As a magazine editor and writer, I sometimes have the opportunity to meet people in unusual professions. For example, “幇間 (Hōkan).” And many of you will probably ask “How do you read that?” The answer is “hokan.” Another name for this profession is “taikomochi.” Hōkan is difficult to translate into English, the best is perhaps “raconteur,” a French word that has come into English. The difference between the two is that a raconteur is mainly a story teller, whereas a hōkan also sings, dances and actively engages his audience in games and word play. Hōkan are entertainers just like geisha or rakugoka (a traditional Japanese story teller), but currently there are only four in all of Japan and they can only be found in Asakusa Kenban (the office that manages the karyukai, the world of entertainment)! So they are an endangered and a very rare species, indeed.

I was lucky to be able to avail myself of an opportunity to join the writer and photographer of the magazine, ”Orekiba” (for an article published in the February 5th issue) (This publication has since been discontinued!) in covering a story on hōkan at an ozashiki (a party) in a small restaurant in Asakusa. Tokyo. There were six of us including me “invited” as guests. Shichiko Sakuragawa, the hōkan, arrived in a stylish kimono.

“幇, the first character in hōkan, means “to help” as it is our responsibility to smooth the proceedings at parties. We have been called male geisha, we talk, dance, flatter and are quite busy, in fact.” he said, and as we gradually became immersed in his facile patter, we could not help but laugh at the jokes, ironies and other witticisms he sprinkled his conversation with. Then he danced the “kappore” and performed “one-day in the life of a geisha,” a song-and-dance number where the singing is accompanied by gestures explaining the meaning of the song. This one-man show demonstrated a good cross section of his repertoire. As an audience, we were thoroughly entertained.

Shichiko had this to say. “A few years ago, a journalist who was working on an article on professions that were becoming extinct visited me. According to what he told me, the journalist had also selected hoopers in addition to hōkan.”

Hoops are the circular bands of wood or bamboo that hold together the wooden staves that make up a traditionally made sake, soy sauce barrel or other wooden vessel. They are absolutely essential in barrels and if the craftsmen that make or repair barrels become extinct, barrels will surely become extinct, too. In this way, we are losing or are about to lose many traditional and essential crafts.

Will hōkan, too become extinct? That would be sad, indeed… Shichiko said he thought ozashiki entertainment should not be the sole preserve of a geisha patron, but an experience anyone could enjoy. To be able to participate in entertainment with geisha and hōkan in a world different from our own. This is quintessentially a refined pastime turned into an art form or a way of maintaining and building relationships, both things cherished by the Japanese – we can only hope that the Japan of the future will see the value of such traditions and traditional art forms to prevent them from becoming extinct.

* The article resulting from this meeting was published in Orekiba No. 2 in mid-may, 2009.

(To be continued)

(Translated by KB)