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Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2008

Corny corkers add life to lingo, you elephant!


Special to The Japan Times

First of two parts

Whoever said that the pun is the lowest form of humor obviously didn't speak Japanese. Puns and plays on words are as old as the hills surrounding Kyoto. If you don't appreciate this classy genre of wordplay, it just goes to show that one man's Mede is another man's Persian.

Dajare, meaning "corny, punning jokes," permeate everyday Japanese life. But jiguchi (puns) and goroawase (wordplay) display a potent and vital presence in Japanese letters, from ancient waka (traditional verses), haiku, senryu (humorous haiku) and gesaku (light literature) of the premodern era to the plays of Hisashi Inoue and the poetry of Shuntaro Tanikawa today.

Inoue is a master at creating characters' names. I recall one ersatz Russian called Ikuraittemodameda Nevsky, or Nevergiveaninchovitch Nevsky.

Tanikawa's delightful book "Kotoba Asobi no Uta (Wordplay Songs)" is used as a text in schools throughout Japan. Virtually every child here knows the poem in it titled "Iruka," which itself is a play on words for "porpoise" and "Is it here?"

Iruka iruka (Are the porpoises here?) Iruka inaika (Are they or aren't they?)

Such delightful ditties may serve no other porpoise than to amuse, but as for names, one need only recall the mystery writer Taro Hirai (1894-1965), who adopted the nom de plume Edogawa Ranpo after his admired American senpai (one who came before) Edgar Allan Poe. And if that won't give you the willies, then contemplate the Japanese comedians who have offered homage, if not plumage, to illustrious predecessors by imitating their names: Tani Kei (Danny Kay), Masuda Kiiton (Buster Keaton), and, perhaps the cleverest punned name of all, Sato B-saku. Sato B-saku took his name, however, from a man who was hardly a comedian, at least not by design, namely Prime Minister Sato Eisaku.

A myriad of corny puns surround the names of animals that sound like some other word and can therefore be cleverly manipulated into double-entendres. Elephant (zo), horse (uma), deer (shika), camel (rakuda) and turtle (kame) frequently appear in conversational wordplay.

This tradition goes back donkey's years. For centuries, tai (sea bream) have been a symbol of happiness or congratulations, simply because it is part of the word denoting felicitation, omedetai. As we slide down language's slippery slope, we come to the more controversial and unsavory sectors of dajare.

Let's face it, a lot of really corny jokes are told by children and dirty old men. At least one of these groups, however, should know better. Children in any country innocently play with sounds as a method to help them acquire language. In Japan, dajare are ensconced in nazonazo, or riddles, beloved by children, just as many a pun originated in the English "knock knock" variety of jokes.

Old-men's gags (oyaji gyagu) are not gladly swallowed by members of a younger generation; and those that are, are best not repeated. Some time ago, an acquaintance of ripe years (jukunen) stood up and said to me, "Chotto kasetto." It was his way of telling me that he was going to the toilet. Figure it out? Well, I won't torture you by holding in the answer until next week. Kasetto is a cassette tape; and otoire is another word for "recording," as well as meaning "toilet." I can hear him — and you — groaning.

By the way, speaking of elephants, I had a cousin who was a rabbi in a circus. His job was to circumcise the elephants. The pay wasn't good but the tips were tremendous.

Of course, this wouldn't work in Japan, because neither tipping nor circumcising are customary here. But I did have one Japanese friend who used to give a potato to cab drivers. When the drivers asked why he was giving them a potato, he said it was a potato chippu.

While on the subject of cars, did you know that Nagoya was traditionally the center of the tire-manufacturing industry? That's because it's in the chubu chiho. This means both "Central Region" and "Tube Region."

Oh dear . . . or, oh deer . . . how low can you get? Well, the answer is "pretty low." And if you want to stoop again, next week I will be discussing the use of dajare in ads and commercials, dual-language dajare and other types of corn to fuel your drive for such things.

But I leave you here with one question; and, dog my cats if anyone out there can guess the answer:

"Why won't yakuza eat lamb?"

It's a rough one, I assure you.



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