Sunday 27 May 2018

Do Japanese have a Sense of Humour? Laughter, Comedy, and Jokes in Japan

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The other day I went to a comedy charity night in Shibuya which featured seven comedians from various countries, including one Japanese. The audience though was almost entirely non-Japanese and I got to thinking about humour in Japan. Certainly, from the outside Japanese society looks strict and serious and some have even suggested that Japanese lack a sense of humour, or at least don't consider having a sense of humour as important as say a Brit would. But while it is true that there is no word for humour per se in Japanese (the English transliteration yūmoa =ユーモア is used), there is definitely a lot of joking and laughter in Japan, though the content and context seem rather different compared with the UK. Oshima argues that Japanese "jokes" are better understood as funny stories "told among close friends and family members to gain solidarity." Certainly, Japanese people don't really exchange or tell "jokes" to each other as kids might do in the playground or adults down the pub in Britain (if you ask a Japanese to tell you a joke they will probably be non-plussed!).

Poster for a local rakugo performance
In Japanese, owarai (お笑い), from the Japanese verb to laugh, can refer to a comical story, something laughable, or the comedy business in general. The latter consists primarily of rakugo (落語), a sit-down show by a single kimono clad performer based on a long shaggy-dog-style story, and manzai (漫才), a more modern two-person comedy act based on fast-paced dialogue. The former, rakugo, draws from a stock of fixed stories -  featuring a number of characters - that the performer personalises by adding his or her own gestures, timing, expressions, voices, and mannerisms (see here for an example of one of the most famous rakugo stories done in English). Though audiences tend to be older, most universities boast a rakugo club. The latter, manzai, typically features a straight/smart person, known as tsukkomi, and a funny/foolish person, known as boke, who is usually the target of a few smacks to the head by the straight guy. Japanese TV is full of manzai and slapstick humour; most of the popular comedians are from Osaka (Yoshimoto being the most famous agency) and humour is one area where the East/West divide can be most clearly seen in Japan. One of the most popular duos are Downtown (DVD pictured), and they feature in a new year's eve comedy program every year which is a must-watch for many young Japanese. This year's show, however, featured one half of Downtown, Masatoshi Hamada, in blackface, highlighting stark differences in what is deemed to be "funny" inside and outside Japan (in fairness, some Japanese also objected to the skit or konto - though quite a few others defended it as "Japanese comedy").

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On a day to day level, Japanese enjoy engaging in riddles (nazonazo) and wordplay (dajare or kotoba-asobi), something which is made easier by the fact that the Japanese language has a relatively limited number of sounds resulting in the existence of many homonyms. This kind of "joke" is also known as an oyaji-gyagu (親父ギャグ)or "dad-joke" because the pun is usually feeble and corny. When such a pun is funny it might be praised as being omoshiroi which in Japanese means both "funny" and "interesting": clever or interesting word play is also funny. But while satirical comedy certainly exists in Japan, such as the work of Hisashi Inoue, political satire and parody is almost non-existent, and making fun of politicians, which is a staple of comedy in the West (I grew-up watching Spitting Image), is pretty much taboo in Japan (at least in the mainstream media). This is something of a mystery, especially given the mountain of material available! The only explanation I have heard is that this could be considered meiyokison (名誉棄損) which means defamation, libel, or slander though it seems to be as much a cultural as a legal issue. If any Japanese readers can shed some light on this, do please get in touch!

Sunday 20 May 2018

Gotta Catch 'em all: Hikikomori Support through Pokemon

The franchise and monsters known as Pokemon (Pocket Monsters) boast a worldwide following, and few characters are more universally recognisable than Pikachu. Of course, Pikachu or any of the characters in Pokemon lack any strongly "Japanese" characteristics: Koichi Iwabuchi has called this kind of popular culture "odourless culture" (mushū bunka =無臭文化) and argues that the lack of an obvious Japanese look, taste, or smell is precisely the reason why it has such universal appeal. Certainly, most Japanese cultural products undergo some sort of adaptation to local markets to make them more accessible: the American version of Pokemon, for example, saw a slew of changes to names, signs, food, jokes, music, and pacing.

In the recently opened Pokemon Center in Nihonbashi - the nation's 25th and biggest Pokemon facility - there are thousands of Japanese looking Pikachu for sale. The picture shows lines of Pikachu wearing Happi (法被) - a traditional straight-sleeved coat worn at festivals - and Hakama (袴), sometimes described as "Japanese-style trousers" (see previous post here). The 1300㎡ center also has a Pokemon cafe which requires prior reservations, though the food is not particularly Japanese: curry and pancakes in the shape of Pikachu! Pikachu is in fact about the only character who has kept his original Japanese name, with pika being an onomatopoeic term for a flashing light and chū just a generally cute sound (used to describe both squeaks and kisses!).
The release of the AR Pokemon Go game for smart-phones (sumaho =スマホ) in 2016 saw huge interest in Japan, as elsewhere, but also generated a lot of negative publicity. There were a spate of traffic and other accidents in which players were so absorbed in the game they walked into the road or bumped into other pedestrians; in March 2017, one driver was imprisoned for three years for killing a boy while playing the game. Posters appeared at stations, imploring passengers to stop using their smart-phones while walking, known as aruki-sumaho (歩きスマホ). However, amid all the media brouhaha (sōdō =騒動) a number of positive uses for the app emerged, including as a fitness tool for the middle-aged, a way to attract tourists to disaster hit areas, and even for suicide prevention. One of the most interesting proposals though has come from the Japanese government who have suggested that Pokemon Go can help hikikomori - social recluses who are estimated to number anywhere from half a million to as many as 1.2% of the population - deal with isolation and withdrawal from society, a proposal which has solid scientific backing. Gotta catch 'em all, or, as they say in Japanese, pokemon getto daze (ポケモンゲットだぜ)!

Sunday 13 May 2018

Italy and Japan, Italy in Japan: L'Italia più vicina (Part 2)

Still no closer to unravelling the mystery of my Italian fan-base (do drop me a line!), but I'll continue with part 2 and more on Italian culture in Japan. Let's look at food first, specifically Japan's love affair with Italian cuisine which has exploded since the 1990s. Indeed, Italian restaurants are absolutely everywhere and are even more common than the ubiquitous Indian and Chinese eateries. I've heard it said that the two cuisines share a lot of common elements, such as an emphasis on seasonality and simplicity.

Mr Donut's "Napolitan": A snip at ¥680
In fact, Japanese love pasta so much they even created their own dish: Napolitan (ナポリタン) which was created after the war by the chef of the New grand Hotel in Yokohama who was apparently inspired by GHQ rations of spaghetti mixed with tomato sauce (ketchup). Today, Napolitan, containing ham, sausage, green peppers, and canned mushrooms topped with powdered cheese (recipe here), is a staple at small cafes and family restaurants and is even featured on the menu of the fast food franchise Mr Donut (pictured). Unaware that it is a Japanese original, many Japanese travel to Napoli and ask for this only to be met with blank stares: ''Spaghetti alla Napoletana” is a completely unrelated dish! But although Italians coming to Japan may be horrified to find "ketchup spaghetti" carrying the name of one of their most hallowed cities, they will also surely enjoy other inventions such as tarako (cod roe) and mentaiko (spicy pollack roe) spaghetti with nori (seaweed) sprinkled on top which are absolutely delicious!

One thing I've noticed in recent years is the diversification of Japan's coffee culture: whereas in the past there was usually little choice beyond burendo (blended filtered drip coffee) or "American" (weak diluted espresso), today there are thousands of speciality shops and bars and Japan has become one of the biggest importers of coffee beans in the world. In particular, genuine espresso has become immensely popular: it is available (single or double) in one of the most popular cafes in Tokyo, Pronto, which is conceived as "an Italian bar, where you can enjoy aromatic Italian-style coffee and bread in the morning and pasta for lunch." Another cafe that seems to be appearing all over the place recently is Segafredo, whose headquarters are in Italy.
After all that food and drink, you'll probably ready to settle down to a good film and luckily the Festival del Cinema Italiano (Itaria eiga sai=イタリア映画祭) was  held in Tokyo earlier this month and will open in Osaka later this month. As well as showcasing some recent award winning films, a number of famous Italian directors also visited Japan and held talk shows after their films. In the panel hosting the Manetti brothers and Sydney Sibilia, the directors waxed lyrical about how influential Japanese anime (cartoons) had been for them, particularly classics like Captain Tsubasa and the Rose of Versailles, which were apparently something of an after-school staple for many Italians during their youth. It was interesting to note a frisson of unease among the high-brow Japanese audience which only grew when in response to a question on the influence of the legendary Japanese director Kurosawa, the Italian directors instead cited Takeshi Kitano as an inspiration (in Japan, "Beat Takeshi" is more widely known for his role as a comical TV host than for his directing of Tarantino-esque movies). De Gustibus non est disputandum!

Friday 4 May 2018

Italy and Japan, Italy in Japan: L'Italia più vicina (Part 1)

One of the fun things about writing a blog is seeing how many hits the various posts get and which countries the viewers are in. In my 100th blog post I listed the top 10 countries from where I draw my audience: at that time the top three were Japan, the United States, and Russia. Since then, however, Italy has come out of nowhere to be consistently top, with almost 700 hits a month and mysterious peaks of 60 views every two or three days. So as a special thanks to my Italian viewers (grazie per aver letto!) I thought I'd do a special post on the relationship between Italy and Japan.

Japan-Italian relations go back to Marco Polo who though never actually visiting the country wrote about it in his famous book, describing the failed Mongolian invasions, stressing the trade possibilities, and even introducing the Chinese pronunciation of the country, Cipangu, from which we get the name "Japan" today (the Japanese themselves, of course, refer to the place as Nihon or Nippon). The first Italians set foot in the country a few hundred years later, in the form of Jesuit missionaries (between 1542 and 1600, 18 of the 95 Jesuit missionaries were apparently Italian).

After the period known as sakoku (鎖国) when Japan was, for the most part, closed off to European nations - in part due to the perceived threat of Christianity as detailed in the recent Scorsese film "Silence" based on the Endo Shusaku novel - the Meiji Restoration (1868) saw Japan engage in rapid modernisation and industrialisation in a bid to "catch up" with the West. It is said that the Italian struggle for independence (1861) known as the Risorgimento was something of a blue-print for this transformation. See here for more details of the Italian envoys, merchants, advisors, and others who were prominent in Japan during this period as well as the some of the similarities and differences between the two countries.

Since the 1990s there has been a marked "Italy-boom" with a keen interest in Italian culture in Japan. Italy is one of the most popular destinations in Europe for Japanese tourists, and for Japanese females in particular Italy seems to hold a special attraction. Perhaps one reason for the appeal is that the countries are so different: Japan is a supremely organised, efficient, punctual, and rule-ordered society so perhaps the spontaniety, passion, creativity, and romance of Italian society offers a unique release from what can be a rather stifling local environment? Even inside Japan, Italian culture is everywhere: in part 2, I'll cover food and language in more detail. For now, I'm going to leave you with a picture of the magnificent Istituto Italiano di Cultura (itaria bunka kaikan =イタリア文化会館), in Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, a striking red building completed in 2005 and designed by the famous Milanese architect Gae Aulenti. In the meantime, I would love to hear from my mystery Italian viewers - send me a comment in the message box right!