Maybe it’s simply down to human nature, but stereotypes about foreigners seem to be joke-fodder the world over. In the corners of bars, in huddles at parties, in books and movies, countless laughs have been had, for example, at the expense of supposed American boastfulnes, “uptight” British, “humorless” Germans, French amour and those Italian male horses to name but a few.
Surprisingly to some, Japan, too, rates rather more than an odd titter in the league table of global guffaws — as perhaps befits the world’s second-biggest economy, whose Sonys and Toyotas and Nintendos find their way to even the remotest corners of the planet. Whether it’s stereotypes stemming from its breakneck postwar economic recovery, its conformist salaryman culture or its expertise at importing foreign concepts/goods/technology and tweaking them to its own taste, Japan is fertile ground for humorists hunting for new punch lines — or, usually, recycled variations of tried and tested ones.
Hence it might not come as a huge surprise that someone out there avidly collects Japan jokes. That someone is Takashi Hayasaka, a 32-year-old journalist who lived in Romania for two years from 2000, and covered conflicts in Europe and the Middle East, including in Kosovo and Palestine. While on assignment, Hayasaka visited local bars and asked impromptu friends he met there: “Do you know any jokes about Japan?”
To his surprise, Hayasaka said, many people around the world see Japan in a positive light. Sure, most with no links to the Far East may still regard it as a country of mystique, complete with samurai, sushi and geisha. But as Hayasaka recounts in his book “Sekai no nihonjin joku shu (A Collection of Jokes Worldwide on Japanese)” that was published in January, there are now a wide range of jokes on Japan — including ones taking in its high-tech industries and all things “made in Japan.”
Here are a couple of examples:
At a factory in Soviet-era Russia, Ivanov was always 10 minutes late for work. One day, the KGB [secret police] arrested him on charges of “laziness.’‘
His coworker Alexei always got to work 10 minutes early, but the KGB arrested him, too. He was charged with being “a spy for the West.’‘
Sasha was always on time for work. But one day, he was arrested by the KGB. The charge was, “He must have a Japanese watch.’‘
In New York, a Japanese man took a cab. Soon, he saw a Toyota car passing his taxi, and said proudly: “Wasn’t that car fast? It’s made in Japan.’‘
Soon afterward, he saw another car — a Mitsubishi — overtake his cab. “Wasn’t that fast?” he said proudly. “It’s made in Japan.’‘
Then, when a Honda overtook, he again said proudly: “Wasn’t that fast? It’s made in Japan.’‘
Finally, at his destination, the Japanese man was charged an exorbitant fee. He complained to the cab driver, saying, “This is outrageous!’‘
Then the driver pointed to the meter and said: “Wasn’t it fast? It’s made in Japan.’‘
Of course, Japan is no more or less immune from scathing mockery than anywhere else, Hayasaka says, noting that its cultural emphasis on group conformity, long working hours and a solemn, unsmiling demeanor are easy targets for titters.
A case in point:
Question: What should I do to get Japanese to laugh on a Monday?
Answer: Tell a joke on Friday.
OK, so Japanese might be slow to react to humor — but certainly they are not without jokes in their own culture, either present or past. In fact, Hayasaka — who began his joke-collecting while reporting on children living in sewers in Romania — says humor is often the only outlet for people enduring oppressive conditions. Consequently, he is now researching wartime jokes in Japan.
“In Romania under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, people were not allowed to watch TV or go to movies,” said Hayasaka, who lives in Kanagawa Prefecture with his wife and their 2-year-old son. “They were often not allowed to go out. In Romanian families, it was often fathers who would come up with one joke after another, trying to cheer children up. They all laughed, and children truly respected such fathers. . . . Jokes are born and enjoyed especially in the hardest times.
“And sure, people might have an image of all wartime Japanese as just eating porridge and worshipping the Emperor, but there is much more to it than that. People made fun of the authorities and themselves. Every military song was parodied . . . I want to discover the multifaceted sides of Japan.”
That’s perhaps the eternal power of jokes. They may feed stereotypes — but they often reveal a kernel of truth about human nature.
Speaking of which, have you heard the one about the Japanese, the Chinese and the American who . . . ?
Readers are invited to send (printable) jokes in this format (with their name and place of residence) to firstname.lastname@example.org
The best will be published in WEEK 3 next month.