A Jewish peddler boldly visits the house of a rich nobleman. The place is Rome and the time, well, about 2,000 years ago, plus or minus a few decades here or there.

“I wish to be able to peddle in front of your house, sire,” entreats the peddler. “Please grant me permission to sell my goods here.”

“And what, pray tell, would someone as destitute as you have to sell?” asks the nobleman, condescendingly.

“Why, cashmere and togas, sire.”

To make what is a long and most obscure Jewish joke short, permission is granted and the peddler stands before the nobleman’s house shouting, “Cashmere ‘n’ togas” over and over again.

End of joke. Don’t worry if you don’t get it. Hardly anyone would. You would have to know that the similar sounding Yiddish “kiss mir in tochis” means, in plain English, “kiss my ass.”

Never mind that ancient Rome predates Yiddish by more than a millennium and a half. Nothing ruins jokes like logic. This quaint story illustrates one prime point in the grand facet of humor: that humor is often a tool used by the weak against the strong; that a sense of what is amusing, comical or freakish may make life that much more tolerable.

The Japanese are not the Jews, however, and very few people around the world would characterize them as lighthearted or jocular. Even those foreigners who have had the privilege of meeting Japanese people who freely express the hilarious, the absurd and the uproarious are not apt to call this a nation in the avantgarde of humor. Unfortunately for the Japanese, their image overseas is one of dour commitment and diligence, of stiffness and a refined formality.

And yet, having lived in both western and eastern Japan for the better part of 33 years, I can vouch for the fact that the Japanese like to laugh as much as the next nationality, even though, admittedly, very few people find bureaucrats and politicians funny, there is no in-house comedian at the Ministry of Finance — not one who is deliberately so, that is — and the congeniality of most business meetings may not be appreciably different from that found in the corridors of the North Korean Ministry of Defense.

No one can deny the rich history of native Japanese comedy. The traditional dramatic and narrative arts were riddled with every luscious form of wit, irony, sarcasm and nonsense. The humorous publications of every shape, form and level that abounded in Edo were read and enjoyed by every class of people save, perhaps, the upper ones.

What the men of the Meiji era — 1868-1912 — gave the people in their drive to modernize was, in a word, propriety. Propriety became the key social virtue of a nation, and, tacked onto a seriousness of communal purpose and a fanatic sticktoitiveness, turned heads away from the extraneous, the frivolous and the zany. No longer was it proper or condoned to joke about matters of serious purport. A time and a place was set aside for jocularity — private time in the home or at the watering hole — and taking the mickey out of an authority figure or a prestigious institution was considered inappropriate or gross.

Sadly, this Meiji anti-humor ethic has persisted, due largely to the fact that contemporary leaders of the country, while more benign than their prewar predecessors, share the latter’s sullen and tight-lipped inclination toward a grim and uncompromising mulishness of spirit.

If the Japanese do not generally start a conversation with “Have you heard the one about . . .?” how do they express their wit and humor?

The answer is in many ways. There is the variety of light, tongue-in-cheek, whimsical humor that appears in the early films of Yasujiro Ozu, films that are so wistful that they may even be classified as comedies-of-manners. There is the wonderful, self-deprecating and effortless drollery of Masuji Ibuse, one of the great novelists and short-story writers of this century. He mixed woe and wit, satirizing everything from the medical profession to the yakuza.

The wild and incongruous images of the late 19th-century poet Shiki Masaoka, who could depict himself at times as a sad sack and schlemiel, are truly sharp. Wretched and ill in his hospital bed, he describes himself observing a heated slab of “konnyaku,” a food with the consistency of chewy gelatin, slip off his chest and onto his belly button (konnyaku was used in the Meiji era as a kind of hot-water bottle). Consider the interwar and postwar writer Ango Sakaguchi, whose black sense of comedy rivaled that of a Celine, an Orwell or a Gogol.

Variety shows on television in the main feature comedy that is slapstick or that which is wound around simple wordplay. This type of humor is the common denominator of Japan’s ethnic solidarity, concentrating as it does on the natural foibles and shared flaws of a nation.

But Japan can also boast world-class comic actors like Isao Hashizume, Akira Emoto, the recently deceased Chocho Miyako, Etsuko Ichihara and that most dapper and iconoclastic interpreter of the wicked secrets of Japanese character, Issey Ogata, whose one-man performances are now packing them in overseas as they do at home.

Japanese, past masters at sophisticated bad taste, definitely do like to poke fun at themselves. The oaf, the hayseed, the clumsy, the smarmy and the pompous . . . they are all up for grabs at the right time and place. The younger generation, moreover, is less uptight than previous ones as to when and where this can be done with impunity and effectiveness. I have no doubt that there is a loosening up between the layers of Japanese society: Humor will get into them, oil them and make the body move more skillfully and freely.

The Jews traditionally told funny stories so that others would understand them. It was a survival strategy. Japanese may find that they need just such a strategy before too long . . . for their own sake. Who knows when a humble Japanese might appear in front of one of the sacred sites of Japan — the looming government bureau, the proud enterprise, the dour politician’s sanctum — shouting the equivalent of “cashmere ‘n’ togas”? Wait for it. It’s on its way there now.

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.