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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

An Excerpt From Kiri-Kiri-Jin

Kenji Furuhashi, a middle-aged and decidedly third-rate writer of pulp novels, is on a train bound from Tokyo to Aomori, some 750 kilometers to the north; just below Sendai, the train passes through Kiri-kiri (population 4,187) -- on the very day the village declares its independence from Japan. Furuhashi falls into the remarkable affairs of the new nation when his train is stopped at the "border," and the Kiri-kiri constabulary comes aboard to examine the passports . . .

. . . Just then the door opened, and the conductor backed into the car, with his hands in the air. The barrel of a shotgun followed him in, the end of it ten centimeters from the tip of his nose. The conductor's face was whiter than the finest white paper.

"It's -- it's a holdup!" burst involuntarily from Furuhashi. Chewing gum, jeans, tennis, jazz, television, bowling, installment buying, credit cards, travel fever, hippies, frisbee, Elvis Presley: in the thirty years since the war, every fad in America had blossomed in Japan as well. Japan was America in Asia, an imitation America. Was it any wonder that the special creation of American cinema -- the train robbery -- would catch on here, too?

"Wotcher mean, holdup?" The possessor of the shotgun appeared in the doorway. It was a biggish boy with ruddy cheeks, in a school uniform, and visibly offended. "This ain't no holdup -- it's the police."

The Art Of Storytelling

When funny stories are told in the West, a premium is placed on originality. Nothing is more irritating than having to listen to a joke you've heard before. When it is said that Bob Hope is capable of making an audience laugh every five minutes, the implication is never that Hope is capable of making the audience laugh with old jokes. Rather it means that he can invent a new gag every five minutes. Japanese rakugo is something else. The usual opening remark of a rakugo-ka is literally as follows: "Now I'm going to tell you that old story of nonsense which I'm sure you've heard so many times before." And nobody walks out of the performance when he begins with this line. The stories of rakugo are known to almost everybody in Japan. For rakugo-ka, a classic story is like a piece of classical music. What is expected of him, indeed what makes him great, is his ability to interpret the work of past rakugo-ka immortals in a distinctive new style. Thus, rakugo is the art of storytelling. In this art, what is important is how it is told, never what is told.

Poems And Riddles

The limerick is probably the lowest common denominator of comic verse in English; in Japanese, that distinction belongs to the senryu, an offshoot of haiku that developed in the middle of the 18th century. Haiku invoke the seasons, with images that reach into the soul of nature; the senryu poet specializes instead in observations of everyday life, salty and satirical. The humor often depends on knowing the finer points of local social history, but senryu can also poke fun at perfectly familiar foibles by no means exclusively Japanese. This one, for example, about a visitor to the redlight district:

"It's not a place
To go to twice," he says
And goes three times.

Or, on the glories of military life:

"The call of nature
Is a problem,
Says the warrior in armor."

Not many of us encounter the warrior's problem, but this one has a certain modern relevance:

"I have an idea what's wrong,
Says the quack doctor,
Time to worry."

And so does this one:

"An official's baby
Learns early
How to grab."

"Time For Noodles"
A Very Abbreviated Rakugo

In the old days, you could always get something cheap to eat after hours at one of the little stalls on the street that sold noodles in broth for 16 mon a bowl.

Late one night a customer at one of these stands was raining compliments nonstop on the noodle vendor: the service was prompt and decorous beyond all expectation, the bowl was a delight to the eye, the contents a miracle of generosity. The broth -- ah, the broth -- was seasoned to perfection. "How much?" he demanded at last. "Sixteen mon? Cheap, for a princely feed like that. All I've got is small change, though; better let me count it out in your hand."

"Go right ahead."

"One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight -- say, what time is it?"


"Ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. There you are -- and so long."

Overhearing this exchange is an Edo ne'er-do-well a little less talented; the following evening he picks out another noodle vendor and tries the same routine, but with very different results. The service is dreadful, the crockery is chipped and dirty, and the broth is just salt and hot water. Compliments are a little hard to summon up. ("Of course, it is just the right amount of hot water.") Finally comes the moment to pay up and work the swindle:

"Better let me count it out in your hand. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight -- say, what time is it?"


"Five, six, seven . . . "