Language | BILINGUAL

Stalking the elusive subtleties of Japan's political humor

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

A few weeks back, a friend in academia wrote to ask me a question about Japanese politics. It seems that back in 1992, a group of conservative politicians formerly known as the 日本青年社 (Nihon Seinen-sha, Japan Youth Association) banded together with other like-minded organizations to form the 戦う国民連合: 風の会 (Tatakau Kokumin Rengō: Kaze no Kai, which translates as Federation of Battling Citizens: Wind Society).

In his long-running Black Angle cartoon in Shukan Asahi magazine, satirical illustrator Shoji Yamafuji had scoffed at the group, labeling them the Shirami no Kai or “Louse Society.” The parliamentarians were not the least bit amused, and Yamafuji’s cartoon set off some inflammatory exchanges.

But what, my friend wanted to know, is the connection between the wind and lice? Look carefully. The kanji for wind is 風 (kaze); the kanji for common louse is 虱 (shirami). As you can see, the only difference is that the latter character is missing the downward curving stroke on the left. An astute reader would immediately grasp the change from the kaze in Kaze no Kai to shirami, in what could be described as a graphic pun. The fact that the stroke on the left had been removed to form the contemptuous term shirami — whose nuisance is not that different from the word “lousy” in English — also hinted at the group’s right-wing sympathies.

Kanji are quite conducive to various kinds of political word play. For instance, opponents of the present majority party in the government, 自民党 (Jimin-tō, the Liberal Democratic Party; 自民党 is short for 自由民主党, Jiyūminshu-tō, literally, the Freedom Democratic Party), have been known to substitute the 自 (ji) in freedom with 痔 (ji, hemorrhoids), giving the name 痔民党 — also Jimin-tō, but meaning the Party of People who Suffer from Piles. Or, less politely, people whose political leanings make them a pain in the butt.

In March 2015, writing on the subject of Japan’s vulnerability to terrorist acts, a member of the Tokyo Shimbun’s editorial board took a poke at Prime Minister Shinzo Abe using the headline 不安倍増、略して安倍だと (Fuan baizō, ryaku shite Abe da to, “Abbreviate ‘twice as much anxiety’ and you get ‘Abe’ “).

What was he referring to? Fuan baizō consists of two words: 不安 (fuan, meaning “anxious” or “nervous”) and 倍増 (baizō, to double in number). Remove the first and last character and we are left with Abe’s surname, 安倍. The headline was widely criticized as a low blow, with one news site writing 名前をからかうのは 子供のいじめと同じではないか (Namae o karakau no wa kodomo no ijime to onaji de wa nai ka, “To make cracks about his name was the same as kids’ teasing”).

On the other hand, it’s rare to see cases where a foreign leader is lampooned, but I can recall at least one, back in 1985. It was in a TV commercial for 金鳥 (Kinchō, aka Kinchol), a brand name marketed by Dainihon Jochugiku Co., Ltd., for its disposable chemical pocket warmers called Donto, which is Japanese onomatopoeia for “powerfully” or “vigorously.”

The ad was part of a series featuring then-All-Japan Women’s Pro Wrestling champion “Dump” Matsumoto.

Imagine a classic scene of snow- covered ground under an overcast sky — unmistakably arranged to depict the Soviet Union — where bundled-up people are shuffling in a long queue outside a toy shop named Detski Mir (Russian for “Children’s World”), and this dialogue ensues:

Unhappy shopper No. 1: おててもあんよもシビレンコ (Otete mo anyo mo shibirenko, “My widdle hands and tootsies are numb-ko”). (The last word is made up by combining the root part of 痺れる (shibireru, to feel numb), plus “renko”).

Unhappy shopper No. 2: おててもあんよもコゴエロフ (Otete mo anyo mo kogoerofu, “My widdle hands and tootsies are freezing-ov”) (This is made up by combining the root of 凍える (kogoeru, to freeze), plus “rofu”).

(A note of explanation here: While shivering and stomping to warm their feet, the actors spoke using kiddy language — possibly with an intentional connection to the name of the store. It was funny enough, but even sillier when made to parody the sounds of Russian by adding “renko” or “rofu” to the ends of sentences using Japanese kiddy talk.)

Then Matsumoto says: どんといれんこ! (Donto-irenko!, Pop in [the warming pad] vigorously!)

Amazed bystander: Donto-irenko!

Entire crowd (several times, in unison): Donto-irenko!

I felt pretty certain the wording was also intended as a subtle play on the name of the then-General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, Konstantin Ustinovich Chernenko (1911-1985).

More recently, an author with right-leaning sympathies, Reiko Chiba, published a book titled さよならパヨク (Sayonara pa-yoku, which could be idiomatically rendered as “Bye, crazy-wingers.”) Some background here: The respective words for the political right and left wings — concepts that originally date back to the French Revolution, by the way — are 右翼 (uyoku) and 左翼 (sayoku). To demonstrate her disdain for the latter, Chiba has replaced the sa in sayoku with pa, short for くるくるぱあ (kurukuru pā, a slang word meaning “nutty” or “cuckoo”).

Also note the さよなら with the う missing; the correct way to write it is さようなら (sayōnara), with five hiragana. Shortening the word in this way is sometimes used to mimic the way foreigners pronounce it (“saya-nurra”), or to give the word a slightly insolent nuance, as we might distinguish between a polite goodbye and a brush-off.

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