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What Makes Japanese Laugh?

The Art of Wordplay and Storytelling

Q. What animal loves everybody? A. The mule, or raba. (Rabaa is the Japanese pronunciation of "lover")

Q. What animal loves everybody? A. The mule, or raba. (Rabaa is the Japanese pronunciation of "lover")

The Art of Wordplay and Storytelling

For a long while, there was an industry in Japan called Nihonjin-ron: a multimillion-dollar traffic in theories of the Japanese national character.

The Japanese of the 1960's and 70's discovered to their surprise, not only that they were prosperous, but that other people wanted to know more about them; suddenly they were aware that they didn't have any good explanations of what it meant to be Japanese, even amongst themselves. Theories of the national character became immensely popular. Everybody with a contribution to offer got a hearing: eminent sociologists, journalists, doctors, politicians. Foreigners were especially welcome to join in, and a good many of them did. The Japanese are the Japanese, we were told, because (a) they have a vertical society, (b) they were rice farmers for so many centuries, or because of (c) their dependency relations or (d) their management system or (e) their climate, or because (f ) they learn to use chopsticks in early childhood, or (g) their ancestors were nomadic horse drovers from Central Asia, or (h) all of the above, (i) none of the above, or (j) any of hundreds of other probable and improbable causes.

Curiously enough, Nihonjin-ron-ists are for the most part reluctant to talk about Japanese humor. What makes the Japanese laugh? If laughter is mentioned at all, it is only to say that the Japanese laugh when they are nervous or embarrassed: "another of those gossamer veils of reserve," writes one observer, "that partly . . . cover certain emotional reactions." The theories seem to share a common assumption that the inhabitants of these isles take themselves and the world around them too seriously to have funnybones.

Which is, of course, nonsense. You don't have to spend very much time in Japan, or with Japanese people, to notice that humor plays a substantial part in their lives. An outsider may not always be able to share the joke, but the Japanese certainly do laugh; what's more, they laugh in many different ways at a wide spectrum of things, from pie-in-the-face buffoonery and vaudeville monologues to witty political satires and bittersweet social comedies.

Understanding some Japanese humor is purely a language problem on the simplest level: there are comic characters and comic situations that, once you know roughly what's going on, are just as recognizable, just as funny to outsiders, as they are to the Japanese themselves. With other forms, you might need a much deeper understanding of the language to get the point at all; a fairly large proportion of Japanese humor is in fact verbal humor. And inevitably, there is humor that it doesn't even help to understand: you can know exactly what's being said and still not know why it's funny. This sort of humor is only accessible if you can think like a Japanese -- a very difficult requirement indeed.

As it happens, that last category is surprisingly small. For this article, we talked to a novelist and a storyteller; we sifted jokes and satiric poetry and comic books. From the outset, we decreed ourselves only one principle: nothing kills a joke deader than an explanation. We wanted material, in other words, that spoke for itself, even in translations, and we didn't have to look very far for it. For the casual visitor, there really isn't enough of that sort of translation around; so we hope we've been able to add a little to the supply.

Tall Tales and Purple Cushions
When you tell funny stories for a living in Japan, you don't stand up in front of your audience: you sit -- on a purple cushion, in formal kimono -- and ply your trade with a fan.

The trade is called rakugo; the storyteller is a rakugo-ka. Scholars trace the origins of rakugo back some 400 years, to a period when Japan was cut up into feudal baronies invading, betraying and generally making life miserable for one another. It was not wise for a warlord to sleep too early or too well, for fear of assassins; very often he had a retainer called an otogi-shu, whose job it was to keep his master up, amusing him with anecdotes and stories and bits of odd news. By the early 17th century, Japan was at peace again, under the Tokugawa Shoguns, and the first collections of these stories began to appear in print.

By the 1670's, the raconteur had emerged as a professional entertainer, with a stall on a likely street corner, drawing crowds with the stories he made up, and passing the hat. Rakugo was known then as karukuchi, or "idle chatter." Monologues crafted in this period were handed down from generation to generation; they're still in the repertoire today, getting laughs from audiences that have probably heard them 10 or 20 times already. Some 500 of these tales have survived, but only 80 or so are actually performed. A professional rakugo-ka will usually specialize in stories on one theme -- samurai stories, townsman stories, dumb son stories, mother-in-law stories -- and work regularly with 30 or 40 of these. He will also add to the repertoire with stories of his own, on the lighter side of current events, discarding them often for fresh ones.

In the 18th century, the popularity of rakugo spread from Kyoto and Osaka east to Edo (present-day Tokyo); the eastern and western styles of delivery have different, fiercely loyal partisans. In Osaka, they say that Tokyo rakugo is pretentious and over-refined; in Tokyo, they argue that Osaka storytellers sink a little too far into low comedy.

Eventually, the rakugo-ka moved indoors, to become top attractions in the yose -- Japanese vaudeville. The first theater exclusively for rakugo was built in Edo in 1687; yose theaters, with their wider variety of entertainment, began to appear about 100 years later, offering three hours or so of light comedy at admission prices virtually anyone could afford. (In 1825, there were about 130 yose theatres in Tokyo; today there are only four.) One of the early greats of yose vaudeville, Sanshotei Karaku, is credited with the invention of sandai-banashi, a rakugo tour de force in which the storyteller takes three completely unrelated items at random from his audience, and weaves them instantly into a comic improvisation -- preferably with a pun in the punch line.

Over the years, rakugo developed subspecialties of all sorts: tales of pathos, called ninjo-banashi, tales of the supernatural; satires on the events of the day. Even so, as Japan modernized, vaudeville started losing audiences to music hall reviews and movies. Really hard times came in the 1930's and 1940's, when rakugo lost about half its repertoire to official censorship. (Military governments always seem to have very high standards of propriety.) After the war, however, the picture brightened. Television gave the rakugo-ka a new and vastly larger following; comedy born and bred in the cities was now beamed into homes all over the country. A weekly rakugo program on the Asahi network, on Friday nights at midnight, currently has between 600,000 and 700,000 viewers in the Kanto (Tokyo) area alone; there are rival programs on most networks.

Rakugo audiences today are mostly middle-aged and older, but young people are listening, too; it's rare to find a university in Japan without a rakugo club and a small band of devoted amateur performers. Very few of the amateurs turn pro, however: this is not an easy business to break into.

There are currently about 500 professional rakugo-ka; the number has grown by nearly 20% in the past 10 years. Almost all of them belong to one of three organizations (two in Tokyo and one in Osaka) that serve primarily as booking agencies. The Rakugo Geijutsu Kyokai in Tokyo, for example, represents 46 performers, scheduling appearances for them at the yose theaters (which change programs every 10 days) and out of town.

One of the things audiences enjoy most about rakugo is the rich fund of wordplay it uses. The Japanese language has vast numbers of words that sound exactly the same; depending on the way they are written, for example, koko can mean "a senior high school," "a mine shaft," "filial piety" or "pickled vegetables" -- or any one of 16 other things. With opportunities like that, the rakugo-ka is expected to be -- and is -- a master of the outrageous pun, the more outrageous the better. Equally important is the storyteller's dramatic talents: a mastery of dialects and voices, a mobile face, and an ability to create whole scenes with just a fan and a handtowel for props.

Rakugo characters and their misadventures would be at home on vaudeville stages anywhere in the world. A con artist deftly swindles a street vendor; his hapless fellow townsman tries the same ploy -- and fumbles. A doctor confronts a patient who has swallowed his glass eye. A samurai forgets the important message he's been sent to deliver, and needs some unusual help to jog his memory. Rakugo delights in come-uppances, but it is a gentle delight that finds its victims on all levels of society, rumpling the foolish and thumping the would-be wise, but leaving nobody very much the worse for wear.