John O'Donoghue for JAPAN Forward

Nanshun Kyokudo 南春旭堂 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 kōdanshi 講談師 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 — kōdan 講談 is a lot like rakugo 落語, another storytelling art form, albeit one with a much higher profile.

But, as Kyokudo explains, kōdan 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.

Kōdan’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 kōdan, 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.


By - Ben K.