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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
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 speech.

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 humor.
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.