English rakugo helps kids learn, laugh

A student practices a gesture in English rakugo with other students at an English class in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture.

Katsura Shijaku

OSAKA–With its exaggerated gestures and humor, English rakugo storytelling is emerging as an effective–and entertaining–vehicle for helping children acquire English skills before English becomes a compulsory subject at primary schools from 2011.

A growing number of teachers and instructors of English are hoping that the use of comical facial expressions and gestures in English rakugo will help Japanese children overcome their shyness and hesitancy to express themselves in English.

English rakugo was started by Katsura Shijaku (1939-1999), an Osaka-based popular rakugo storyteller, more than 20 years ago. These days it is performed by Katsura Kaishi, Katsura Asakichi and several other storytellers.

However, only a few English schools offer English rakugo lessons. ECC Artist College Umeda branch in Kita Ward, Osaka, is one such school, and one-third of the about 20 students taking rakugo classes are school teachers and English instructors.

Yoko Ikegame, 40, an English instructor at Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, teaches her students English rakugo after brushing up her own skills at Eigo Rakugo Dojo Nigiwaido in Chuo Ward, Osaka.

A primary school student performed a short English story involving two characters on a small stage at Ikegame’s class recently. The student played a hungry man named Kii-san, saying, “Ice cream, please.” The student then played the role of a master and shouted, “OK!” He then returned to the role of Kii-san, who was startled by the sharp, loud reply, asking, “Why did you scare me?”

And then the punch line from the master: “You wanted ice cream. So, ‘I screamed.'”

The student’s exaggerated gestures drew peels of laughter from around the classroom.

“It’s so much fun, and time seems to fly during these classes,” said Fuka Sugita, 11, a fifth-grader at Higashiyamadai Primary School in Nishinomiya.

“Students can get a feel for [English] words by performing [rakugo] with gestures,” Ikegame said. “English rakugo phrases will help them get accustomed to English intonation.”

Ikegame has been using English rakugo in English classes she teaches at Seido Primary School in Ashiya, Hyogo Prefecture, since last spring.

Ikegame and about 10 other English instructors in February founded an association that introduces English rakugo to children.

Katsura Kaishi, a rakugo storyteller who toured the United States last year, expects English rakugo will inspire more children to study English.

“The joy of making people laugh will spark their desire to learn,” he said.

(Mar. 23, 2009)

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