THERE’S NO QUICKER WAY to get on a person’s bad side than to criticize his driving or his sense of humor. Diplomacy and tact require silence in some situations.
Yet Hugh Cortazzi–a British career diplomat and former ambassador to Japan–is neither diplomatic nor tactful in this Japan Times article titled “A Japanese Sense of Humor?”
We’ve seen before that the British don’t always choose wisely when posting diplomats to Japan, but after reading Cortazzi’s piece you may be wondering how the man managed to make the foreign service his career. Here’s how he starts.
Japanese and Germans are thought by some “Anglo-Saxons” to have many similar qualities, including a lack of a sense of humor and a tendency to take themselves too seriously. I don’t think the former is fair; the latter is closer to the mark.
Yes, indulging in national stereotypes is a splendid way for an ambassador to establish a rapport with his readers. And how generous of him to allow that the Japanese may actually have a sense of humor buried somewhere under all that seriousness.
A recent letter in a major English daily paper was given the headline “The Japanese would do well to laugh at themselves a little more.” My immediate reaction was to wonder whether Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is capable of laughing at himself.
My immediate reaction would have been to turn the page. There’s no point in reading a letter from someone who knows so little about the Japanese.
I guessed that his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, could. To foreign eyes, Abe looks wooden and dour, whereas Koizumi with his bouffant hairstyle and direct manner, seemed more in tune with the 21st century.
If Koizumi’s hairstyle is in tune with the 21st century, I suspect we’re not going to like much of what passes for style in the next 93 years. Abe, on the other hand, simply combs his hair in the relaxed but masculine way that men around the world have favored for decades.
And why should the Japanese particularly care whether their prime minister looks “wooden and dour” to foreign eyes—they’re much more interested in how he looks to their eyes. As we saw recently, some elements of the Japanese media were critical of the speech Miyazaki Prefecture Governor Higashikokubaru Hideo, himself a former comedian, delivered to the Foreign Press Club in Tokyo. They thought the governor needs to recognize that there’s a time and a place for everything, and that a speech to foreign correspondents is neither the time nor the place to perform a comedy routine.
Inoue Hisashi, the author of scores of comic novels and plays, once observed that Japanese who are very funny in informal situations with a small number of people turn very serious when giving a speech to a large group of people on more formal occasions—a situation that Inoue thinks is funny in itself.
Live in Japan for more than six months and pay attention to your surroundings, and you’ll notice the same thing, but it apparently went over the ambassador’s head that most Japanese prefer to have politicians save the humor for other occasions.
And while Mr. Koizumi could be devastatingly funny, particularly during question-and-answer sessions in the Diet, it’s really unfair to hold him up as the gold standard for public behavior. His success was due in large measure to his unconventionality, and we won’t see his like again for some time.
The English, not always with justification, pride themselves on their sense of humor….Most Japanese would not, I think, attach so much importance to having a sense of humor. Instead, I think they prefer to call themselves serious people (or to use the Japanese term “majime ningen”).
Or is it that most Japanese simply laugh when they find something funny, instead of resorting to meta-analysis? Has it occurred to the ambassador that humor is not an abstract character trait, but rather a naturally occurring individual taste that differs from person to person, much like a taste in food?
If the concept of a “sense of humor” is supposedly so universal, why do people not use the expression, “sense of tragedy”?
Incidentally, searching for the phrase “sense of humor” on Google gets 8.8 million hits, while a search for majime ningen on Google Japan turns up only 17,500 hits. So much for that observation.
Why do Japanese seem to take themselves so seriously?
Now that the straw man has been built, it’s time to knock it down…
Is it because laughter and humor have traditionally been frowned on in Japanese culture as vulgar and low? This is not entirely fair.
He’s right. It is unfair. It’s also untrue.
The humor of, for instance, the monkeys and frogs in the Choju giga (Toba Sojo) scroll surely amused Buddhist priests and the aristocrats of the 13th century. The Kyogen comic interludes between Noh performances in subsequent centuries, which often poked fun at pretentious and cowardly samurai, must surely have made Japanese rulers and samurai laugh… The humor of the Hizakurige, the famous novel about travel on the Tokaido by the two companions Yaji and Kita, is still funny. The humor is simple and down to earth, as was a great deal of Shakespeare’s humor…Much of the humor of Hokusai and Kyosai, two outstanding print artists of the 18th and 19th centuries…can be understood by people everywhere and outshine English caricaturists of the same period.
Is Mr. Cortazzi trying to undermine his own thesis? First he tells us that the Japanese have traditionally frowned on humor, and then he gives us 600 years of examples to demonstrate that the Japanese love humor. And he still forgot to mention rakugo.
Great Japanese novelists of the last 150 years have not been so rated because of their humorous writing.
Unlike Dostoyevsky, for example.
Many years ago…I was advised by a friend who worked in the Imperial household to read Genji Keita for light relief. I did as he recommended and enjoyed satirical and humorous stories about the Japanese “salaryman” (a word that does not exist in England).
This was no mere “friend”, this was “a friend who worked in the Imperial household”. His Excellency the Ambassador and a courtier found it a pleasing diversion to occasionally partake of the commoners’ entertainment. Perhaps they also enjoyed listening to “What Do The Simple Folk Do?” from the Camelot cast album.
Why is it important to the author’s argument that the word “salaryman” doesn’t exist in England? Is the ambassador amused by those goofy Japanese making up their own English words? I should hope not. Americans have coined many words that the English now seem to think are OK to use regardless of their origin.
I wonder if the English also disdained the use of that Japanese neologism, Walkman?
Thinking that these stories would amuse English readers and enable them to begin to understand aspects of Japanese life not immediately apparent, I spent some time translating a couple of volumes of these stories…
Just what the English-speaking world needs more of—someone who doesn’t understand aspects of Japanese life not immediately apparent explaining them to other people.
In this light, it seems extraordinary that no simple Japanese translation exists for the English expression “sense of humor.”
Why should it be extraordinary that a particular expression doesn’t exist in a language? English speakers have borrowed intact such words as naïve, déjà vu, schadenfreude, and coup de grace. Does that mean they didn’t understand the underlying concepts of those words before borrowing them?
I remember once giving a talk in Japanese in Sapporo where I referred to “umoru no sensu.” Perhaps my enunciation was not good enough, but I was taken aback when one old man asked me to explain what I meant by “umoru no senso” (senso means war!).
Whereas I was taken aback when I read this sentence and realized this man might well have doddered his way through his entire posting in Japan.
When people borrow a word from another language, it becomes a part of that language, usually with a new pronunciation. We vulgar Americans pronounce “guerilla” as if we were referring to a member of the simian species instead of the way a native Spanish speaker would say it. In the same way, once the Japanese have borrowed a word from English, it becomes a naturalized Japanese word with its own pronunciation.
For example, many Japanese play golf, but the game in Japanese is called “goh-ru-fu”, with the “f” being closer to an “h”. There is no “golf” in Japan. Pronunciation mistakes such as these are common among beginning students of the Japanese language.
Likewise, the word in Japanese is “yuumaa”, not “umoru”. The mouth is opened at the end instead of closed. No wonder the old man didn’t know what the ambassador was going on about—he was trying to make sense out of someone butchering the Japanese language. If one adult listener thought Mr. Cortazzi was talking about warfare instead of humor, it’s likely that the rest of the audience was just as mystified.
In other words, we have an entire column based on the conclusions of a man who walked into a wall and thereby assumed that doorways don’t exist.
It is not easy to make good jokes in any language and it is especially difficult for a foreigner speaking in Japanese. I was always rather pleased when I managed to get a few real laughs out of an audience.
I’m biting my tongue.
The Japanese would certainly benefit in international relations if they could relax a bit more, take life less seriously and laugh at themselves as the writer of the letter in the British newspaper quoted above suggested.
Whereas I think the Japanese would benefit in international relations if other countries saw fit to appoint people more attentive to their surroundings and less likely to write newspaper columns that are the journalistic equivalent of unzipped trousers in public.
It bears repeating: If all you know about Japan is what you read in the newspapers, everything you know is wrong.