These are hard times for entertainers in Japan. In the face of the March 11 Tohoku-Kanto Earthquake and tsunami, which has killed more than 9,000 and left many more missing, and with radiation still leaking from the damaged Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, hard news coverage has taken center stage, pushing many variety and entertainment shows off TV screens.
Many of the nation’s comedians are also holding their tongue, with the national mood dictating that it’s not the right time to go for laughs.
Dave Spector, a veteran TV personality and commentator who knows the media industry inside out, understands how difficult times are. But unlike many others who are keeping their humor at bay, he has found an outlet — where he can be funny, constructive and cynical, all at the same time.
Since the quake, Spector, a Chicago native married to a Japanese woman and who is known for the many dajare (puns) he shares during his analysis of current events on TV, has been firing off jokes and puns in Japanese on Twitter. Many of them are plays on two words that sound the same but convey completely different meanings when they are written in different kanji characters.
Take, for example, a tweet he posted on Tuesday: “Sukkari kirechatta mono: Kan-denchi” (“What has run out completely? Kan-denchi”).
Kan-denchi is normally written with three kanji characters — kan (dry), den (electricity) and chi (pool) — and means “battery.” Immediately after the quake, many shoppers hoarded packs of batteries fearing power blackouts would force them to rely on flashlights.
This caused a shortage of batteries all across Japan, especially in the Kanto area.
But by replacing the kanji for “kan” to the one for the prime minister’s surname, Kan, Spector twisted the meaning of the phrase to mean that the prime minister had run out of energy — which was probably not off the mark as the Fukushima crisis is so enormous that it would sap anyone’s vitality.
Another one of Spector’s tweets said: “Ima Amerika-gun ni Nihon ni tonyu shite hoshii kugunki: sento-ki.” (“The aircraft I want the U.S. military to bring to Japan now: a fighter plane”).
Instead of using the proper kanji characters meaning “fighter,” he has written “sento” with a different set of kanji, meaning “public bath.”
And in this way, Spector was reaching out to the tens of thousands of quake survivors at evacuation centers who had not been able to take a bath for days.
Obviously, these tweets are hard to come up with. Speaking with The Japan Times on Wednesday at his office in Tokyo, Spector, in his usual pinstripe suit and blond combed-back hair, said crafting these jokes is a big challenge, because if he makes even the slightest mistake, or gets their nuance wrong, he could offend the survivors and/or expose himself to a barrage of complaints from the Internet community.
“Sometimes I let it (an idea for a joke) stand for a while, kind of consider it and look at it after a couple of hours,” he said, adding that he had started tweeting puns before the quake, but that he is more careful now.
“(After the quake), it’s difficult to come up with something that is humorous and also cheering and somewhat critical, (which contains) constructive criticism against (the nuclear power operator) Tokyo Electric Power Co. or the government. So it’s hard to combine all of these elements into a short tweet. Obviously each one takes much, much more time.”
His efforts seem to have paid off. Since he started posting quake-related tweets on March 12, his follower count has spiked, with the number of those who subscribe to his 140-character murmurs surging from around 50,000 to more than 138,000 as of Thursday morning.
Many have retweeted (or forwarded) the jokes, saying Spector’s attempt at humor amid the national crisis has brought them a sense of relief.
“Dave Spector’s tweets are fun. It eases my feelings especially now, when many tweets are so serious,” one “follower” tweeted. “I wish he was this sharp on TV,” tweeted another.
The outpouring of positive feedback has been a nice surprise for Spector, who had never expected that he would get any response for his jokes tweets at all.
“It’s a very sad time, but I was amazed that all these people started to follow,” he said. “So obviously it hit the right spot.”
On the other hand, Spector ruffled a few feathers in the foreign community here at the height of radiation fears last week, when he explained to a Japanese newspaper his decision not to leave Tokyo.
In a March 18 interview with Tosupo, a Japanese-language sports tabloid, Spector was quoted as saying, “I wouldn’t leave, because I would be a coward if I did now. It’s like a captain who abandons his ship.”
He told The Japan Times he wasn’t calling foreigners who did leave Tokyo cowards or chickens. ” No, no, no, (I was saying) I would be, because of my particular situation,” he said, noting that many expats were ordered by their companies to leave, and that also many Japanese left temporarily.
“What I’m saying is people who have been in Japan for a long time and have established their roots here, and if your friends are all here and you earn your living here from graces of Japan, (it’s hard) to leave when everybody else is staying,” he said. “If it was like a ‘Godzilla’ movie, if everybody was rushing in four directions, I’m sure you wouldn’t be able to find me.”
In any case, humor is a tricky business in times like this. But Spector said the same is also true in the United States, where the pressures are even greater for comedians to be controversial, and where, unlike Japanese counterparts who typically perform in pairs or trios to play off each other, comedians must face the audience head on, and solo.
“After 9/11, the biggest controversy was when those (kind of) monologues can return and (comedians can) do jokes about the president or whatever,” he said. “Can you even joke about what happened? David Letterman of course was in New York, and his ‘Late Show’ (television program) was off for a while, but when the show came back there was this question of, ‘Is it OK to laugh now?’ “
Hopefully things will settle down, Japan’s economy will get back on track, and people’s lives will regain a sense of normalcy soon.
And then the nation’s comedians will come back on stage and resume what they are supposed to do; making people laugh.
Meanwhile, Spector’s success with Twitter might also mean people in Japan are craving for a more satirical kind of humor, which is more tied to news topics and perhaps more critical.
“Twitter is such an instant medium,” he said. “I was very anxious, because I didn’t know what the feedback would be . . . And when I saw the reaction of people, especially some of the political blurbs against the government, with a little bit of criticism, people really jumped on it. They liked it.
“So that shows people wanted to hear a little more critical voice.”
You can follow Dave Spector on Twitter @dave_spector.