The Art of Wordplay and Storytelling
Q. What animal loves everybody? A. The mule, or raba. (Rabaa is the Japanese pronunciation of "lover")
The Art of Wordplay and Storytelling
The Magician of Wordplay
An Interview With Hisashi Inoue
If best-selling comic novels are anything to go by, Hisashi Inoue is
one of the people who make their fellow Japanese laugh. Inoue was born
in Yamagata prefecture in 1934; his father died when he was three, and
he was raised in the Tohoku region of northern Japan -- part of that
time in a Catholic orphanage in Sendai -- until coming to Tokyo in 1956
to enter Sophia University. His Jesuit teachers were not pleased,
perhaps, to learn that he was working part-time as a scenario writer
for a striptease theater downtown; his first play, however, won a
government-sponsored Arts Festival prize in 1958, and when he graduated
from Sophia he was hired as a television writer.
Inoue spent most of the next 10 years creating scripts for comedies and
children's programs. With the success of his play "The Adventures of
Dogen" in 1970, he became an independent; in 1971, a novel called
Tegusari Shinju, a parody on the classic theme of double suicide, won
the coveted Naoki Prize for that year. Inoue is perhaps the most
popular satirist and humorist in Japan today; critics have called him
"the magician of wordplay." His Kiri-kiri-jin (1981), a sprawling,
Rabelaisian novel about a tiny village in Tohoku that secedes from
Japan, has sold over 800,000 copies and been reprinted 36 times.
Q. It seems fair to say that your writing has a great deal of social satire in it. Does that play a big part in Japanese humor?
A. I don't think you can generalize that way. Japanese people come in
all sorts. It might be better to ask when we laugh, instead of why. In
Japan, if you aren't on some kind of comfortable good terms -- if you
aren't with people you know -- you can't joke with them. You have to
know where everybody stands with everybody else, first; then you can
get together, you have a few drinks, and people can be very funny. I
don't think that's so different from anywhere else in the world. But
you don't try to break the ice with humor when you first meet somebody
-- just as a politician would never dream of making a joke in a public
Q. Is that because the rules of decorum are so strict?
A. It's more a matter of caution than decorum. In a sense, you assume
that strangers are hostile until proven otherwise. There used to be a
saying that a samurai could lift one side of his mouth in a grin once
in three years; a whole laugh was all right every five or six. That
tradition is still alive: the samurai in modern Japan -- the
bureaucrats, the white-collar employees in the big companies have no
sense of humor at all. The more important you are in some
organizational way, the more serious you have to be. Japanese humor
comes from ordinary people like me who work for themselves.
Q. When humor does come out, is it something that non-Japanese can understand?
A. To tell the truth, there are plenty of times when we can't understand it ourselves.
Q. What about laughing at yourself? Foreigners often say that people
here take themselves and their problems too seriously for that kind of
A. Not really. We have that tradition, too, of laughter as a way of
releasing the pressure. You find it especially in the popular
literature of the Edo period, the dime-novelists of the 18th and 19th
centuries would poke fun at themselves, and then use that pose to poke
a little fun at the upper classes, too: "I'm only a fool, of course,
but it seems to me that our estimable leaders have their heads on wrong
about such-and-such." I suppose I fit into that tradition somewhere
myself. Then again, if you did that too much in the Edo period, you
could lose your head for it.
Q. That doesn't leave much room for political satire, does it?
A. Not much. Something like Le Canard Enchaine, the French lampoon newspaper -- you couldn't have that in Japan.
Q. What about your own novel, Kiri-kiri-jin? Do people read it as a political satire?
A. One of the things I wanted to say in that book was that Japan has no
business thinking so highly of itself. The corporate bigshots, they
really do think Japan is "Number 1." But we're just ordinary people,
after all; the electronics and automobiles and other things we're so
proud of -- the basic ideas all come from somewhere else. I think the
situation in my book, the poor little village in Tohoku not wanting to
be part of Japan anymore, appealed to a lot of younger people. But
there were also lots of people who got very angry about it.
Q. That's a good sign, isn't it?
A. I suppose it is. Since the book came out, independence has been
catching on, too. Nihonmatsu Spa in Fukushima secedes from Japan for
the summer: the hotels all become embassies, and so on. There's a
village in Kyushu that does the same.
Q. The people who read the book and laugh: what are they laughing about?
A. The local dialect, I think, for one thing. People put down the
Tohoku country dialect, but in the nation of Kiri-kiri that dialect is
the "standard" language; suddenly everything is upside-down. People
seem to think that's funny.
Q. Doesn't a lot of Japanese humor depend on dialect—on stories about country people and country ways?
A. There's a lot of humor specific to certain places, certain ways of
talking: Osaka, Kyoto, Edo (old Tokyo). Tohoku, where I come from,
hasn't contributed much to the mainstream of humor until now, because
the whole region was a sort of poor relation for so long. The different
parts of Japan have such different ways of thinking, such different
kinds of humor, they might as well be different countries. That goes
for the language itself, too: in Kyoto, language is a real art form; in
Tokyo, language isn't very interesting at all -- except for what still
survives from the way working people spoke in the Edo period.
Q. One last question: if you were judging just from the comic strips
and cartoon magazines, you'd have to say that a lot of Japanese humor
comes out of a real fascination for the grotesque, wouldn't you?
A. Well, that goes back a long way, too. There's a scene in Kabuki, for
example, where a character's head is struck off and lands plonk! on the
stage; that scene is played for laughs. But the comic books just
demonstrate my point that most Japanese humor is not very cerebral or
intellectual. You only really laugh at what you can understand; you
have to have your head or your heart in it. The cartoons are just a
kind of violent Grand Guignol -- people laugh, but it's only
belly-laughter. There's more to comedy than that.