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 ‘funny-bones’. Which is, of course, nonsense.

You do not have to spend very much time in Japan, or with Japanese people, to notice that humour plays a substantial part in their lives. An outsider may not always be able to share the joke, but the Japanese certainly do laugh. The question is what makes the Japanese laugh with anything from chuckle to belly laughter. Firstly I shall start with where the Japanese humour comes from.

The Art of Wordplay

The taste in Japanese humour can go back to folk tales in ancient times. The Japanese art of wordplay originated long ago of matching similar sounds in words with different meaning, a sort of sport with homonyms. It was evident in some of the poems of the Manyo-shu in the 11th century and reached its height of refinement in haiku developed in the late 17th century.

Haiku was born as a poetry of laughter from the international exchange of different cultures. It was the start of a trend that saw free expression used in a time of strict orthodoxy in language. In the age of Matsuo Basho (1644 – 1694), the most famous Zen poet of the Edo period who alerts us to the neglected beauty and interest of everyday life, and thereby reconciles us with our own circumstance. There were many kinds of humour: a pun, pathos, wit, social sarcasm and so on. Basho produced symbolic Kokkei which means humour in English.

The Art of Storytelling

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 origin of rakugo back some 400 years.

In the 18th century the popularity of rakugo spread from Kyoto and Osaka east to Edo (present-day Tokyo). A professional rakugo-ka usually specialises in stories on one theme – samurai stories, dumb son stories, mother-in-law stories – and work regularly with 30 or 40 of these. Over the years rakugo developed subspecialties of all sorts: tales of pathos, called ninjyo-banashi, tales of the supernatural and satires on the events of the day.

Rakugo is the art of storytelling. In this art, what is important is how it is told, never what is told. 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 hand towel for props.

The lovely and talented Diane Orrett, a Japan based British rakugo performer explains some basic points of the Japanese art in English. She is sooo good and funny!

What so funny in Japanese?

Japan has a saying: Laughter will bring in luck. Luck will come to the family who always laughs.

When Japanese people get embarrassed or puzzled, they smile to cover up their embarrassment. This sometimes causes misunderstandings between Japanese and foreigners if they are not familiar with each other’s culture. Without understanding cultural sensitivity, we will never know what makes the Japanese laugh.

Timing is everything!

When considering Japanese humour, it might be better to ask when one laughs, instead of why. In Japan, if you aren’t familiar with a person – if you aren’t with people you know – you don’t joke with them. You firstly have to know where everybody stands with everybody else, and only then you can get together for few drinks and some laughs. In actual fact this is not so different from anywhere else in the world. But you do not try to break the ice with humour when you first meet somebody – just as a Japanese politicians would never dream of making a joke in a public speech.

It is 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 and well: the samurai in modern Japan – the bureaucrats, the white-collar employees in the big companies display very little sense of humour except privately amongst themselves. The more important you are in some organisational way, the more serious you have to be to those down the pecking order. Social strata is everything!

Is there much political satire in Japan?

Not much! The Japanese have a tradition of laughing at themselves 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. However, if you did that too much in the Edo period, you could lose your head over it. Nowadays, like western countries, the Japanese criticise politicians for wrong policy or poor behaviour, but unlike in the west there is not much political satire in Japan. Something like Le Canard Enchaine, the French lampoon newspaper will never exist in Japan.

What does the Japanese laugh about – Dialect & Grotesque?

Local dialects vary greatly in Japan, and in some places are nearly unrecognisable to others. For instance, people put down the Tohoku country dialect and laugh about the way the people from the region speak. The Tokyo dialect is seen as “standard” language, so Tohoku people are found to be very funny for their slow simple drawl similar in comparing a New Yorker to someone from Waco Texas! Those from Tokyo will find such dialects very amusing, however the majority living in Tokyo actually originate from the countryside and thus often are laughing at themselves!

There is a lot of humour specific to certain places, certain ways of talking: Osaka, Kyoto, Edo (old Tokyo), Tohoku and Kyushu. The different parts of Japan have such different ways of thinking, such different kinds of humour, they might as well be different countries. That goes for the language itself, too: in Kyoto, language is a real art form and sounds very elegant, in Osaka the language is vibrant with dramatic differences in intonation and people animated, whilst in comparison Tokyo language appears flat, business like and lacks emotion and that’s not particularly funny!

If you were judging just from the comic strips and cartoon magazines, you would have to say that a lot of Japanese humour comes out of a real fascination for the grotesque. This fascination with the grotesque goes way back to Kabuki in the 17th Century. There is a scene in Kabuki, for example, where a character’s head is struck off and lands plonk on the stage. That scene is not very cerebral or intellectual, and in fact the laugh is purely– one moment there is an animated human being, the next a decapitated head. The macabre is seen as funny.

How do Japanese people laugh?

Many women cover their mouth when they laugh. You might have seen women covering their mouths with their hands in dramas, movies or in comic books. Some cover their mouths with their hands intentionally to appear cute. But most of the time it’s second nature. It is considered lacking grace and unladylike to laugh with your mouth open in public. We still hear older ladies telling young girls to cover up. Japan is a collective society and people tend to mimic other people’s behaviours. It is a learned behaviour.

Japanese humour, smile and laugh
In Japan its considered rude to laugh with your teeth exposed even though the Japanese youth are now more relax and changing.

What the modern form of the Japanese humour

A pun is fun, particularly on the run!

Some may argue that a sense of humour varies from culture to culture, others that in essence comedy is universal. In the end, it’s all about walking a fine line, balancing between not only what the audience knows, but also what they feel comfortable hearing.

The modern form of Japanese humour

A fairly large proportion of Japanese humour is in fact verbal humour. 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 of 16 other things. This characteristic of the Japanese language makes it incredibly easy to create puns or Dajare in Japan, far more opportunity than there is in western countries.

Japanese physical comedy

The other main type of comedy is physical – popularised in comedic game shows such as “Human Teries” and “Silent Library” (Japanese innovations that have spread to the United States).

American comedy has mellowed out since the day of “The Three Stooges” and Bugs Bunny, and now mostly relies on cleverly-timed words and one liners. Japanese comedy, on the other hand, is balanced between groan-soliciting puns and blatantly slapstick physicality. In the United States, they convey their meanings in what they say, while in Japan, it’s at least as much in how they say it and what they are doing whilst saying it.

Manzai, Stand-up comedy

The most common word to represent comedy in Japan now is owarai (comedy).

Manzai is based on two roles: Boke and tsukomi – the silly and funny comedian (boke) and straight guy (tsukomi). Boke means airhead, idiot and tsukomi means to butt-in. The “boke” person says something stupid and “tsukomi” person catches their obvious mistake and points it out in a funny way and makes the audience laugh. Such comedy is very similar to that of famous America Abbott and Costello comedy team of the 1930s to 1950s.

The manzai pros are very quick witted. Many of the comedians are from Kansai region including Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe, where they speak Kansai or Osaka dialect that sounds very friendly and funny. Also Osaka has a big comedian company called Yoshimoto Kogyo and the main Japanese comedians belong to this company.

Comedy in Japan is a fickled business – every year many new comedians debut whilst others disappear. Some become super popular and their gags became the trendy word or phrase for that year. You will hear their gags almost every day on TV or even in daily conversation. Kids especially love to mimic them. Many young comedians are treated just like pop idols in Japan.

Manzai Japanese comedy
Japanese Comedy Mime Artists (Gamarjobat) on the Royal Mike during last year’s Edinburgh Festival. The faces in the background look people were enjoying the performance too.
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