If the furor over comments that J-pop superidol Kumi Koda made on the radio a few weeks ago teaches us anything, it’s to “be careful what you joke about.” There are two problems with using humor in public: Either the joke falls flat and nobody laughs, or the topic is beyond the pale and people are offended rather than amused.

The latter problem applies in Koda’s case, but the joke was so bizarre that it deserves more scrutiny than it has received. During a conversation on Nippon Hoso’s late-night talk show “All Night Nippon,” Koda mentioned that her manager, a woman, recently got married. When asked when the manager planned to have a child, Koda said she hoped she would have one as soon as possible. “After a mother turns 35, her amniotic fluid becomes spoiled,” the singer said between husky giggles. “True, true! It gets dirty. That’s why I want her to have a baby before she turns 35.”

The comment didn’t elicit shocked silence or the sound of sucked-in air from her interlocutors. “All Night Nippon” is famous for such flippant comments, and by the standards of established comedians such as Beat Takeshi and Sanma Akashiya, who have spent a lot of time on late-night radio, Koda’s joke was fairly tame. However, the comment was reproduced on a number of Internet sites, and from there the chat got so poisonous that some people complained directly to Koda’s record company, Avex Trax, as well as to companies that use her to sell their wares. The upshot is that Kose Cosmetics and Kirin Beer have canceled ad campaigns featuring Koda, and Avex has suspended PR activities for her new album, “Kingdom,” which was released Jan. 31. Despite — or even because of — the negative publicity, the album remains at the top of the charts.

Since then, media pundits have generally danced around the subject as well as the tone of Koda’s comment. Wide-show hosts Monta Mino and Tomoaki Ogura both said that the producers of “All Night Nippon” should have edited the comment out of the program, since it was prerecorded. Showbiz commentator Matsuko Deluxe said as much on TBS, but she also pointed out that no one seemed bothered by the joke until the Internet picked it up and the tabloid press then made a big deal out of it. Hirotaka Futatsuki, an ex-editor of one such tabloid, Nikkan Gendai, also commented on TBS that Koda obviously wanted to say that women should have babies at a young age, but the way she put it was “unimaginable.”

Koda’s remark sounds like the kind of spontaneous stab at humor that pops out during conversations with friends — unguarded, off color, nonsensical. Her use of the word yosui (amniotic fluid) is especially weird, since it’s not a term that springs readily to mind, much less the lips. If Koda were a professional comedian, rather than a professional singer who tries to be funny and down-to-earth in personal appearances and interviews, her joke might have been received as high-concept improvisation. Male comedians make insulting jokes about older women’s bodies all the time, and nobody complains.

The offended parties took the remark at face value, and said that Koda was being disrespectful to older women who wanted to have babies. The media, in turn, took this reaction at face value. Some news shows even interviewed gynecologists, who clarified that amniotic fluid does not become spoiled after a certain age because amniotic fluid is not something a woman carries around. It’s only present when a woman is pregnant. When Futatsuki said Koda’s comment was “unimaginable,” he didn’t mean it in the sense of “horrendous,” but in the literal sense: How could anyone ever come up with such an idea?

The weekly magazine Aera wondered the same thing. Is Koda’s gynecological musing indicative of the biological knowledge of women her age? For sure, physicians say that having a baby tends to become more dangerous, both to mother and baby, the older the mother gets, so did this information somehow get twisted into an urban myth about rotten amniotic fluid? It would seem unlikely. Some experts said that most young women nowadays don’t even what yosui is.

Last weekend, Koda appeared in an exclusive interview with Fuji TV to formally apologize. Some of the media were angry that Fuji, the parent company of Nippon Hoso, got Koda all to itself. The singer’s management most certainly cut a deal since a press conference would have exposed her to all sorts of embarrassing questions. Koda appeared in a dull sensible suit minus her famously elaborate makeup and nail art, but chat sites picked up on how much skin she revealed by leaving the top buttons of her white shirt unfastened. TBS, perhaps miffed at having been denied an interview on its own, did a quick survey and found that 81 percent of the respondents thought that Koda’s statement was “an excuse, not an apology.”

The copious tears indicated she regretted something, and if she didn’t actually utter the words “I’m sorry,” she did acknowledge that her way of speaking in public “is not good” and that she “knows nothing about amniotic fluid.”

The media said the negative reaction came mostly from older people, and when reporters went out on the streets to solicit opinions they only talked to older women, who don’t seem to like Koda in the first place — not so much because of her music but because of her image. Unlike her main J-pop rival and Avex labelmate Ayumi Hamasaki, Koda is not unapproachable or mysterious. She’s crude and candid, and as she herself admitted not very careful about her use of words.

One person’s friendly candor is another’s sign of casual disrespect. Some Internet commentators were also offended by Koda’s reference to her older handler as “manejimento no ko (a girl in my management company).” They thought it sounded condescending, but Koda’s fans probably think it’s a compliment.

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.