On Not Being Funny in Japan

The first rule of making a joke in Japan is to resist. It will never help you.

If you can’t speak Japanese, your humor is somewhat inexplicable. The feeling is definitely mutual. Some of my co-workers, God bless them, try to explain jokes or funny situations in broken English, most often leaving out everything essential to understanding the joke.

Likewise, American humor is specifically unfunny and confusing to native Japanese speakers with limited exposure to English. This might seem obvious, but that doesn’t seem to stop people (like me) from trying. There’s just something natural about making jokes with people you spend all your time with.

So I try, but a language barrier and cultural confusion usually ruins my delivery. Also, my jokes are terrible.

And since there’s nothing funnier than over-analyzing humor, here’s a list of joke types with an estimate of their success rate with a Japanese crowd with limited English ability.

Puns – 90% Success
Punning will earn you a cultural contribution award. When I beautifully mutated “Denwa Bango” (telephone number) into “Denwa Bingo” (Telephone Bingo) for a number-learning activity, I earned a small following of high school boys, much to my bewilderment. I have a natural habit of making puns and a natural expectation that no one will ever laugh at them, so I’ve been embarrassingly rich in Japan.

Puns are the name of game here. They don’t offend or belittle, and it’s usually very clear when you’re making a joke. It shows that you’re intelligent. And attractive. Did I mention I make a lot of puns?

Hyperbole – 35% Success
I was teaching a class about superlatives. Each student had to figure out who in their group of 5 had the “most” of whatever was on their paper: Longest hair, shortest hair, strongest, etc.

For “strongest” the boys designed an arm wrestling competition. The last round was between an ace of the kendo squad and a sumo wrestler. When the kendo kid won, I decided to go for a totally lame “uncle joke.”

I’m a high school teacher, after all.

“We have a winner,” I said. “I am the strongest man!”

I waited for someone to protest, but no one did.

In fact, they all quietly wrote my name down. One kid nodded and said that yeah, I probably was the strongest. By then it was too late to protest.

It’s just not polite to accuse anyone of bullshitting you. So to keep up appearances, people just accept your hyperbole at face value.

What they find hilarious, though, is when you actually do really extreme stuff. When I told my co-workers I had climbed Mt. Fuji, you’d think I Ricky Gervais. If you hyperbolically mime things – such as heat or exhaustion – that’s a little funny too, but actually I think it might be nervous laughter.

I can’t tell, because being an expat in Japan is like having Asperger’s.

That’s not a joke.

Incompetence – 60% Success
If you spend a lot of time around expressive Japanese schoolgirls, as I do, you will be familiar with the word “Kawaii.” Kawaii (rhymes with “Hawaii”) is usually translated as “cute,” or more literally, “that gives me the feeling of its cuteness.”

I was flattered to hear it when I arrived in Japan. Then I realized that Kawaii is actually a friend-zone word specifically meaning the opposite of rugged masculinity.

You can think of it as, “I want to take care of it because it can’t take care of itself.”

Which I realized when I heard it at the tail end of several spectacular failures: When I ran across a classroom in slippers and slipped (why would I expect anything different from “slippers”), when I came to class with the wrong textbook, when I was struggling to buy baseball tickets from a vending machine.

The result: Hysterical giggling interspersed with shouts of “Kawaii!

To be fair, Japanese schoolgirls say this about everything. Which is a good enough segue for me to show this clip. Listen for the “Kawaii!

Competence – 50% Success
There’s nothing funnier to natives than a foreigner knowing something. This is because everything in Japan is considered incomprehensible to everyone who isn’t Japanese. If you can break out a Japanese phrase, pour beer properly at an enkai or get on the right bus, it’s like watching a cat play the piano.

There’s a clip of that on YouTube, too.

Sarcasm – 0% Success
One of my pet peeves with expats is when they use English sarcasm with Japanese people.

I’ve heard from some expats that they have successfully pulled it off, but I don’t buy it. Maybe the target of the sarcasm didn’t attack you with a katana blade, but they more than likely smiled and walked away muttering curses under their breath.

English-language sarcasm makes natives think either a) You are a totally unreasonable foreigner, or b) They misunderstood, because no one could be that unreasonable.

Either way, you have to explain the joke. When you do, no one will believe it was a joke.

Explaining sarcasm just makes you say “I was being dick.” That’s going to confuse everybody. If you didn’t care, why did you get so angry about it?

But you’ll never even get that far, because Japanese people will never ask why you’re being a dick. This gets to the heart of why the Japanese have a reputation for “not getting sarcasm.” There are highly elaborate social rules designed to avoid the feelings that sarcasm creates.

When you break that politeness protocol, everyone is going to mobilize to remedy the situation. They’ll treat your sarcastic remark as gospel truth for the rest of your time in Japan, no matter how many times you explain it or clarify it.

When you see it broken down, of course, this makes total sense. Even well-meaning sarcastic remarks can backfire.

The situation: You’re served a ton of food. You think it’s clear that there is a ton of food.
You say: “Boy, I don’t think this is gonna be enough food.”
Result: Your host goes to the kitchen to prepare more food, which you won’t eat.

The Zingers
Thinking too much about humor is a sure way to kill a joke, so I wouldn’t worry too much about planning out a comedy routine. On the whole, humor isn’t really the social lubricant it is in the English-speaking world, or at least, no one thinks less of you if you aren’t funny. In fact, Japanese people don’t seem to think less of comedians when they aren’t funny.

Since I’ve shut up, co-workers just think I’m reserved, and that’s tricking them into thinking I’m smart.

I’ll take it.

Further Reading:
“On Being Funny in Japan” is “Part One” of this post, and you can read it here.
A Japanese Sense of Humor?” at The Japan Times.

If you like Japanese things that aren’t funny, you’ll love the This Japanese Life Facebook page. And maybe you’ll want to follow me @owls_mcgee on Twitter.

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8 Responses to On Not Being Funny in Japan

  1. Pingback: On Being Funny in Japan | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

  2. Blue Shoe says:

    Nail on the head! Being punny is the way to go, and sarcasm falls flat on its face.

  3. k says:

    Maybe this is just a thing said on Okinawa, but any time someone makes a joke where no one laughs and the point is missed by the listener (ie., sarcasm), the kid/person immediately says “AMERICAN JOKE!”

    Anytime I make a joke no one gets, 75% of the time I can save it by declaring AMERICAN JOOOOKKKE! after. Sometimes I go for the most subtle CANADIAN JOOOOKKKE!

  4. Sandra says:

    Yep, when all else fails (as it will), just throw up your hands and say Uh, American joke!!
    Great post.

  5. Pingback: On Complaining About Pizza in America | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

  6. Pingback: Those Little Sparks | The Japanese Role Playing Game

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