On Being Funny in Japan

There’s actually no word for “sense of humor” in Japan.

According to The Japan Society, “the English term humor implies gentle, kindly laughter and so does the transliterated Japanese term yûmoa. Warai, a Japanese verb meaning to laugh, focuses on the act of laughing itself maybe and not the humor.”

Which isn’t to say that Japan isn’t funny. Visions of stern samurai may make you think jokes weren’t worth the risk of a beheading. Or maybe you’ve checked out some of the old “state-supported comedy” of the Meiji era, where jokes were allowed as long as it made fun of the subjugated Chinese. One book of stories during Japan’s occupation had a pretty straightforward title that didn’t sell well in Manchuria: “Great Comedic Failure of the Chinese.”

You know you’re an Imperialist if…

The other stuff didn’t fare so well. In 1872, “lewd” performances were banned, which was taken to mean anything kids couldn’t watch with their parents. This basically transformed the culture as a whole into a bad night on the Fox Family Channel, which is why Japanese Television networks are 14 hours of cooking shows and 10 hours of this:

But there’s also a lot of stuff to like. A long tradition of Crazy-Fox Zen has saturated the culture with its famous brand of inexplicable humor, which seems more popular with young people and foreigners than in Japan at large.

And if you’re really into watching people cry out of terror, there’s plenty of that on TV, too.

This post is first in a two-part series on humor. In this post we’ll be looking at professional comedy; in part two, we look at how not to tell a joke in Japan.

Osaka Manzai
Historically, Osaka had fewer samurai and more merchants than anywhere else in Japan. These guys tended to spend more time cutting loose on frivolous activities in their spare time, creating a market for humor and ribald entertainment.

Manzai is the Osaka staple. Two guys, one wacky, one smart, tellin’ jokes. Classic.

Over time, the Osaka dialect started becoming synonymous with humor. Performers of traditional manzai comedy routines will actually take on the Osaka dialect to seem funnier, and most of the country’s comedians still hail from Osaka.

Here’s a manzai routine:

Rakugo, or “Sit-Down Comedy”
During the same period, the rest of the country was dedicated to entertaining the samurai or daimyo classes, who demanded a more refined, clever and some might say “stiff” form of entertainment. Political satire was out of the question, and for the most part, so were fart jokes.

The elites favored a highly formalized kind of comedic act called Rakugo, basically Japanese storytelling with jokes. Rakugo started out when Buddhist monks started sprinkling jokes into their religious stories to win over the crowd.

Since everyone loves old jokes, here’s one from the 1600’s.

“A man faints in a bathtub. A doctor arrives who takes his pulse and calmly gives the instructions: “Pull the plug and let the water out.” Once the water has flown completely out of the tub he says: “Fine. Now put a lid on the bathtub and carry the guy to the cemetery. He’s dead.”

– Yonezawa Hikohachi, 17th-century Osakan Rakugo comedian.

Eventually these routines made it to the commoners. You would think this would make them a little more crass and edgy, but by the time that happened the regulations were in place to make sure the kids were only exposed to wholesome entertainment like racist jokes about the Chinese.

So they got long-form narrated comedy, which has the same effect on me as old Bill Cosby records. I’m sure there’s some good stuff there, but I don’t have the patience to work through it.

Here’s a Rakugo routine:

Nininbaori
Nininbaori roughly means “a coat for two.” It isn’t exactly super popular or anything, but it’s… awesome. Basically this is a style of stand-up or skit where two actors hide under a big coat. The humor comes because the face and the hand movements don’t match, so the actor ends up getting slapped around or smeared with food when he’s supposed to be cooking or whatever.

It’s basically really stupid, which is great. Here you go, guys:

The most interesting thing about this kind of humor is that there’s a specific word for it, as opposed to being lumped into a catch-all like “skit” or “act.”

“You want a dog’s head with human hands? Oh, that’s a specific genre. You’ll have to fill out the nininbaori paperwork.”

Scaring the Shit Out of People

There was (is? I haven’t seen it, not sure if it’s still on) a television show in 2009 called “Panic Face King.” This show got it’s chuckles by terrifying people, usually by putting fake ghosts in a bathroom mirror or a scary spider puppet on your desk or whatever.

Then they decided to up the ante and fake a terrorist attack. The result is a kind of optical illusion, where you can watch the picture shift from funny to really sad.

Sur Comics
“Sur” is short for “surrealist,” and these guys don’t make it very far in Japan, but their Youtube videos have kind of made it seem like it’s the only thing on Japanese TV. For the most part, guys doing this: (Which is NOT SAFE FOR WORK, or life)

Aren’t the norm in Japan. These comics blur the line between conceptual artists and comic entertainers and are about as mainstream as Zach Galafianakis’ Absolut Vodka ads.

The Tropes
Sur comedy has it’s opposite: The standard Japanese TV-comedy trope.

The most common for me – and the most inexplicable – is when someone gets angry and takes their anger out on “the person you’d least suspect,” which seems to happen every 20 minutes on TV. I suspect this relieves centuries-old tensions over the arbitrary blame that comes every day in such a highly collectivized culture, but maybe I’m reading too much into it.

All I know is, when someone on television is baking a cake and puts, like, sand in the cake or whatever, the guy who put the sand in the cake will start screaming at somebody else, and the “chef” will join in at yelling at the wrong guy. The audience will laugh a lot, because they know that that’s exactly what life is like.

I don’t usually laugh. Life isn’t like that in America.

Further Reading:
Part Two, How Not To Tell a Joke in Japan.

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7 Responses to On Being Funny in Japan

  1. Rora says:

    I think it’s also pretty telling that omoshiroi means both “funny” and “interesting” the same way kirei doubles for clean/beautiful.

  2. Blue Shoe says:

    What about ユーモアのセンス? I seem to remember being understood when using that term.

    NIce article, as always.

  3. Pingback: On Not Being Funny in Japan | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

  4. Gaijin says:

    I appreciate your classification of types of jokes so much! I’m the sort of person that makes puns up all the times and everyone groans or ignores them at this point, but if they’re usually amusing if done right, I’ll make sure to use that rather than anything else. If the situation could use a joke.

  5. Paura says:

    Reblogged this on What can I do with a B.A. in Japanese Studies? and commented:
    Anyone who has been to Japan for a substantial amount of time understands the pain of attempting to tell a joke only to have it fall so flat that all you get is blank stares and mildly offended silence (I found this particularly true when stumbling through the mine fields of sarcasm).

    I stumbled across this article last year and saved it for a rainy Fun Link Friday. Eryk at This Japanese Life has put together a brief and amusing introductory guide to humor in Japan (as he notes, there is no real word or phrase to describe a “sense of humor” there) and introduces some of the basics to your standard funnies in Japanese culture, including tradition things like rakugo and manzai, but also plain old scaring the daylights out of people and some of the weirder things, too. I think there’s definitely more that could be added to this, but I thought it was a neat introduction to the topic, so be sure to check it out! What would you add?

  6. What about 親父ギャグ?

  7. What about 親父ギャグ? I always love that kind of silly wordplay.

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