ICHINOSEKI, Japan >> The traditional Japanese storyteller kneels in front of a room full of families that have lost everything — their homes, their loved ones, their entire town — and his face stretches into a broad grin.
“There once was a samurai who loved to drink sake,” he says, and begins to sway as though tipsy.
The samurai story, a classic comedy hundreds of years old, normally draws a steady stream of laughs. But it gets only a few chuckles at this shelter for those who lost their homes in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
After two months, survivors of the disasters receive a steady supply of food, water and medical provisions. Now, Sanyutei Kyoraku is trying to overcome a different kind of challenge — getting them to smile again.
Kyoraku is a master of “rakugo,” the ancient Japanese art of humorous storytelling, and usually performs in front of crowded halls in Tokyo or on national TV. At the shelter in Ichinoseki, he sits in a cramped meeting room attached to an abandoned gymnasium, his audience watching from rows of folding chairs.
In a culture where pain and sorrow are internalized and not discussed openly, it is often difficult for those living in shelters with little privacy to have a sense of humor.
“Some people still can’t even laugh yet; they just walk out when I start,” says Kyoraku, who has given free performances all along Japan’s battered northeastern coast since the disasters.
Kyoraku is the stage name of Takayuki Kato, 47. He performs in the classic style, kneeling on a small cushion and dressed in a simple kimono with only a paper fan and a handkerchief for props. He switches expressions and mannerisms to play several roles at the same time — thirsty drunks, confused grandmothers, angry dogs — quickly alternating voices for each throughout a story.
“It was really interesting; I thought it was great,” says Seito Ishizawa, 57, who sat mostly stone-faced through the show.
After his performance, Kyoraku talks about the mental stress of dealing with personal tragedy and living months without any privacy, and the need for everyone to help lift the spirits of those around them.
“If you want to make people around you smile,” he says. “You have to start by smiling yourself.”
Some 120,000 people are living in shelters, uprooted by the earthquake and tsunami that left 26,000 people dead or missing along the northeastern coast. While evacuees in some areas have started to move into temporary housing, it will be months more before enough are built for everyone that lost their home.
The shelter in Ichinoseki, a sprawling former elementary school, is well supplied. A locker room on the first floor has been converted into a giant pantry packed with fresh vegetables, plus staples like rice and flour. There are giant stoves to warm food and water, communal washing machines and clean, working toilets.
For many residents, the main challenge is killing time.
“Some people have found part-time work, but most days we just kind of hang out,” says Soichiro Suzuki, 22.
In his shelter performances, Kyoraku sticks to lighthearted traditional tales. He has learned to moderate the content of the volunteer shows after performing for survivors of a deadly earthquake that hit southern Kobe in 1995.
At a charity event in an area with far less damage, he performs a piece about a hospital trying to cope after a major earthquake, mixing humor and tragedy as he shuffles through half a dozen characters. Some in the audience laugh as they cry.
“We need to talk about the tragedy, to get it all out,” he says. “If you hold in these thoughts, they will come out in your dreams.”