Japan is a country of traditions. You take off your shoes when you go indoors. You rinse your body before entering the bath. And you sit around the house with family on Ōmisoka (大晦日, New Year’s Eve) and do nothing but watch television and eat food before going to the jinja (神社, shrine) at midnight.

These aspects of New Year in Japan are probably familiar. Many are aware that Japanese eat osechi ryōri (おせち料理, traditional New Year’s foods such as sea bream, shrimp, black soy beans and others), toshi-koshi soba (年越しそば, year-end buckwheat noodles) and mochi (餅, sticky-rice cake), and that they then perform hatsumōde (初詣, the first shrine visit of the New Year).

Many may even know of the “Kohaku Uta Gassen” (“紅白歌合戦,” literally, “Red and White Song Battle”), a televised New Year’s Eve singing contest broadcast by NHK. Pop stars are split up into the akagumi (赤組, red team) and shirogumi (白組, white team) much like elementary school students during undōkai (運動会, sports day competitions). They then perform, and judges and audience members vote to determine a winning team.

But non-Japanese may be surprised to find that one of the best and most underrated parts of New Year’s television is the second ranked show behind “Kohaku”: the annual batsu game (罰ゲーム, punishment game) hosted by the comedy conglomerate Gaki no Tsukai Yarahende! (ガキの使いやあらへんで!, This is no job for kids!)

This five-member group is made up of two manzai konbi (漫才コンビ, Japanese comedy duos) — Downtown and Kokoriko (ココリコ) — each made up of a boke (ボケ, silly man) and a tsukkomi (ツッコミ, straight man), and the lone boke Hōsei Tsukitei.

Hitoshi Matsumoto and Masatoshi Hamada of Downtown are Japanese comedy legends that have been playing batsu games for almost as long as they’ve been on television. Usually they have a taiketsu (対決, showdown) competition to determine who would suffer the batsu. These taiketsu could be as simple as bowling and hashiri takatobi (走り高跳び, running high-jumps) or as complicated as 500-on-500 games of dodgeball.

The loser would then go on to perform the batsu (i.e., punishment) determined by the other. However, “punishment” is a loose term for what they are asked to complete. Generally these are embarrassing or trying tasks such as skydiving, being forced to go to France in search of the source of Evian’s water, performing on early morning television with their family dressed up as renjā (レンジャー, Japanese “ranger” superheroes), and playing onigokko (鬼ごっこ, a game of tag) for 24 hours.

In 2003, they began a new batsu game series that was so popular it has run in subsequent years on New Year’s Eve: “Zettai ni Waratte wa Ikenai Batsu Game” (“絶対に笑ってはいけない罰ゲーム”). The title of the game uses the Japanese construction ~te wa ikenai (~てはいけない) to show what the loser must not do: in this case, “You absolutely must not laugh.”

The comedians are put in different settings for 24 hours, and if they laugh, they receive a variety of different batsu. The general punishment is ketsu shibaki (ケツしばき, being caned on the rear), but other punishments include binta (ビンタ, a slap on the face), taikikku (タイキック, being kicked by a Thai kickboxer), and being kissed by ugly men or women. The settings have included a hospital, high school, police station, newspaper offices, airport, and others. The producers recruit celebrities and comedians to play roles and surprise the group throughout the day. As the show nears its end, the final result is a veritable who’s who of Japanese comedy and pop culture.

This year the group will become shūjin (囚人, prisoners), and the title of the show suggests there will be a datsugoku (脱獄, prison break).

Philip Brasor, a contributor to The Japan Times, has previously written about the decline of this batsu game (“Endure New Year’s on TV with the rest of Japan,” Dec. 28, 2012), and at times the show is definitely something to be “endured” alongside its participants, who look exhausted after 24 hours of being toyed with. This year the show will run a massive six hours (as it has since 2008) from 6:30 p.m.

At times the show has threatened to end the series — it was slated to finish with the 2007 edition — but its popularity has sustained it. Gaki no Tsukai’s humor combines the best of Japanese dotabata kigeki (ドタバタ喜劇, slapstick comedy) with a dash of absurd Monty Python non sequitur. Year to year the quality varies, but it has produced a huge number of classic comedy moments that have revived the careers of veterans and thrust new acts into the spotlight.

In 2006, veteran rakugo (comic story) performer Shohei Shofukutei benefited when his first name was repeated in various funny contortions (e.g. Shōhei-heyyyyy!) while the comedians were sleeping. The 2007 edition launched Atsumu Watanabe’s ippatsu gyagu (一発ギャグ, one-off gag joke) of counting like an aho (アホ, idiot).

Tune in on New Year’s Eve to see who makes it onto the show this year. The one thing that’s certain is that the comedians will continue to be punished for their laughter, and that fans will continue to keep track of the number of times they’ve been hit on the butt. The current count on Japanese Wikipedia shows that all participants have been hit over 1400 times each and Matsumoto is in the lead with a staggering 1978 times. Whether or not you enjoy the comedy, it’s hard to argue that Gaki no Tsukai doesn’t suffer for their art.

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