance.
The stories Kyokudo tells are mostly drawn from the Bakumatsu period, a tumultuous 15 years that led to Japan giving up its isolationist stance mid-way through the 19th century. A performance could be distilled from a vignette, or from a single line of an old history book.
By way of example, Kyokudo pulled a notebook from her bag, and elaborated, “This is a story about Sakamoto and the first time he meets Katsu Kaishu in Edo (Tokyo).” Kaishu was an influential Shogunate loyalist, and Sakamoto had a clear motive for that initial meeting. He wanted to kill Kaishu.
What unfolds is actually the opposite. As Kyokudo explains, that meeting did not end in bloodshed, but rather in cooperation.
For her kodan performance, Kyokudo focuses on a particular scene that Kaishu recorded after the meeting was over. She expands on that meeting by folding in the characters and the setting, and the political context of the time, as well as all the intrigue and drama of that meeting.
Not So Easy
In the beginning, Kyokudo says she suffered from extreme stage fright: it’s a tough act telling history stories in a foreign language to an audience well-versed in them. But she has slowly overcome it.
Recently, though, she feels she’s reached a plateau in terms of her Japanese language ability. It’s a question of finding time. She juggles a handful of part-time jobs in Osaka and Kyoto, she’s also got her head buried in history books, and then there are the performances.
On average she does about half a dozen performances a month — in Japanese. She’s been trying out performances in English, but the main problem has been not the performance but the reception.
“I don’t think anyone knows what kodan is,” Kyokudo said, telling me she had had to cancel a few English-speaking performances for lack of an audience.
As to the awareness of kodan, she might be right. But as Kyokudo says, if more foreign residents knew that kodan was an interesting way to learn Japanese history, then it might succeed.
Kyokudo, who is usually attired in a kimono even when she is not performing, is certainly helping raise the profile of this centuries-old art form.
Sadly, Kyokudo’s father, who was a big fan of Japanese culture, never got to see her become a kodan performer. He passed away before she took to the stage. “Once he passed away, I was like, ‘Who can I share my stories with?’ It was a big hole that was left open.”
But through kodan, she’s found an audience to share stories that would have undoubtedly interested her father.
Author: J.J. O’Donoghue