The graphic above is an example of an attempted joke that, had it actually been told in the context described, would have failed miserably in eliciting a laugh. First, a disclaimer: I’ve never been so bold as to say such a thing to my Japanese wife, as we always communicate in Japanese. Truth is, I wouldn’t know how to communicate this in Japanese anyway, as certain types of humor get obliterated in translation. Also note that I stole this particular line from my high school math teacher, so the exchange above is completely fabricated. But it doesn’t matter: Just about any sarcastic remark will elicit a similar reaction. After 35 years of marital bliss, I’ve learned how to make my wife laugh but occasionally stumble and make jokes that…well…let’s just say she is not amused…
That said, I can attest from personal experience that humor, if used in the right way, can be a powerful tool in bringing cultures together. But it can just as easily offend. And this underscores the reality that communication is much deeper than words, especially when a comedian-wannabe wades into the unfamiliar waters of cross-cultural humor.
Indeed, even people who speak the same language can miss an inside joke. I experienced this firsthand when I attended a party in Chicago in the late 1980s after living in Japan for ten years. My brother’s friend was telling jokes and doing impersonations, and everyone in the room was roaring with laughter. Except me. In this instance, the jokester was impersonating well-known characters on Saturday Night Live, a cultural phenomenon I had missed during my Japan residency. (Nope, no American TV in Japan back in the old days.)
Think about it: If I had never heard or seen the characters being imitated, then how could I appreciate the quality of the impersonation? This is precisely the same reason my Japanese wife never laughed when she’d hear Rich Little impersonate John Wayne. She knew who John Wayne was but never heard his voice since Western movies in Japan were always overdubbed in Japanese. (Nothing is trippier than hearing John Wayne utter in Japanese, “Well, okay pilgrim!”)
Likewise, I didn’t get the humor at the aforementioned party because I lacked the shared experience that gave context to the Saturday Night Live impersonations. I had completely lost touch with American popular culture.
The moral of this anecdote is that even though linguistic barriers make bridging the humor gap a challenge, the gaps are much deeper than words. Humor requires a degree of shared experience and common values to crossover.
Years ago I read about an American businessman who went to Japan to give a speech. He met with his interpreter in advance to preview the content. Somewhere in the speech the American planned to tell a joke. The interpreter understood the joke but knew the Japanese audience wouldn’t. He advised the businessman to remove it, but his advice fell on deaf ears. Frustrated, the interpreter took matters into his own hands. When the American delivered the joke, the interpreter turned to the audience and said (in Japanese of course), “the American told a joke. He thinks it’s funny. Please laugh!” As instructed, everyone laughed. (I envision in my mind’s eye the American speaker at some point turning to the interpreter and saying, “See I told you they’d get it!”)
Is Sarcasm a Foreign Concept in Japan?
I’ve heard many Japan pundits claim that Japanese don’t use nor do they understand sarcasm and irony. (To distinguish between the two, by definition, sarcasm is “the use of irony to mock or convey contempt.”)
My first observation is that the Japanese language has one all-encompassing word—”hiniku” (皮肉)—to describe sarcasm, irony, satire, and cynicism, all of which are slightly different concepts.
My other observation is that, in general, Japanese humor tends to be more self-deprecating than its American cousin. As far as I know, there is no Japanese comedian who openly mocks people a la Don Rickles. Another difference is that Americans value the notion (if not in reality then at least in principle) of not taking themselves too seriously. So when someone takes offense from a joke directed at them, my compatriots will often say that the offended party is “too sensitive” and “can’t take a joke.”
It shouldn’t surprise that in Japan—a culture which values harmony, understatement, politeness and sincerity—the practice of openly mocking people would be considered bad form. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that sarcasm doesn’t exist. It’s just more subtle. One could argue that the example of the interpreter’s joke above was, at the very least, borderline sarcasm (i.e., the American told a joke, he thinks it’s funny…”).
Here’s an example of a subtle version of Japanese sarcasm that someone shared on a reddit message board:
“…one time my boss, a Japanese guy, was bragging about being popular in high school, saying he had lots of girlfriends and experiences. Another Japanese guy just looked at him blankly and, after about 10 seconds, said ‘そうか,’ meaning something along the lines of ‘Ok then….’ It was expertly timed and everyone around laughed, including myself.
Another example is how Japanese parents might use polite speech to gently mock their own children. For some background, it’s generally considered improper to address one’s inner group (which of course includes family members) with honorifics like “san” or “sama.” A Japanese mother might sarcastically refer to her willful, demanding daughter as “uchi no ojōsama” (うちのお嬢様), a polite term normally reserved for someone else’s daughter. The context in this example makes it clear that the remark is sarcastic. But even in this situation, the joke has a self-deprecating nuance, as it is directed at one’s own family member.
The Pitfalls of Being a Smart Ass in Japan
The movie Gung Ho has a scene that shows a wise-cracking American completely bombing with his Japanese audience when he uses a sarcastic, rhetorical question to answer “yes” to a a straight-forward question. (I truly wish they had used native Japanese speakers for the movie, a discussion for another day.) Here’s the dialogue between Hunt Stevenson (played by Michael Keaton) and his Japanese coworkers right after Hunt has been offered a job in the plant:
Kazuhiro:“Can we count on you?”
Hunt:“Fellas…is a frog’s ass watertight”?
Kazuhiro: After intense discussion in “Japanese” with his colleagues, Kazuhiro turns back to Hunt and says, “Yes, we believe it is!”
I’ve had my share of jokes bomb in Japan. After many years living here, well-intentioned Japanese friends and acquaintances still compliment me on my “amazing chopstick skills.” (It happens to all foreigners.) Truth is that I am skillful; it’s what happens when you use them everyday for four decades. But after a thousand or so compliments, the remark started to annoy me and one day I finally snapped. While eating a Japanese bento with chopsticks, my Japanese table mate hit me with the dreaded chopstick rap: “Tim-san, you are very skillful with your chopsticks!”
In an ironic twist of fate, my friend was cutting into a piece of beef with a knife and fork. So without thinking I blurted out, “Well you’re pretty good with a knife and fork!”
To which he replied in earnest, “Arigato!” (Thank you.)
Religion and Other Sacred Cows
Religion is a risky topic for humor even within cultures. For better or worse, most Japanese see religion as fair game, including Buddhism (see the rakugo story Okechimyaku for more on this). Noteworthy is that the important exception is the Japanese Royal family, completely off limits.
I’m dating myself here, but back in the 1980s, a controversial commercial aired on Japanese TV. The product being advertised was innocuous enough: Bee Line pens. It was a very strange ad indeed: A Japanese comedian impersonating Christ on the cross was suddenly doused with a red liquid that looked like blood. That’s it. After which they pitched their pens and the commercial was over. The commercial was so offensive to Christian viewers that it prompted a slew of angry letters to the editor of The Japan Times. The ad left me scratching my head, totally beyond my ability to comprehend. Truth is I was much more confused than offended, but I completely understood why Christians would take offense.
The commercial was so strange and controversial that I couldn’t help but discuss it with Japanese friends and colleagues. Nearly everyone I spoke with was oblivious to how offensive it was to Christians. At first, I rationalized: how could they empathize unless they themselves were offended by the desecration of Buddhist or Shinto symbols? Then Shinto rang a bell, and I started asking how they’d feel if a member of the Imperial family were in the commercial rather than Jesus. That got the point across.
Humor that Works in Both Cultures?
In my quest to identify American jokes that work in Japanese culture, my Japanese wife is my test subject. Below are some examples of American-style humor that made her laugh.
Here’s a “dad joke” (known in Japanese as 親父ギャグ) that worked, one I heard from none other than retired basketball player Charles Barkley. It’s a silly play on words and requires a minimal understanding of English. But it has already gotten a laugh from not only my wife, but also several other Japanese friends (even those who speak very little English):
“What do you call someone with no body, and no nose?
Yuk, yuk, yuk.
My wife also thinks the snarky mother-in-law character in the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond is a scream, a character that reeks of sarcasm, albeit the sarcasm is not directed at a real person. My wife’s ability to relate makes total sense, as in Japan, mother-in-laws are notorious for verbally abusing their daughter-in-laws.
My wife also appreciated the Seinfeld episode on “re-gifting” because Japanese also happen to be notorious re-gifters. Back in my college days when I taught English to Japanese doctors, they all gave me copious amounts of premium Scotch and other spirits that their patients had given them, all of which I re-re-gifted to friends who actually drank the stuff. Like America, it’s technically taboo to re-gift in Japan even though everyone seems to do it. The unspoken rule is that it’s okay as long as the original gift giver doesn’t find out.
Here’s another joke that made my wife laugh:
An experiment that proves dog is truly man’s best friend: Lock your dog and your spouse in the trunk of your car. After an hour open the trunk. Which one is glad to see you?
If there’s a pattern in humor that can cross over to other cultures, it’s the universal human condition. Most folks, regardless of culture, can relate to annoying in-laws, social taboos, angry spouses, and even black humor (as demonstrated by numerous death-related Rakugo stories and Itami Juzo’s dark comedy, The Funeral [お葬式]). But bridging the gap can be risky business. And while I believe humor is a wonderful tool in bringing people together from different cultures, my advice is to tread carefully, and leave irony and sarcasm to the local native speakers.
Can anyone offer examples of humor that crosses over?