I am still waiting for someone to publish a concise history of humor from the 30 years of the Heisei Era. Thinking back, I can recall two bestselling books that conveyed American-style humor in translation. Both appeared in the 1990s, and they demonstrate how Japanese people, much to their credit, take a strong interest in what makes people in other cultures laugh.
The first was ASCII’s translation of Arthur Bloch’s 1977 book, “Murphy’s Law and Other Reasons Why Things Go Wrong.”
You probably know マーフィーの法則 (Māfii no Hōsoku, Murphy’s law), which postulates that “if anything can go wrong, it will.” Or, in Japanese, 失敗する可能性のあるものは、失敗する (Shippai suru kanōsei no aru mono wa, shippai suru, A thing with the possibility of failure will fail).
Thanks to the extra efforts by ASCII editors to ensure the satirical humor of the originals would shine through, “Murphy’s Law” may have been the most successful humor book ever published in Japan, with more than 2 million copies sold.
Using prepaid return postcards addressed to the 日本マーフィー普及会 (Nihon Māfii Fukyū-kai, the Japan Society for the Dissemination of Murphy), ASCII invited readers to submit their own formulas. Based on these, in 1994 it published 「続・マーフィーの法則：現代日本の知性」 (“Zoku Māfii no Hōsoku: Gendai Nihon no Chisei,” “Murphy’s Law Continued: The Wisdom of Contemporary Japan). It featured some 230 pages of astute contributions, a few of which I introduce below.
Page 78: 眠気は、もっとも聞きたいテーマが始まると発生し、拍手によって消滅する (Nemuke wa, mottomo kikitai tēma ga hajimaru to hassei shi, hakushu ni yotte shōmetsu suru, Drowsiness occurs at the start of the topic you most want to hear, and is dispelled by applause).
Page 106: パスワードにした女の子は、他人のものになる (Pasuwādo ni shita onna no ko wa, tanin no mono ni naru, The girl whose name, etc., you select for your password will be won over by another man).
Page 128: ニュースの悲惨さと、そのすぐあとのCMの内容のバカさ加減は、比例する (Nyūsu no hisansa to, sono sugu ato no CM no naiyō no bakasa kagen wa, hirei suru, The degree of disastrous tragedy in a given TV news story will be inversely proportional to the level of silliness in the commercial that immediately follows).
Page 190: The 洗髪の法則 (senpatsu no hōsoku, law of washing hair) stipulates 初めて手に取るのは、リンスである (Hajime ni te ni toru no wa, rinsu de aru, The first container you pick up will be the rinse).
A year after ASCII’s “Murphy’s Law” book came out, DHC published a translation of James Finn Garner’s book, 「政治的に正しいおとぎ話」 (“Seiji-teki ni tadashii otogi-banashi, “Politically Correct Bedtime Stories”), which went into well over 20 printings. Most of these stories, like 「金髪娘と三匹のクマ」 (“Kinpatsu Musume to Sanbiki no Kuma,” “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”) and 「三匹の子ブタ」 (“Sanbiki no Kobuta,” “The Three Little Pigs”) are well known in Japan.
Garner’s book is described as 差別と偏見のない作品に作り変えたもの (Sabetsu to henken no nai sakuhin ni tsukuri-kaeta mono, A work altered so as to omit discrimination and bias).
In its parody of Hans Christian Andersen’s 「皇帝の新しい服」 (“Kōtei no Atarashii Fuku,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes”), a small boy brings the emperor’s procession to a screeching halt when he exclaims “皇帝は裸だよ！” (“Kōtei wa hadaka da yo!” “Hey, the emperor is naked!”) But rather than ridicule the ruler’s insufferable vanity, the boy is politely informed, “皇帝は洋服を着ないライフスタイルを選択されたのだよ” (“Kōtei wa yōfuku wo kinai raifusutairu o sentaku sareta no da yo,” “You see, the emperor has chosen a lifestyle of not wearing clothes”).
Under the emperor’s enlightened rule, その日以来、ここは衣服着脱選択自由の国になりました (Sono hi irai, koko wa ifuku chakudatsu sentaku jiyū no kuni ni narimashita, From that day forth, this country became one in which wearing of clothing is optional). Now that is a happy ending indeed, or in the language of fairy tales, 皇帝と臣民はいつまでも幸せに暮らしました (Kōtei to shinmin wa itsumade mo shiawase ni kurashimashita, The emperor and his subjects lived happily ever after).