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Sunday, Aug. 9, 2009


Humor may be universal, but Japan's is largely its smut-free own

Swedes crack jokes about Norwegians, Poles knock the Russians, and though everyone likes a good Italian joke, they're less funny than they used to be thanks to the genuinely grotesque antics of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

But Japanese do not tell jokes at the expense of their neighbors, the Koreans and Chinese.

They also don't tell jokes centering on taboos, other religions, people with variegated sexual preferences or people in power. The dirty joke is virtually unknown here; and when foreign fellows tell them to their Japanese girl friends, the reaction is invariably a swift geeee! (yuk!), followed by sayonara (goodbye).

So, if you can't make fun of taboos, other nationalities or religions, powerful people or the highlights of sexual proclivities, what's left to be funny about?

The Japanese sense of social propriety dictates that humor in bad taste is vulgar. The nation, after all, adopted its modern sensibility in these matters from Victorian England and the Kaiser's Germany. Decorum was there to protect the privileges of the upper classes — and the lower classes from themselves. Humor of the "wrong" sort was not only frivolous, it could be dangerous: It could call the naked king "naked," and take the mickey out of a fearsome authoritarian mouse.

Japanese humor can generally be categorized as "harmless fun." There is the comedy-of-manners type one sees, for instance, in the films of Yasujiro Ozu, particularly the ones made before World War II. This is always based on the universal mores of daily Japanese life, and Ozu often used light Hollywood-style background music to subtly bring out amusing aspects of the inter- relationships between urban and rural life while avoiding the heavy-handed or slapstick.

Much the same goes for the humor of the novelist Masuji Ibuse (1898-1993), whose wit may be described as toboketa (feigningly innocent). His writings frequently portray a character playing the fool in order to show up the quaint eccentricities of others.

Since such comedy-of-manners humor is often based on wordplay and knowledge of local customs, it can easily be missed by non-Japanese. Indeed, many may view both Ozu and Ibuse as being super-serious, almost Zen-like masters.

Then, as well as the amazing wealth of humor in the arts of premodern Japan (a topic too involved to delve into here), there is also a big-stick, brazen, vaudeville tradition dating back at least to the yose (variety) theaters of the Meiji Era (1868-1912). Ribbing, bizarre gesticulating, comic physical antics and acrobatics, absurd punning (some of it groaningly awful) . . . all of this was seen on the yose stages nationwide.

Such side-splitting entertainment made an easy transition to radio, and then to television. This is where the astonishingly popular, so-called waido ("wide," or variety) shows take their inspiration from.

The prime entrepreneurial mover behind this ongoing yose tradition is Yoshimoto Kogyo, the Osaka-based owarai (laugh) factory that has churned out TV stars such as Sanma Akashiya and Shinsuke Shimada — both of whom got their start as manzai (stand-up comedy duo) performers.

Though Sanma was born in Wakayama and raised in Nara, and Shinsuke is from Kyoto, both present a very brash, open-ended Osaka-style sense of humor that borders on what Tokyoites might consider the indecorous and common. Perhaps that's why they are so popular — for saying with gusto and relish things that few others could get away with.

Japanese come down pretty hard and humorous on that easy target of jest, the hayseed, or country bumpkin. There are lots of funny stories about Japan's ever-present onoborisan — yokels who get into a mess in the big city. The Japanese — many of whom are not far removed from their family's farming roots — readily laugh at the oaf or blockhead in what often appears to be a rustic kind of humor: clodhoppers aren't called "clods" for nothing.

I am fond of the joke about a Japanese country fellow who went alone to New York, fancying himself up to the task of surviving in the Big Apple. He sat down at a crowded bar and ordered a biiru (beer) — a request the bartender didn't understand. Finally, after several repetitions, the bartender got the message — and the Japanese hick was proud of the fact that his English had made the grade.

"Heineken?" asked the bartender.

"No," answered the hick, "Chiba-ken."

Chiba-ken, in Japanese, means Chiba Prefecture — so the hick mistakenly thought the bartender was asking where he came from in Japan.

But there is also a blacker, more incisive current in Japanese humor, as is evident in the satires and parodies by writers such as Ango Sakaguchi (1906-55) and Hisashi Inoue, who, at age 74, is still very much alive and kicking at backward institutions and intolerant practices.

There is, too, the self-deprecating humor of Osamu Dazai (1909-48) and the Osaka-wit of Sakunosuke Oda (1913-47) — much of it expressed in cutting Osaka dialect.

In their works, these writers all show up shortcomings in Japanese society by satirizing and parodying its illiberal sanctimoniousness. In the process, they underline how the Japanese most certainly laugh about themselves as much as the next nationality — but to appreciate that laughter, a solid background in the culture and language is essential. Even then it might be elusive, because Japanese humor is, if nothing else, not in your face.

Indeed, it's not in their faces either, being often exceedingly deadpan and, like much in this culture, understated.

I am reminded of the samurai who couldn't pay his liquor bill. He went to the liquor dealer and declared: "I am ready to do the honorable thing." Then he pulled out a little sword and proceeded to stick it into his belly, stopping halfway.

"What are you doing?" cried the liquor dealer. "Aren't you going to finish what you started?"

The samurai, holding the sword, looked up, groaned in excruciating pain, and whispered: "I can't finish here. I haven't paid my rice bill yet."

This Japanese story has a point . . . and it is aimed directly at themselves.

Perhaps this is a Japanese equivalent of the Jack Benny joke about him being mugged, in which the late U.S. comedian, famous for his alleged thriftiness, recounts how the mugger pointed a gun at him and barked: "Your money or your life?"

Benny hesitated.

"Well?" growled the mugger.

Benny scratched his head and said: "Just a minute, I'm thinking about it."

Wherever you come from, your best joke is always on yourself.

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