Japanese humor: more universally funny than you think

by Daniel Morales

Special To The Japan Times

Japanese comedy gets a bad rap. Foreigners either knock it for being too silly and too focused on slapstick or too pun-based and difficult to understand.

The Japanese sense of humor is most definitely different from its Anglophone counterparts. Some things, however, are so funny that they transcend national borders and linguistic barriers. Learn the next few phrases, and you’ll soon be laughing it up in Japanese.

It’s funny to catch people who aren’t paying attention. If, for example, a group of friends are having a conversation, and Stan, an affable guy with a paunch and a tendency to daydream, ends up staring off into the distance, the rest of the group can laugh at him when he finally comes back to reality. In English we use NASA-style lingo to try and “contact” people like this who have “spaced out” — “Earth to Stan. This is Earth. Do you copy? Come in Stan!”

This is funny even when we’re talking about Hiroshi, Stan’s Japanese alter ego, a hard-working, karaoke-loving salaryman who often recreates old samurai battles in his imagination. Rather than “contact” Hiroshi, we can attempt to “call” him using the Japanese phone greeting Moshi moshi (もしもし, Hello?). In this case, the second mo is almost always extended to emphasize the humor and the final shi is abbreviated to a “shh” sound: moshi mooooosh (もしもーーし). This equates nicely with a drawn out “Hellooooo?” in English. You can supplement it with Okite imasu ka? (起きていますか, Are you awake?) to add insult to injury.

Daydreaming can sometimes be the least of your troubles — no matter where you are, it’s never fun to own up to an embarrassing situation. For example, the following Halloween mischief I may or may not have been involved in:

Friend A: Is it true that on the evening of Oct. 31 you attempted to dress-up as an ax-murderer but finding you had no fake blood, you dumped a can of tomato sauce over your shirt — only to have a rabid tanuki (狸, Japanese raccoon dog) mistake you for a bowl of pasta on the way to the party?

Friend B: Uh, heh, no comment.

This leads to the second example of universal humor: It’s funny to imply that you would incriminate yourself (or someone else) if you made a comment on a topic. You imply this by using the universal phrase of comment denial, whatever it happens to be in your language. In the United States, we “take the fifth” quite often, which refers to the Fifth Amendment — an American’s right not to incriminate themselves. We also use the simple “no comment” or, for more drama, “I have no comment at this time.”

Japanese instead break out the causative keigo (敬語, polite speech) and say komento wa hikaesasete itadakimasu (コメントは控えさせていただきます, I refrain from comments). This phrasing is amusing not only because you are confirming the embarrassing situation by denying it, but also because it is overly polite and sounds too katai (堅い, rigid). The ideal tone here is a deep voice and perhaps a cough — then a smirk. The other option is the English-based Nō komento (ノーコメント, No comment), which is funny for its foreign origins and its efficiency.

Death! Death is also funny. Not death itself, but exaggerating the effects of “bad” stuff — nonlethal stuff like nattō (納豆, fermented soy beans) and ika no shiokara (イカの塩辛, salted squid innards) — and claiming they will threaten your life. In English, we borrow from the Bible and claim that if you do something bad (i.e., commit a sin), “you will surely DIE!”

In Japanese, they make light of this in the same way: Nattō wo tabetara, inochi ni kakawarimasu! (納豆を食べたら、命に関わります, If you eat nattō, you are putting your life at risk). Surely this is a more interesting and amusing way to express your dislike of stinky beans than just saying, Nattō kirai desu (納豆嫌いです, I hate nattō).

Self-deprecating humor and mock boasting are also surefire ways to get laughs. In English, men who are complimented often say, “That’s what all the ladies say” with a touch of sarcasm to create an air of self-absorbed machismo. The Japanese version of this phrase is more universal and less manly. If you’re complimented (or insulted for that matter), you can use the Japanese passive and say, Yoku iwaremasu (よく言われます, People often say that) in a slightly tokuige (得意げ, boastful/proud) tone to either accept the compliment or shrug off the insult. Danieru, nihongo jōzu desu ne (ダニエル、日本語上手ですね, Daniel, your Japanese is very good). Yoku iwaremasu! Danieru, kyō taishō hidoi yo (ダニエル、今日体臭ひどいよ, Daniel, you reek of B.O. today). Yoku iwaremasu!

So don’t give up on Japanese comedy just yet. Watch some more TV and see what you can glean from the shows. Clearly, there are a number of things we can all laugh at together.