One of the first things a student of Japanese learns about the language is its different set of sounds. Japanese has five pure vowel sounds — あ (ah), い (ee), う (oo), え (eh) and お (oh) — which combine with roughly nine consonants. It’s a more limited set of sounds than in English, and with more limited combinations, students of Japanese realize, to their immense frustration, that many words in Japanese have nearly identical 発音 (hatsuon, pronunciation).

Personally, I discovered this in an early lesson about directions, when I learned that an incorrect pronunciation of 橋 (hashi, bridge) would refer to 箸 (hashi, chopsticks). Even worse, hashi is also a reading for 端 (end). The pronunciations do slightly differ: 箸 is pronounced from high to low, with more emphasis on the ha, while 橋 and 端 are pronounced low to high, with more emphasis on the shi. But that doesn’t make it any easier for a student to differentiate. And these nightmarish 同音異義語 (dōon’igigo, homophones) are rampant in Japanese: nami is both 波 (wave) and 並 (average); take is 竹 (bamboo), 丈 (height) and 岳 (mountain peak); hata is 側 (near), 畑 (field), 旗 (flag) and a bunch of other words, too.

This inherent trait of Japanese leads to the frequent appearance of puns and double meanings. This wordplay (or sometimes, coincidental overlapping) is found throughout Japanese culture, from ancient poetry to New Year’s dishes to 親父ギャグ (oyaji gyagu, dad jokes).

Why is Japanese like this? One contributing factor for this linguistic chaos comes from the writing system. Japanese uses 漢字 (kanji, Chinese characters) in addition to the native kana writing systems. Each 漢字 has multiple readings: a native 訓読み (kun’yomi, kun reading), which is a local Japanese reading that corresponds to a Chinese character, and an 音読み (on’yomi, on reading), which is derived from the Chinese pronunciation of the 漢字. For example, the kanji 行 in the common verb 行く (iku, to go) is also read as its 音読み “” in words like 行動 (kōdō, behavior) and 移行 (ikō, migration).

So not only do you have pronunciations of words like はし that can refer to multiple words, but you also have single kanji that have multiple readings and pronunciations. That’s what makes Japanese a truly ideal environment for 洒落 (share, wordplay or wit).

The first 洒落 were used in ancient Japanese poetry. Sometimes they were simple puns, but more often they were complicated and used to careful poetic effect. For example, take the ninth poem in Fujiwara no Teika’s classical anthology, “百人一首” (“Hyakunin Isshu,” “Single Poems by 100 Poets”), as analyzed by Zak Layfield. The poem, by Ono no Komachi, one of the most important poets of the early Heian Period (794-1185), describes the fading beauty of the speaker while she gazes at the rain:

Behold my flower: / Its beauty wasted away / On idle concerns / That have kept me gazing out / As time coursed by with the rains.

The poem uses two 洒落: the verb furu, which can be read as both 降る (to fall [i.e. rain]) and 経る (to age), and nagame, which can be read as 眺め (reverie) and a shortening of 長雨 (long rains). The genius of this poem is predicated on a few carefully placed puns.

The wordplay doesn’t translate easily into English, but translator Steven Carter does his best to capture the puns with metaphors instead. It’s not really fair to call these literary devices puns — puns tend to imply low-grade humor in English. That’s why these literary devices are referred to as 洒落, and were one of the main poetic devices for Heian Period poetry and even early haiku. Nobles would show off their poetry skills with some good 洒落.

But when clever wordplay spread to ordinary people, nobles started calling them 駄洒落 (dajare, puns or low-grade puns). Most puns that appear in ordinary Japanese life can be fairly called (or written as) ダジャレ. And while appreciating 詩 (shi, poetry) is a worthy cause, you’re far more likely to encounter 親父ギャグ than the elaborate metaphorical wordplay of ancient poetry.

In fact, some of these are just embarrassingly bad. The kind of groaners that only your dad could come up with, like パン作ったことある? Which can sound like the intended meaning — pan tsukutta koto aru? (have you ever made bread?) — or, which also sounds like pantsu kutta koto aru? (have you eaten underpants before?).

Or this other bread pun that’s somehow even worse: パンダの好きな食べ物は何ですか?パンだ! (Panda no sukina tabemono wa nan desu ka? Pan da! What’s a panda’s favorite food? Bread!). The most impressive thing is how frequently these puns can emerge in daily life. I’ve been subjected to 蛙が帰る (kaeru ga kaeru, the frog is coming home), 梨は無し (nashi wa nashi, there’s no pear) and hundreds more.

Modern punning can still be an art, though, as proven by Dave Spector, an American-born TV personality who has mastered this kind of wordplay. Just a run through his tweets reveals no small number of original creations. He recently tweeted a few New Year’s puns: インドの初詣名所→元日川 (indo no hatsumōde meisho → ganjitsu-gawa, a popular place for Indians to ring in the new year is at the New Year’s [Ganges] River), a pun on how the word for Ganges River sounds like the word for New Year’s Day. Or, 政治家の抱負→強い「しんねん」を持ちたい (seijika no hōhu → tsuyoi “shinnen” o mochitai, a politician’s resolution is to have strong beliefs/New Year’s), a pun on the words for 信念 (shinnen, conviction/ belief) and 新年 (shinnen, new year) — and a joke about politicians’ lack of strong beliefs.

Puns in Japanese go well beyond poetry and comedy. A lot of the culinary elements in 御節 (o-sechi, a traditional New Year’s bento box) are chosen because of auspicious-sounding names: the まめ (mame) in 黒豆 (kuromame, black soy beans) are a part of the phrase まめに暮らせるように (mame ni kuraseru yō ni, to live well); 鯛 (tai, red snapper) is a part of おめでたい (omedetai, happy); and 田作り(tazukuri, dried sardines) has a name that means “rice paddy maker,” symbolizing an abundant harvest.

A similar rule of puns applies to 結納品 (yuinōhin, engagement gifts). Puns are even the reason that many donate ¥5 coins when praying at a shrine or temple: go-en is both 五円 (five yen) and 御縁 (fate).

Double meanings surpass bad jokes in Japanese: they’re deeply woven into Japanese culture and daily life. Students of Japanese should be(a)ware of intonation — and embrace the wordplay once they begin to recognize the double meanings. But if you’re thinking of starting to tell some 親父ギャグ … おや?自学しないでくれ! (Oya? Jigaku shinai de kure!, Huh? Please don’t self-study [dad jokes]!)

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.