Ever heard someone say “Japanese humor is silly and only based on puns” or ask “how could someone watch this show, it’s stupid and useless”?
Japanese comedy has a bad reputation abroad and many foreigners question the intellectual quality of the Japanese entertainment industry. I admit that Japanese jokes might be different from Western ones and most people need some time in order to get used to them. But does this mean that Japanese humor is bad?
Today I want to give you a quick introduction into two forms of Japanese comedy and answer the question whether the jokes of the land of the rising sun are really impossible to be appreciated by Western minds. Please understand that this is only the tip of the iceberg known as Japanese comedy and not everything can be said. Enjoy!
Japanese stand-up comedy differs greatly from Western performances, mainly because it reaches way back into Japanese history.
Traditional Japanese stand-up is called Manzai and originated in the Heian period. Manzai always includes two performers. One of them is known as tsukkomi or straight man and tries his best to react as humorless and sincere as possible. His partner is called boke and functions as the silly part who acts out of order. Together they deliver jokes and puns at great speed, often including the well-known slap at the back of the boke’s head whenever he says something rude or silly.
Even though this is a traditional and old kind of comedy it has been preserved in Japanese culture and can still be observed today. Especially Osaka, the Mecca of Japanese comedy, is known for Manzai performers. The most popular comedy duo might be Downtown, with Matsumoto performing the boke part and Hamada acting as tsukkomi.
Many foreigners living in Japan have developed a love-hate relationship with variety shows shown on TV. On the one hand they claim that variety shows are not intellectually challenging and one should rather spend this time reading a book or watching the local news. On the other hand, the slappy jokes are funny and it is hard to stop watching after one has become a fan of punishment games and Co. It’s a guilty pleasure many people have.
Japan is famous for its variety shows and nowhere else in the world are they worshipped like here. Content might vary between shows, but common elements include punishment games and guest appearances of minor celebrities. Let me draw a quick picture for those of you that have no idea what to expect: a common variety show might include musical performances as well as some small talk between host and guests. The entertaining part consists of comedy skits, amusing contests and fun and unique games only found in Japan.
Losers are punished in so-called Batsu Games which often include physical pain. All in all, variety shows are colorful, have a high speed, and mix different forms of modern entertainment. Even though they might seem a little bit too over the top and loud at first you should give them a second chance. Soon you won’t be able to get enough of Japanese variety.
What makes Japanese humor hard to understand, in my opinion, are linguistic problems. A lot of Japanese jokes are based on puns or different pronunciations and meanings of Japanese words. Even though you can translate and explain these kinds of jokes afterwards, the moment has already passed and the joke is gone. Also, some knowledge of the Japanese culture might be needed, thus making them hard to understand for foreigners.
That might be the reason why “physical” humor like jokes focusing on certain body functions are the aspect of Japanese humor that most foreigners encounter. Thus, it’s easy to believe that these crude jokes are everything Japanese people enjoy. This couldn’t be further from the truth since comedy is a well-integrated part of the Japanese culture and has many minor details and characteristics that might get overlooked by foreigners.
I hope this article could help some of you understanding Japanese comedy better. What do you think of the Japanese sense of humor? Do you enjoy it or do you think it is too different from Western comedy? Also, feel free to share personal show recommendations for those of you that are now ready to give Japanese variety or stand-up a chance. Leave your opinions in the comment section down below.