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Saturday, Jan. 7, 2012

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Entertaining Tohoku's children: Diane Orrett, a British "rakugo" comic storyteller and balloon artist, performs for children in the tsunamihit coastal town of Ihinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, in May. DIANE ORRETT

British 'rakugo' artist helps Tohoku smile

Staff writer

When the March 11 tsunami wiped out Tohoku coastal towns, British "rakugo" comic storyteller Diane Orrett was at home in Osaka, watching TV footage of the waves obliterating places she had visited and crying, not knowing what to do.

But she was immediately presented with a chance to help survivors in the devastated northeast, as organizers canceled all her bookings the day after the Great East Japan Earthquake, deeming rakugo performances to be inappropriate at a time when the whole nation was in a state of shock and bewilderment.

Finding her schedule suddenly empty, Orrett, who goes by the stage name Diane Kichijitsu and is also a balloon artist, headed to Miyagi Prefecture in early April for a five-day visit armed with lots of balloons, hoping to use them to put a smile on children's faces.

"Watching the kids (on TV) was breaking my heart. They were stuck in a room where hundreds of people were all sleeping so close together. . . . They had no toys, no books, no games. They had no distractions . . . and I thought, oh, I can do balloons," Orrett said in a recent interview with The Japan Times in Tokyo.

Together with a group of volunteers, Orrett delivered clothes and other daily necessities to evacuation shelters in Miyagi, one of the hardest-hit prefectures. She visited shelters in the coastal towns of Ishinomaki, Higashimatsushima and Onagawa, and made balloon animals with children staying there.

The children really enjoyed it, and even remembered her name and started following her around during her visit, Orrett said.

"Their parents said to me that they hadn't seen their children smile since the tsunami. When they saw (their children) laughing, the parents looked relaxed," she said.

Because her first trip to Tohoku came only weeks after the twin disasters struck, Orrett didn't perform any rakugo, given people in the region were still in mourning.

But when she visited the northeast a second time in May, volunteers and other workers at evacuee shelters encouraged her to perform her original rakugo stories, and she was happy to oblige.

"They laughed. They were cheerful people, and I think they wanted to laugh," Orrett said.

"To have a job which makes people laugh or take them away from their situation, to be able to do that is so powerful and made me really appreciate my job.

"You know what their real situation is, but we were all laughing, having a good time. . . . I 're-realized' how important laughing is and how important smiling is," she said.

Orrett, a native of Liverpool in northwest England, arrived in Japan in 1990 while traveling around the world. She hadn't planned on staying, but the country eventually became her second home.

"I just kept wanting to do more things, wanting to study more things . . . (It was) a natural path," Orrett explained. While she enjoyed learning Japanese cultural traditions, such as ikebana and "sado" tea ceremony, she fell in love with rakugo the first time she watched a performance.

"It's so organic. It lets you use your imagination. I loved that kind of world, where you create a picture in your head based on what you hear and see," she said.

Orrett was so enchanted by her first experience of rakugo, a performance in English by famous comic storyteller Katsura Shijaku, she joined a rakugo school. A year later, she was performing her original stories on stage in both English and Japanese.

She also learned balloon art in Japan, and over the past decade has been busy performing rakugo and holding balloon art shows nationwide.

"I do rakugo all the time, so it's kind of normal for me. It's like if you do it as a job, it just becomes natural. But to do it there (in Tohoku) was a totally different situation," Orrett said.

"People can just (let themselves) forget, even just for 30 minutes, about their situation. . . . And the same goes with balloons."

Meeting people in Tohoku also had a positive effect on Orrett, whose mother had undergone several surgeries and whose computer had been hacked in 2010.

"But every single time I got worried about my situation, I just kept thinking of the people I met in Tohoku. It just made me so much calmer. . . . My problem looked this tiny, after seeing what they went through and how they dealt with it and how strong they were," she said.

"It was good that my (bookings were) canceled. Because normally I'll be too busy to spend two weeks in Tohoku. . . . It was a huge life-changing experience."

Orrett plans to visit Tohoku again, hopefully later this month and then on the one-year anniversary of the quake and tsunami in March. This time, she hopes to visit schools and conduct improvised performances with children, using their imagination, Orrett said.

"I really want to go up there (again). I feel like part of my heart is in Tohoku now. That's never going to go away. It's a solid bond."

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