American Joku and British Absurdities

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A student asked me the other day, as part of his speaking test, which country do I prefer, England, my own country or Japan? If I’m honest I’d never thought to make them compete in such a way before. There’s such a difference between them that the idea of them duking it out makes me think of some kind of hybrid judo/boxing bout. Not a natural contest certainly.

Yorkshire countryside

What it comes down to though, beyond the general incompatibility of the contest is that I’m not entirely sure what it is Japan is supposed to be competing with. (Above is the Yorkshire countryside).

I’ve moved around a lot in the last twelve years and it means I tend to get itchy feet, I’m ready to move on to the next place or the next challenge every three years or so. I guess I just don’t have that firm a sense of home, nothing concrete with which to pit Japan against in a duel for my affections.

Shimizu Town, Izu Peninsula

Yet, while they don’t compete for my affections per se, there are points where a certain friction can emerge. A point where something from my own background, a well-worn and engrained aspect of my culture that just doesn’t seem to fit naturally with where I live now.

Black humour, dark humour, whatever you want to call it.

It’s a stereotype; the unfailing polite image of a Japanese businessman, bowing and scraping, perhaps perpetually ruffled by the demands of his superior yet no matter how insane the entreaties remaining calm.

Until the day he utterly explodes in a spitting, red-faced ball of rage.

There are days where I wonder if this may happen to me one day. Not so much while I’m here in Japan but maybe one day, in a western country when I’m once again exposed to the endless stream of black humour that I have such a mixed relationship with now.

So what is my issue with it?

Well, simply put I think our definition is blurred and our funny bone myopic.

The last time I was back in the UK I bumped into a few tsunami jokes. I can only imagine that nine months earlier these jokes were quickly doing the rounds via text message and passed around in pubs and bars in greater numbers along with the adage that if you don’t laugh you’ll cry which is to say that we see this as essentially gallows humour.

There’s one problem though, for it to be gallows humour the person telling the joke needs to be the one in that terrible situation, not the one sipping his pint safe from all but liver disease and chronic un-funniness.

There were two cases in point even before last year’s Earthquake. The first was the Qi joke about the luckiest/unluckiest man alive Tsutomo Yamaguchi who had the horrible misfortune of being in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki when the bombs fell. Soon after that Top Gear managed to put its foot in its mouth once again by crudely stereotyping Mexicans only to receive an immediate complaint from the ambassador they claimed would be too busy dozing to actually catch the offending remarks; par for the course for a TV show that casually labeled lorry drivers as prostitute murderers.

There is one difference to be maintained though. Qi’s joke, to British people was funny. The focus of its humour was on the absurdity of the event, the contrast between Japanese railway efficiency and British rail’s ability to shut down if it’s the wrong kind of snow. The subject matter may have been insensitive, but the people making the jokes were simply doing their jobs and poking fun almost entirely at British absurdity.

In contrast Top Gear is taking the more schoolboy approach. The humour comes from the fact that they are deliberately being insensitive and rude albeit with a wink to knowing better…I hope.

Too much of our poor taste humour gets let by simply because we wrap it in supposed lack of poor intentions. Yet, good intentions, or in this case a lack of negative ones doesn’t change the nature of language and the way that all these jokes build up layer upon layer to the point where we’re laughing and utterly unaware that other people are still crying.

I know the people who tell these jokes by and large don’t mean any harm but I also know that if a joke was told on Japanese television about a tragedy that remained as firmly in the public conscious as Hiroshima and Nagasaki do here, for example Hillsborough, then black humour and making allowances for Japan’s comedy conventions would mean very little indeed to a large part of the British population.

The truth is though, I’m not that angry about all this. Mostly, I’m just disappointed that a nation that can produce internationally renowned comedy like Monty Python, Mr Bean, The Office etc. isn’t working harder to maintain those high standards.

I know that there is no spite in these jokes, that British people by and large simply enjoy bending and breaking the line between edgy and in poor taste, the fact of the matter is that the rest of the world simply doesn’t know us well enough to get the joke.

Disappointingly though, as my younger students have often shown, Japan isn’t actually that interested in getting to know us anyway. They already have their own way of dealing with Western humour. It’s very simple really, whatever the subject, no matter the nationality, if they don’t get the joke it can mean only one thing.

It’s an American Joku.

Maybe there isn’t so much friction after all.