What Makes Japanese Laugh?
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
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.
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.
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
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 . . . "
Word Play and Other Nazo-Nazo
Heard any good ones lately?
Any good nazo-nazo, that is. Nazo-nazo are Japanese riddles and, as is the case with so much Japanese humor, abound in word play. Fortunately for those non-Japanese-speaking readers who like to be let in on the joke, these riddles often employ both gairaigo (foreign loan words), of which there are literally thousands to choose from, and foreign words whose Japanese pronunciation yields amusing results. Herewith some examples:
Q. You and I, the best of friends, use what word to describe our relationship?
A. Friendship, or yuai (you-I).
Q. The population of which country is composed entirely of infants?
A. New Zealand, or, as it is pronounced in Japanese, Nyuujiirando. Nyuuji means "infant."
Q. Which American group, to judge by its name, can't decide whether it has four or five members?
A. Chicago. Shi ka go means "four or five."
Q. A young girl gets on an elevator. Does it go up or down?
A. Up. A gaaru is the Japanese pronunciation of "a girl" and agaru means "to go up."
Q. What European city is famous for its large population of twins?
A. Frankfurt. A frankfort is a soseji (sausage) and soseiji are twins.
Q. An osama is a kingu (king), but what is a naked osama?
A. A sutorikingu (streaking).
Q. What fowl lives on a hill?
A. A duck, or ahiru. A hiru is the Japanese pronunciation of "a hill."
Q. In what American state is it always morning?
A. Ohio, or ohaiyo, as in ohaiyo gozaimasu (good morning).
Q. What animal loves everybody?
A. The mule, or raba. Rabaa, you've probably already guessed, is the Japanese pronunciation of "lover."
Q. What American state is famous for its waterworks?
A. Missouri, or mizurii. Mizu uri means "to sell water."
Q. When is a k-i-s-s only a k-s-s?
A. When it lacks love, or ai (i).
Q. What American state frowns on love affairs?
A. Georgia, or lofia. Joji iya means "love affairs are disgusting."