If you’ve ever watched just about any Japanese show or television channel, you may have noticed something unique about the programming, aside from the obvious difference in language. It's not just the content, but the way in which the content is presented. Many of the shows appear exactly the same to the untrained foreign eye, and the jokes sound completely strange and unfunny to the untrained foreign ear.
Ah, Japanese comedy. You either love it or you hate it. But what is it about Japanese comedy that nearly every other country finds so unusual? How is it that a group of people so famously noted for their seriousness and hardcore work ethic could be so easily brought to tears by ridiculous displays of nonsense, yet barely be swayed by our "intelligent" sarcastic humor? It seems not only the TV shows, but the Japanese sense of humor in general, play a huge role in supplying foreigners with the stereotypical image of "weird Japan."
A Different Sense of Humor
Japan has a unique sense of humor that can be seen through more than just its comedy-specific TV shows, but also in variety shows, dramas, movies, and live events including traditional performances. In fact, Japanese comedy can be said to be a widely performative act, characterized by its use of pranks, games, slapstick, and gags, all of which to us may seem borderline absurd and nonsensical to those accustomed to Western humor and irony.
As mentioned above, this is quite different from what we tend to view as comical abroad. Westerners tend to prefer a more "intellectual" style of humor that is dialogue-heavy, such as satire, sarcasm, irony, and dark humor. Many of our popular comedy shows cannot easily translate into other languages, and it can be confusing to know exactly when to laugh. Because of this, comedy shows and movies that prove to be a big hit on their home turf often end up becoming a flop overseas, criticized as just being "not funny." In fact, Japan even has a colloquial slang term that they so lovingly use to refer to something unfunny: an "American joke."
Conversely, the Japanese sense of humor tends to be regarded as silly and childish by their American counterparts, with comedic acts heavily centered on physical gestures, exaggerated expressions, and what we might consider immature pranks and puns. Quite different from the otherwise serious, work-driven façade the Western world is so used to seeing from the Japanese. Why is that?
(JP) Link: Why Japanese People Don't Laugh At American Comedy
To better understand this apparent cultural divide, we should first seek to understand the history of comedy in Japan, and the evolution of laughter.
Not A Laughing Matter
Outside of the unique world of Japanese comedy, Japan has often been regarded as a rather serious and humorless culture. Some have faulted this to the Japanese trend of separating humor from daily life. A culture so strongly built upon business, politics, tradition and power, public displays of humor have often been criticized as unserious and unprofessional, leading to this apparent separation of life and laughter.
This resulted in a tradition of "curated laughter" in the form of live comedy performances, in which the Japanese could escape from their daily lives and laugh freely and boisterously in a space in which it was considered socially acceptable. A primarily group-minded culture, public opinion is often prioritized over individual satisfaction, so even if one wanted to laugh, one would most likely hold back unless it was publicly acknowledged as okay to do so.
And thus began the development and evolution of Japanese comedy performances, originally in the form of manzai and rakugo, which would eventually become the cornerstones for Japanese comedy as we know it today.
Early Japanese Comedy: Rakugo and Manzai
Manzai (漫才) is a traditional form of comedy that has become the foundation for most of today’s modern comedy in Japan. It is always performed as a duo, featuring two performers swapping jokes and insults in a form of a comedic battle. The performers each take on one of two roles, the ‘boke’ (ボケ) or the ‘tsukkomi’ (突っ込み). Boke comes from the verb bokeru, and roughly translates to ‘foolish’ or ‘forgetful,’ and tsukkomi (突っ込み) means to ‘butt in’ or ‘interject.’ The boke is usually painted as the ‘fool’ character, while the tsukkomi takes on the role of the ‘smart’ one, correcting the boke’s mistakes. Much of the dialogue is made up of jokes, mutual misunderstandings, puns and gags, and from a Western perspective, more closely resembles a double-man act like Abbot and Costello.
Manzai originated from a traditional Heian-age festival held around the New Year, in which two performers would take turns conveying messages from the gods, with one of the performers acting in some form of opposition to the other. Thus was born the roles of boke and the tsukkomi. As time progressed into the Edo Period, the tradition continued on, with more focus being put into the humor aspect of the routine, and different regions developing their own styles. By the end of the Taisho Period, the performance had outgrown much of its traditional holiday aspects, and soared in popularity through modern forms of communication, such as TV and radio, as a purely comedic act.
(JP) Link: The Deep History of Manzai: From Takeshi's "The Real History of Japanese Entertainment"
Rakugo (落語) is another traditional form of comedy, however rather than being a conversation between multiple performers or a barrage of joke, it is told in an anecdotal format by a single person. The word rakugo literally translates to ‘fallen words,’ and while it does indeed include dialogue and scenes between multiple characters, the entire interaction is told by the single storyteller who remains seated and reenacts each scene entirely by him or herself, using only upper body movements, facial expressions, exaggerated voices and gestures, and a single paper fan as a prop to portray each character.
The art of rakugo was born as a form of entertainment of the lesser-ranked people, or townsmen, who were said to be industrial and hard-working. As such, rakugo is appreciated as anecdotal storytelling that shares life lessons with the wisdom and humor of people who struggled and worked hard every day.
(JP) Link: Rakugo: The Wisdom and Humor of Everyday People
This may initially seem to contradict what was previously mentioned about Japanese comedy relying less on dialogue and more on performance, but in actuality, this is exactly what lead modern comedy away from dialogue in the first place.
Taking Humor Seriously
Even in old forms of comedy like manzai and rakugo mentioned above, the conversations and stories were always accompanied by expressions and gestures, which were often exaggerated and served as an important part of conveying the humor of the situation. In a sense, it can be said that it was through the gestures that the audience felt more compelled to laugh, as that in and of itself served as a cue inviting them to do so. Being a very culture and group-minded society, the Japanese often take a very "look-before-you-act" kind of approach in their actions, and so even in comedy, may be more comfortable allowing themselves to express amusement when shown through the actions of others around them (in this case the performers) that it is okay to do so. So rather than relying on dialogue alone, gesture and expression is one of the most important cues for laughter, as speech and context can very easily be misinterpreted.
For this reason, humor is almost always left out of all other forms of media, and strictly confined to those acts which very clearly contained these cues. This is also different from Western society in which people who can hold good humor even in serious situations are often looked up to and respected.
A good example is the Western trend of combining comedy and politics. It is very common for American comedy routines to include jokes about the current state of affairs, praising their favorite politicians and bashing those on the opposing side, and politicians and government officials who can play along or otherwise show themselves as having a "good sense of humor" are respected. In Japan, this would be near-blasphemy, as combining humor and politics is a very taboo subject, unlike in America where everyone, even the President, is fair game to become the butt of the next big joke. (Of course, whether or not one will actually find a political joke humorous greatly depends on the person and their political standing, however it is quite common for people on either side to make fun of their opposing side’s politicians.)
This being the case, that also goes for any politician or person of high standing, who would be immediately regarded as ‘unserious’ and unfit for a governmental role should they be shown expressing jokes or humor in public. This is much different in America, where it is seen as a plus for politicians to show good humor, which tends to close the gap between "them and us," making the average citizen feel a sort of camaraderie with them.
Less Talking, More Laughing
With this more serious approach to humor, historically the Japanese in general did not consider laughter as an important part of daily life. While traditional forms of comedy flourished as a form of performance art, it was still viewed as inappropriate to take that boisterous enjoyment outside to the public world. Rather than saying that the Japanese lacked a sense of humor, it would probably be more accurate to say that they certainly did, but only when the situation called for it.
Because humor is said to be so deeply embedded into the Western way of life, it has become second nature for us to be able to laugh at what others may consider an unfortunate situation. For this reason, even after the television was introduced in Japan, despite initial attempts to bring comedy into people’s homes, there was still a huge stigma against it.
Many Japanese people believed that the Westerner’s ability to laugh at other people and their misfortunes (as often seen in story-formatted comedy shows such as Full House and the more recently popular Big Bang Theory) was a negative form of entertainment that promoted stereotypes, bullying, and created division between groups of people, whereas historical Japanese comedy sought to unite people through laughter, and only in the appropriate setting of the theater rather than the family home. Another criticism was that it was too one-sided and "fake,"" as there was no audience interaction in these shows, with viewers taking a fly-on-the-wall role and laughing at the uninvolved, unaware participants, unlike traditional Japanese comedy which involved more audience interaction as a live performance.
While there are some who may argue for or against either criticism, that would not prevent the coming of the Owarai Boom during the post-war period, in which the younger generation would become more open to not just laughter but a slightly more individual approach to life.
Eventually, Japanese culture would come to regard comedy and humor as a necessary part of daily life. However, this wouldn’t come without some sort of compromise. The fact remains that a sense of humor is ultimately something cultivated by years and years of culture and history. And so if Japanese society were to start making comedy a regular part of their daytime line-up, it would have to be in a form that the Japanese audience would understand, relate to, and of course, find funny.
Comedy needed a more organic approach than cues such as the American laugh-track strategically embedded into a pre-recorded show. Instead, Japanese comedy would be taped in front of a live studio audience, retain aspects of audience engagement, and employ staff members planted throughout the audience to serve as laughter cues.
(JP) Link: A Different Kind of Laugh: Characteristics of Japanese Comedy
The Owarai Boom: Modern Japanese Comedy
With the introduction of the television and a new outlet for Japanese entertainment and humor came the first "boom" that sparked the growth and development of comedy as a genre. Today, one can say that Japan is experiencing yet another "boom". These shows are evolving and expanding, and with the advance of technology, it is also becoming easier for aspiring comedians to make themselves known.
Nowadays, everywhere you look, you are sure to find a popular celebrity entertainer gracing the screen of just about any TV show on any channel you happen to flip to. Japanese variety shows and comedy are practically one in the same, along with game shows which have also become an outlet for comedy. Because of this, most of these TV shows are classified as Owarai (お笑い), a term which encompasses any Japanese TV show with a comedic element, and literally translates to both "laughter" and "smile."
Japanese owarai shows tend to explore a myriad of topics, and can also include quizzes and games. Naturally, many of the skits and performances retain elements of their roots; manzai is still a very popular and beloved form of entertainment. Game shows are also included in the comedy genre, and are quite different from their Western counterparts. Rather than offer a chance for the average everyday person to compete for fabulous prizes such as cars, vacations, and huge amounts of money, Japanese game shows usually involve the same celebrity guests competing against each other for no reason other than to provide entertainment.
The layout of these typical Owarai TV shows also differ from the West. While Western shows tend to separate the aforementioned genres into different programs, in Japan, these elements are often combined. The shows are divided into "corners," or certain segments dedicated to certain games and subjects. These can be trivia quizzes, physical challenges, skits, and of course, food tasting with reactions (a popular aspect of almost any Japanese TV show). Bold, subtitle-like lines of text flash across the screen, highlighting the commentary and punch lines as the shenanigans unfold.
According to some Western criticisms, this closely-followed pattern resulted in most Japanese television programs looking "all the same." However it is this very pattern that makes it more enjoyable, as this easily recognizable comedic format acts as a subconscious trigger that this is a comedy show, and therefore "acceptable to laugh at." In other words, one could say that the very format of Japanese comedy TV has in a sense accustomed people to know what kind of show to regard as funny.
(JP) Link: You Can Argue That Japanese Comedy is the Best in the World
The Last Laugh
In the end, while both sides may be eager to criticize the other for their "poor" sense of humor, it remains to be said that what can be considered funny, as well as what can't, is all dependent on the individual that is watching. Ultimately, culture is what decides what a certain group of people finds funny or not, shaping not just their opinions and beliefs on certain subjects, but also the way in which they react to certain things. There remain too many variables to scientifically determine what can be classified as funny, and whether one country's comedy routine is better than another's. In the end, one can argue that just like beauty, humor is in the ear of the beholder.
Humphrey, David. "On Mediating Laughter: Japan, Television, and the Discourse of Cheer." Journal of Japanese Studies, vol. 44, no. 2, 2018, pp. 361–384.
Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher and translator for several Japanese companies, Krys now works full time as a freelance artist, writer and translator with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture.
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