Perhaps it was the jisaboke (時差ぼけ, jetlag) or a lasagna-induced food coma, but it took time for my mind to register the scene before my eyes — a cosplaying gladiator speaking Japanese in front of the Coliseum in Rome. The Italian sentry — garbed in a feathered helmet, crimson cape and body armor, and wielding a shield and sword — paraded up to my Japanese friends and energetically offered, “Shashin totte agemasu yo!”(「写真 撮ってあげますよ！」 “I insist on taking a photo for you!”).
Clearly no amateur, the cosplayer directed the shoot, swinging his sword like a maestro’s baton: “Mō sukoshi chikaku ni! Un, un“(「もう少し近くに！うん、うん。」 “A little closer! That’s it”).
Finally, he lifted the dejikame (デジカメ, digital camera), said “bueno” (“good”) and then: “Ōkei Torimāsu yo! Jyā, ichi tasu ichi wa?” (オーケー。撮りまーすよ！じゃあ、１＋１は？」 “OK. I’m ready to take it. So . . . what is one plus one?”).
We answered, “ni!” (「二」”two!”), made the obligatory two-finger peace symbol, and laughed.
“Mōikkai!”(「もう一回！」 “Once more!”).
The gladiator slowly passed the dejikame back with both hands, pretending it were as heavy as a bowling ball: “Ā omoikara kiotsukete ne!” (「ああ、重いから気をつけてね！」 “Ah, it’s heavy, so be careful!”)
His dry humor drew us in, charming us — until he pulled out the oyaji gyagu (親父ギャグ, old-man puns). The gladiator asked us, rhetorically: “Konya piza wo tabemasu ka? Ore, konya kūno wa konnyaku.” (今夜ピザを食べますか？ 俺、今夜食うのはコンニャク」 “Do you plan on having pizza this evening? I’ll eat konnyaku this evening.”)
Not understanding our silence, the sentry slowly reiterated: “konnyaku . . . wo . . . konya . . . kū.”
I forced a laugh, hid my niyaniya (ニヤニヤ, smirk) and politely inched away from the gladiator. Later, walking among the Coliseum’s timeless grey iseki (遺跡, ruins), one of the friends I was with let out her honne (本音, true feelings): “Ne Mashū. Oyaji gyagu iu gaijin ōskunai? Dōshite? Okashii.” (「ねぇ、マシュー。 親父ギャグ言う外人多くない？ どうして？おかしい。」 “Hey, Matthew, lots of foreigners make horrible puns. Why? It’s so strange”).
That got me thinking. Virtually all the popular Japanese-learning Web sites — YesJapan.com, JapanesePod101.com, even Ken Tanaka of YouTube fame — offer lessons on getting laughs with oyaji gyagu. The problem is that even though familiarity with these jokes helps build cultural knowledge of the sort gladiators and other people need to forge meaningful relationships in Japanese, the puns ought to come with a warming label: most Japanese think oyaji gyagu are KY (kuki yomenai, 空気読めない, awkward).
Anonymous consultation Web site Biglobe Nandemo Soudanshitsu, features a number of requests for advice on what to do about oyaji gyagu-uttering foreigners, including one from a woman asking for help with her boyfriend: “Watashi no kare wa eigoken no gaikokujin desu. Nihongo mo hanaseru tame Nihongo de oyaji gyagu wo iimasu. Sore ni tai suru watashi no hannou wa hiyayaka desu.”
(「私の彼は英語圏の外国人です。日本語も話せる為日本語でおやじギャグを言います。それに対する私の反応は冷ややかです。」 “My boyfriend is a foreigner from an English-speaking country. He speaks Japanese and uses oyaji gyagu, but I get frigid”).
Another Soudanshitsu user complained: “Mai kai kiiteiru watashi wa unzari desu. Nihongo wo oboeru toki ni oyaji darake no izakaya de kaiwa shite oboeta sou na node sono sei deshou.” 「毎回聞いている私はうんざりです。日本語を覚える時にオヤジだらけの居酒屋で会話して覚えたそうなのでそのせいでしょう。」 “I feel bored to death every time I hear oyaji gyagu. The problem, I’m told, is that foreigners memorize Japanese over conversations in bars filled with middle-aged men.”)
If you’re reading this in Rome, my gladiator friend, keep up the humor that first charmed us and toss out your contrived old man jokes — there are just too many homonyms in Japanese for such puns to sound witty.
How then, you might ask, can you expand your repertoire of good humor. Well, most Japanese people play with tongue-in-cheek modesty, ironic status switches and sarcastic compliments. This sort of banter can be fun, in part because encountering humorous concepts that are not present in your own bokokugo (母国語, mother tongue) is a wonderful pleasure.
In the meantime, some advice for would-be gladiators of Japanese conversation: There’s no need to force uncomfortable laughs with oyaji gyagu! Don’t always do as the Romans do!