J-Humor and Excessive Inclusivity

Maybe you’ve felt it too- you laugh along with your favorite Japanese TV show, get all the jokes, and have a great time watching it, but something doesn’t satiate you the way your favorite western show does. Or maybe you’re listening to a J-pop album, and love the dulcet voice of the artist, but can’t make yourself feel an emotional connection to the song. Something’s missing from Japanese humor, and that something is an out-group.

I wrote a little about this before, but modern Western humor is based on an asymmetrical awareness of incongruity in the world. When we watch the Daily Show or the Colbert Report, we feel privy to absurdity that goes over the head of the other side of the congressional aisle. With The Office, we get to laugh at situations the show’s characters experience with deadly sobriety (sometimes with Jim and Pam chuckling along with us). Even stand-up comedy has an out-group; it’s the guys, real or imagined, that never quite get the punchline, that force laughs just to fit in. Humor is sharing a secret knowledge about the world, a knowledge about something out-of-whack that goes unnoticed by everyone else. With Japanese humor, it’s close to impossible not to get the joke, and that’s what leads to the empty feeling inside. Japanese humor is about everyone getting it, which necessarily brings it down to the lowest common denominator of intelligence. Japanese game shows are the best example of this, and Tokyo Mango’s Lisa Katayama has a great take on them

The host of a real Japanese game show is a politically incorrect, sarcastic man who revels in mild forms of torture and isn’t afraid to smack a woman on the head. (The feminist in me battles the light-hearted Japanese humoree every time I watch one.) The contestants are stoic, and driven by the determination not to make a fool of themselves and the desire to win money and/or fame. The show’s creators are constantly upping the ante, forcing contestants into grueling, sometimes life-threatening situations. A panel of yappy celebrity commentators and on-screen subtitles emphasize LOL moments and onomatopoeia.

(Don’t confuse ‘sarcasm’ above for dry, sparkly wit, though; it’s more along the lines of “Good job!” after a guy screws up, followed by cartoon letters on the screen, a bonk on the head for the loser, and a studio audience in stitches).

Want to see what Lisa’s talking about? The clip below is pretty representative:

I was kind of excited when I heard they had started to parody Obama on Japanese TV, but the whole joke is a guy who says “Yes we can” and “Change” in response to anything. It would have been funny if they didn’t have it going for weeks on end.

I want to feel ‘in’ with the shows I watch, and that requires feeling like someone else is ‘out.’ I need the impression that witty to me will be boring, perplexing, or simply unfunny to someone else, and Japanese humor just doesn’t do that for me. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy myself watching it, it just doesn’t fully satiate. At least, that’s my feeling based on the media I’ve seen so far, which has been mainstream dramas and prime-time TV. I’m hoping that somewhere in this land of 180 million people, there’s someone poking subtle fun at the establishment, opening jokes in loops and closing them with ten minutes later, jabbing at the social issues of the country at the same time he’s making us all laugh. Know anyone like that?