Puns don’t work in Japan. I mean, every once in a while they do, but most of the time they don’t. A lot of jokes in the English speaking world are based on twists in the language. Like this one:
“What do you call a cow without legs? Ground beef.”
That riddle is playing with the multiple meanings of the word, “ground.” Or we base the joke on presumption of the definition for a multi-definition word based upon context. As in the following: “A man walked into a bar. He said, ‘ouch.'” For this joke the humor is found in the dual definition of the word, “bar” and the presumption that, based on the fact that it is a common opening line for many jokes, the listener expects the other definition.
A good chunk of the jokes I know don’t work in Japan because they aren’t aware of both definitions of the word. But even when they are, a joke can sometimes fall flat. For example, here is one of my favorite jokes:
“A man is in prison. He digs a hole to escape. The tunnel ends in the middle of a preschool playground. The man emerges from the tunnel and says, ‘I’m free! I’m free!’ A little girl looks at him scornfully and says, ‘So what? I’m four.'”
Recently at a work dinner I told this joke to a Japanese man sitting across from me. He is fluent in English, but after I told the joke, he cocked his head in the way that so many Japanese people do when they are perplexed and said, “Hmm, difficult.” Well, no, it’s really not. I explained to him that “three” sounds like “free”, especially when it is pronounced by small children whose “th” skills are still weak. My New Zealand friend had overheard the joke and turned her head to smile appreciatively, saying it would be especially funny in New Zealand, for in that country they have all but dropped the “th” sound. But no, the Japanese man still didn’t get it.
Sarcasm, another staple in the American sense of humor, doesn’t work here either. For sarcasm to work a person has to either indicate it via vocal inflection – a tricky thing in a language where the ideal intonation is to sound like the rat-tat-tat of a machine gun – or they have to know something is so obviously not true that it is clearly a joke. And honor is so important in this culture that they can’t make fun of people who are just that clueless. An American friend of mine watched several seasons of the tv show, “Friends” dubbed into Japanese to hone his language skills, and he said that Chandler just came across as a jerk.
The most regretful part of this is that at times people will tell a bad joke and pretend that it is funny because they assume that is American humor. Not a racist, bigoted, or misogynist joke. Just a bad joke. For instance, here is an exchange I had with a student my first year.
Student: You are cute.
Me: Thank you. (I said this cautiously, as something about his tone struck me as insincere).
Student: Usodaru! (Translation: that’s a lie). Joke, joke.
Me: Damedesu. (That’s bad).
Student: American joke desu. (Translation: It’s an American joke)
Me: Hey, don’t call a joke an American joke if it’s not funny! We have way better jokes than that!
I knew the kid had no idea what I was saying, but I realized that I was way more offended at his slander of American humor than I was at his withdrawal of the compliment.
This is not to say that the Japanese are humorless. I have still found situational and physical humor to work to a certain extent.
For example, later at that same work dinner, we were served bread. Really good bread. So we all asked for another roll. The waiter served some of us, then returned to the kitchen to wait for the next batch to come out of the oven. “Choto matte, onegaishimasu,” he said when he got to me. “Please wait a minute.” A few minutes later I mused aloud, “Where is my roll? Oh, right, I’m waiting. I’m ‘matteing.’ Wait, how do I say that in Japanese.” I was told to say, “Machimasu.” “Machimasu, machimasu,” I repeated to stick it in my brain. “Hey, I can use that phrase for all sorts of conversations. Like when people ask me if I have a boyfriend.” At that point I recreated the inevitable conversation. “Boyfriend wa iimasuka?” And I said it in the way people often do, with a tilt of their head and a lilt in their voice that indicates they badly want me to say “yes” and tell them all about this incredibly dreamy guy I’m going out with. “Machimasu,” I said, hunching my shoulders and slightly shaking my head, like the spinster I am.
To my surprise the Japanese man sitting diagonally to me, whose English is rough at best, cracked up. Something about the situation or the response or my body language resonated and he doubled over with laughter.
About a week later, I suggested the ninth graders I help teach present skits that illustrated the most recent grammar point. The head teacher agreed and asked me to come up with a sample skit the two of us could do together.
I wanted to emphasize to the students that the skit didn’t have to be long, it just had to use the grammar point. At the same time, they had to have some context for the sentences I was about to say. I went with a person – me – asking where her car is, but because she is drunk the other teacher tells her not to drive.
To indicate drunkenness, I entered the scene staggering about. While I don’t hang around drunk people, I’ve seen plenty of movies, and I pulled out every comedy chop I had. To my delight, the students immediately picked up on the humor and began chuckling when I entered.
That is, the first classroom did. The second classroom just stared at me. Tough crowd.
There is humor in Japan. I’m just still trying to figure out exactly how to execute it.