“Aka M.M.,” laughed Masumi Muramatsu. In no time at all he introduces a lighthearted note into conversation.
Muramatsu is active in the Japan Society for Laughter and Humor Studies. Last year in Osaka, he addressed the annual conference of the International Society of Humor Studies. This year he will make a presentation at the society’s humor convention in Maryland. “Last year I talked about ‘Is Japanese humor an oxymoron?’ This year I want to talk about how, between different cultures, we can find ‘interfaces’ of humor, comparing jokes and sharing laughter and merriment,” Muramatsu said.
Gleeful, described as Puckish, Muramatsu is well known in international circles and at many levels for his mastery of simultaneous interpretation. In 1965 he helped create Simul International, which organized professional conferences and offered a full range of interpreting and translating services. He served as president, then chairman, and when the company was sold stayed on as senior advisor for two years. He was director of Simul Press, a book publisher. He was also president of Simul Academy, which provided courses in interpreter training and in English.
His command of English is phenomenal, yet he had almost none until he was 19. That was when he became a clerk-typist for the Occupation forces. “I never had the luxury of being a full-time student, so I want in the evenings for five years to Waseda University,” he said. “I was the first son of five brothers. Whatever my father tried to do after the war, he was never successful, and I carried the burden of supporting all of us. I saw to it that the last one finished university.” He applied himself to English. As he typed he looked up every word in the dictionary and made sure of it. Within a year, he became a consecutive interpreter. In half a dozen years, he was the second-highest-paid Japanese interpreter.
“Then my chance came,” he said. “The U.S. State Department had an ambitious, massive, one-sided program of inviting Japanese executives to visit the U.S. and study the secret of American productivity. They were recruiting people to act as simultaneous interpreters. That was a skill little known in those days. I had no idea of it, or of productivity. I even wordered if it were something indecent.”
Muramatsu finally decided that interpreting was rewarding for people with intellectual curiosity, and a psychologically and emotionally satisfying profession. He interpreted for many demanding, high-level government meetings, including nine Group of Eight summits. For the Tokyo summit, he selected and organized the entire five-language interpreters’ team. He interpreted for American presidents, remembering particularly John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan for their charisma, charm — and humor. He interpreted for the Prince of Wales when he was speaking in the Diet.
Muramatsu said: “For over 50 years I have interpreted thousands of jokes and anecdotes by American and other overseas public speakers. That’s how I learned to appreciate humor. It was been said that the interpreter would tell the audience that the speaker had just told an untranslatable joke, therefore please laugh. I did it about three times in the early part of my career, but not anymore. I do my best to ensure the Japanese audience enjoys these stories when they are meant to be amusing. I am constantly honing my humor skill (or polishing my funny bone, wherever it may be) so that I am ready to help people break the ice.”
An erudite, energetic, bubbling person, Muramatsu is active in many societies, and has authored several books. His first was invitingly entitled, “I Couldn’t Speak English Either.” Accenting laughter, he has a Japanese-English bilingual book on humor coming out later this year. “It’s going to be the first serious (tongue-in-cheek) bilingual compendium of Japanese humor for international consumption,” he said.
He has many stories to tell of the interpreter and jokes, cliff-edge situations and cultural attitudes. He sees fun everywhere, and pokes fun too. “It was said that for a samurai it was enough to smile once in three years, and even then with only one cheek,” he said. The Washington Post’s Tokyo bureau chief went to the Osaka conference last year and wrote about it. “So I concluded that when the Japanese tell jokes or laugh at other people’s, it makes an international headline,” Muramatsu said. “But I want to emphasize that humor can lubricate conversation, and even enliven debates and negotiations. Humor can disarm the hearts and minds of people in the world.”