The tragic murders at the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo touched off worldwide debate about what forms of satire in the public sphere are appropriate, and under what conditions.
Charlie Hebdo’s lampooning of any targeted topic granted no quarter, so when it ran cartoon caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, a cadre of Islamist extremists sought, and exacted, bloody revenge.
In Japan, a chorus of commentators lamented there was no Japanese equivalent of Charlie Hebdo because the kind of acidic, political satire the magazine is famous for is generally lacking in Japanese society. But it would be wrong to conclude that because political satire is hard to find in Japan, there is no political humor.
Why does Japan not appear to have the kind of sharp-edged political satire seen in many other countries?
Explanations, often backed by academic analysis, abound, but they usually involve one of several basic assumptions about Japanese society and political culture, starting with the traditional reference to people’s deference to authority, and the desire not to cause anyone to “lose face.”
But a few studies on the history of Japanese political satire have noted that such deference had less to do with any natural inclination to trust in the wisdom of officials, and more to do with edicts and policies that have discouraged the emergence of a Japanese Jon Stewart or Monty Python troupe.
Doshisha University professor Ofer Feldman, writing on political humor in Japan in a chapter of the book “Beyond Public Speech and Symbols: Explorations in the Rhetoric of Politicians and the Media,” published in 2000, notes that during the Edo Period (1603-1867), satire languished as a result of government pressure. Edicts were issued to regulate popular entertainment, especially satire, and “lighthearted” material was denounced as unsuitable for viewing, having little socially redeeming value.
Official suspicion of satire and efforts to discourage it hardened further in the early decades of the 20th century, and especially during World War II, when the Special High Police (Tokko) closely monitored the population for any words that might be construed as satire of officialdom, or worse, criticism of the Emperor.
Only after the war’s end in 1945 was Japan, officially, free of the kinds of government controls on political satire that had existed for centuries. But social taboos on any number of subjects, starting with the Imperial family, remain unofficially in place partly because of fear of being socially ostracized or even physically harmed.
Is this why there is so little political humor in Japan?
No. It’s important to distinguish between the kind of political satire that mocks a specific person, group or political event and more general political humor.
There is widespread agreement that Japan has little, at least in the mainstream, of the kind of satire one sees in the West. But there is, in fact, quite a bit of political humor here.
As Feldman notes, “Japanese seem to prefer laughing at anecdotes and episodes related to politics and politicians rather than making jokes about their governing institutions and individuals.”
Japan seems to lack equivalents for America’s “Comedy Central,” France’s Charlie Hebdo or the British magazine Private Eye, so where is political humor expressed?
Such humor is often conveyed via traditional comic storytelling forms like “rakugo” and “manzai,” as well as through the composition of 17-syllable, three-line “senryu” poems. Or, historically, by satirizing the lyrics of popular songs, especially government-approved “patriotic” ones.
The key to Japanese political humor is often the use of clever wordplay and the substitution of kanji with the same pronunciation. For example, even today, critics of the Gaimusho (Foreign Ministry) may substitute the character “gai,” which means “outside,” with the “gai” that means “harm” to crack a joke about the “Ministry of Harm,” an oldie dating back to at least the war years.
And, of course, there are political manga. Weekly tabloids run cartoons poking fun at the prime minister or senior politicians. The Tokyo Shimbun occasionally features such manga on its front page.
Of course, local issues can also become the subject of satire. In the late 1990s, Kansai manga artists ridiculed the mayor of Kobe and his obsession with building an airport even though the city was still recovering from the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake.
Manga in NGO-produced pamphlets and fliers depicting the mayor as a silly schoolboy, sitting in his office and playing with model airplanes, drew grim chuckles from airport opponents, but the drawings never found their way into mainstream media.
Do musicians and other performers attempt political humor?
The eight-man comedy group The Newspaper, which parodies Japanese politicians and even performs a routine called “One Noble Family” — so named to mitigate the repercussions of poking fun at the Imperial family — is arguably Japan’s closest equivalent to Western-style political comedy.
The group, formed in 1988, travels the country, often appearing at NGO events and on TV, where members do impersonations of well-known politicians.
In one skit that skewers the nuclear power industry, the actor who plays former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who is now anti-nuclear, apologizes to the people of Fukushima and adds that “nuclear power was safe. But, just in case, we didn’t build any nuclear power plants in Tokyo Bay.”
The Newspaper makes its intentions clear. When non-comedians attempt political jokes, the reaction can be anything but funny.
Keisuke Kuwata of the popular band Southern All Stars apologized in mid-January for various attempts at political satire he made during shows in December, including one on NHK’s perennial “Kohaku Uta Gassen” (“Red and White Song Contest”), where he wore what appeared to be a Hitler mustache.
But the vocalist also reportedly left Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was in the audience, stunned during a Dec. 28 performance by changing the lyrics of a song to state that it was ridiculous for a politician to dissolve the Diet, which Abe did to call the Dec. 14 snap Lower House election.
Of course, the Internet and social media have given rise to all sorts of amateur attempts at satire and humor that Japanese officials since the Edo Period have long feared.
Last July, after Hyogo Prefectural Assembly member Ryutaro Nonomura’s public meltdown made international headlines, YouTube mashups of him bawling and screaming at a news conference about alleged financial improprieties quickly appeared.
But it’s also true that political satire is usually confined to the Internet because Japan’s mainstream media remain unwilling to risk controversies that could make advertisers nervous and invite political retaliation, which would lead to public embarrassment not for those being ridiculed, but for those doing the ridiculing.
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