A quick and dirty Japanese humor tutorial

Japanese humor is slowly but surely infiltrating mainstream media in the US. Fake Japanese game shows on ABC, human Tetris on Fox, the YouTube video of the guy that shoots out of a toilet stall into a ski slope... as someone who grew up in Tokyo watching Japanese variety shows every night, though, I have to say that the US adaptations don't really get it.

Previously, I explained why I thought I Survived a Japanese Game Show doesn't work on my blog. I also wrote this little blurb explaining why:

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. And, perhaps most importantly, the show can't be overproduced–it's the barebones "variety"-style set-up that has allowed the Japanese game show to survive and thrive for decades.

(In one famously controversial show, an aspiring comedian named Nasubi was locked naked in an empty apartment and forced to live on winnings from magazine sweepstakes until he earned $10,000. When he finally reached his goal 14 months later, the show's producers gave him some clothes, blindfolded him, and took him on a surprise vacation to South Korea, where he was locked in yet another apartment until he won enough money to buy a plane ticket home. While some vehemently opposed the show, most watched it religiously with delightful horror and amusement. Nasubi wrote a best-selling book about his experience and later became a successful stage actor.)

It's the type of comedy that only works in a culture where lawsuits don't take precedent over a nationwide commitment to make fun and have fun. 

In a nutshell, a real funny Japanese TV show will have you thinking, over and over:

This is embarrassing to watch.
This is so wrong.
I'm so glad that's not me.
This is f-ing hilarious.

The above clip is from one of iconic 80s comedian Ken Shimura's many variety shows. Every Japanese person over the age of 25 probably knows it.

( Lisa Katayama is a guest blogger.)


  1. Just when I think I understand Japanese humor, I watch the video and discover I don’t at all.

    I still find Gintama extremely funny though.

  2. “This is embarrassing to watch.
    This is so wrong.
    I’m so glad that’s not me.
    This is f-ing hilarious”

    …Your haiku needs a bit of tweaking :-)

  3. This is embarrassing to watch. (check)
    This is so wrong. (check)
    I’m so glad that’s not me. (check)
    This is f-ing hilarious. (not even a little)

  4. As a child, repeated viewing of Japanese game shows while visiting got me smacking my little brother’s head as a comedic device. Okasan was not pleased.

  5. I really haven’t watched much by way of older traditional Japanese game shows, but after countless hours of Ninja Warrior (Sasuke), I appreciate your points. Fun subject, good post!

  6. That criteria is no different that those who watch Jerry Springer/COPs/etc…

    When you participate by watching you are passively giving assent and supporting the behavior. Which… is probably not so bad in wacky-Japanese-gameshow-#5, but horrible when applied to many American TV shows.

  7. I understood the text and explanation, for which I’m grateful, but I have no idea what’s happening in that video.

  8. Hey, where’s the part where they tie up some pre-teen schoolgirls and gang-violate them with giant purple tentacles? I thought that happened in every Japanese TV show, book, movie, play, video, etc.

  9. It may not be that “we don’t get it” but rather we’ve adapted the Japanese game show concepts to our own tastes; some TV shows just don’t have cross-cultural potential, just like in some countries they think Coca-Cola tastes like bottled sweat.

    I don’t think anyone would argue that Japanese and American cultures and attitudes are very different, so why should Americans get it?

  10. Thanks Ill Lich.

    I don’t find the German “pants-dropping” thing funny, just tired. I don’t find the British “physically ugly person with warts and bad teeth” thing that funny either.

    I know Europeans who don’t find observational humor at all funny (Seinfeld’s stand-up let’s say) because it’s the kind of thing they DO think about every day and in the USA we don’t.

    I had lots of Japanese friends and a bunch of them talked about American’s casualness and lack of formality as entertaining.

    Again, it’s fine to detail these shows so we can understand them, but that doesn’t make them actually funny to an American, least of all me. Funny is cultural.

    As my African-American college roommate told me, “I am never, EVER EVER going to understand white people’s jokes. Monty Python is NOT funny at all.”

    Monty Python?

  11. I see I contradicted myself somewhat in the previous post– chalk it up to “stream-of-consciousness-typing.”

    Anyway, I’m not so sure it has anything to do with lawsuits– you sign all kinds of waivers for those shows, and the TV networks have the money and better lawyers anyway so who would be foolish enough to try and sue?

    “Determination not to make fools of themselves”? Just by being on those shows they’ve failed at that.

  12. Hmmm… but if the Europeans tried to remake Seinfeld, and failed, wouldn’t an American person be entitled to say they don’t “get it”? But really, I was just telling a Japanese joke by saying that the American TV networks don’t get it.

    And for those who asked, the video is basically a song in which the guys go “boobies boobies boobies” and the women go “penis penis penis” and then the guys go “bouncy bouncy bouncy” and the women go “swing swing!”

  13. Japan is probably the only place in the world where you could change all the writing and speech to English, drop me in the middle of the capital city, and I’d STILL not have any idea what the heck was going on there….

  14. I’m rather worried that whilst I could not string a sentence together in Japanese (or at least, a correct sentence), and can only reliable recognise a single kana (ii = secret to navigating yes/no menus), I could understand that song perfectly.

    That said, I wouldn’t watch Takeshi’s Castle (I believe the American adaptation is named MXC or something like that) without Craig Charles’ commentary.

  15. Hahaha

    A matter of fact description makes it hilarious for some reason, even if I have enough rudimentary Japanese skills to understand it in the first place. It was only worthy of an eye-roll up to that point.

  16. Well, yeah, humour is cultural, etc, etc… But there’s obvious interest in Japanese humour, in America. There’s several shows that just port the humour to America, or at least try.

    And all the modifications to the original show seem wrong. They make things that are silly, exciting, and fun, into something very boring.

    I really like Japanese humour, mostly because it often catches me by surprise, and that’s, like…the definition of funny. It’s very refreshing. If I were Japanese, and immersed in that culture, I wonder if I’d feel the opposite, and find American humour hilarious and surprising.

  17. Too many times American Companies grab shows from other cultures that are gaining popularity and then “Americanize” them removing what made them great.
    I can’t stand XMC but love Takeshi’s Castle (and Beat Takeshi for that matter). Loved Iron Chef, and loathe Iron Chef America except for Alton Brown.
    I don’t know if I laugh for the same reasons as the native audience but I am sick of American revamps of foreign shows.

  18. The rise of a worldwide Japanese ethic is really just getting started. Yesterday kaizen; today penis jokes, drifting, and running robots; tomorrow less religiosity, more social order, and plenty of stress release ‘health’ spas on every corner. It’s a good, progressive thing.

    But I wonder: is there more to being a Japanese (north) American than perpetually riffing off your adopted subculture? I’ve been tempted from time to time to delve, but up until recently lacked any genetic attachment to my surrogate Japanese homeland.

    There’s still time, and hope, I suppose.

  19. I just watched a piece on the Nightly Business report about how big Harley Davidson’s are in Japan.

    Harley=American cool.

    I only worry that our mutual fetishing of each others cultures is going to ultimately kill the exchange.

  20. I was Hoping the song was going to lead into a game involving scoring points by grabbing the other player’s genitals or spanking them on their arse. pity :(

    Although if it’s about making the audience laugh by playing off of Japanese rules about politeness, I get it, but it wasn’t that funny for me, but wasn’t that the point of the piece? So it works as an illustration.

  21. Look it’s even simpler: It’s all a post-modern Benny Hill take on things.

    The rapist? Oh, THERAPIST! That makes sense.

  22. it is important enough to belong to the group that any indignity is small price – so long as you still belong. They fear shunning, not contempt.

  23. I feel compelled to post the following, which confused me for the better part of my post-secondary academic career:

    Some of the humor that turns up in various anime series (e.g. FLCL, Final Fantasy Unlimited, Record of Lodoss War, etc.) feels very different from western humor, but it isn’t really the same as the bizarre stuff like Most Extreme Elimination muted… or is it?!

  24. I was thinking recently about Monty Python . . . part of the reason I find it funny is because it’s British, something about a bunch of dadaist loonies being “too silly” in a country where the phrase “stiff upper lip” is practically a mantra– it wouldn’t work the same in the US. It’s worthwhile to note that the least funny member of the cast was the American Terry Gilliam who seemed out of place in the few live skits he performed in, and who made his real humor through the proxy of animation (to his credit he’s a great director now).

    I was also watching some Mexican comedy on Univision or Telemundo recently, and thought “this is remarkably like ‘Benny Hill.'”

  25. There’s probably a connection there in terms of why something as ridiculous as the “Yatta” video works for me on a similar level to Monty Python – both are extremes of silliness arising out of cultures with pretty strong traits of reserve and conformity. There’s something refreshing about seeing people throw that veil aside and reveal their mind-bogglingly bizarre side.

  26. Let me just say here, in reference to #22, that Alton Brown is my culinary hero.

    Ah, (back on topic!) and I can’t stand MXC, but don’t mind Ninja Warrior.

  27. It also occurred to me that the “interest” in Japanese games shows/humor in the US isn’t necessarily because something about that style of humor appeals to US audiences, but rather because US TV executives are always trying to steal ideas, whether it’s from another culture, or just another network. When “The Simpsons” became a huge hit CBS trotted out “Fish Police”, and NBC retooled the great British “Coupling” for US audiences with horrible results (although they did an admirable job with “The Office.”) Think of all the movies that have been turned into TV series, or conversely TV series that have been turned into movies. It reminds me of that gag from Altman’s “The Player” where they’re pitching an idea for a sequel to “The Graduate” that is absurd and ridiculous, and yet the Hollywood exec can somehow take the idea seriously; throw it at the wall and see if it sticks, doesn’t matter if it’s sh!t or mashed potatoes.

  28. The video is a spoof of an NHK show, so it doesn’t exactly make sense on its own. Also, Shimura Ken used to sing a lot more about boobies and dingdongs (and hen-na jii’s) than recently. Now, his chimpanzee sidekick is a respected journalist and plucky detective at the same time. I hope that clears things up.

  29. Well, it’s very funny, maybe we can’t unterstand japanese actions just like TV shows. on youtube.com there are alot funny japanese TV show learn englsih and something. i hope they can really learn englsih as well! hehe~

  30. I`m surprised to see that what I consider the biggest “don`t get it” bit isn`t even mentioned.

    The fact that the “contestants” aren`t random people, but entertainers. They`re not people coming in off the street to compete, like with a US game show. They`re people who are often on variety for a living. They usually have a significant fan base to begin with. People get a kick out of watching them because they already know who they are to begin with (and either like or dislike their character)

    It`s not a game show at all. There is no danger of lawsuits because the people participating are doing so because, well, it`s what they do. It`s their job. Most of them are “in character” through the show, and are quite different in real life.

    By putting regular people there, the appeal is lost. I`ve never watched it, but I think that the US show would probably be much more entertaining if they took familiar sitcom actors/actresses and made them run the course.

    (Have a relative in the 芸能界 – my last name is 矢部, feel free to guess who.)

  31. @#35 POSTED BY ILL LICH:

    …US TV executives are always trying to steal ideas, whether it’s from another culture, or just another network.

    Steal? Or do you mean license? Because when a show’s rights are optioned for U.S. development, the non-U.S. creator is usually very aware of the sale and involved in the deal.

    In fact more things are created outside of the U.S. for U.S. licensing than you would imagine. For example, look at the world of Japanese toys. The majority are created for the local Japanese market, but any company worth anything will gladly license the function/creativity of those toys to the U.S. market.

    The first Transformers toys were a mish-mash of toys from different lines that were willfully sold and merged together into the U.S. Transformers marketing plan.

    And beyond that, there really aren’t too many “new” ideas out there to begin with. It’s actually pretty rare nowadays in all fields. Most ideas are just recycled bits of this/that/other and the ones that come off as original are really the ones that do the better job of melding old ideas.

    Heck, does anyone know if shows like this existed in Japan before Chuck Barris and The Gong Show existed.

  32. Just another smug “I get the japanese, you don’t”.

    yeah yeah, give yourself an american high five

  33. I only worry that our mutual fetishing of each others cultures is going to ultimately kill the exchange.

    How is this possible? All my Japanese friends speak English and I don’t speak Japanese. The fact that they learned Japanese and want to be my friend and ask me questions about America all the time is pretty amazing. For a people who are rumored to be saddled with cultural superiority issues, they’re very interested in the US and Italy and France from all I’ve seen.

  34. The fact that the “contestants” aren`t random people, but entertainers. They`re not people coming in off the street to compete, like with a US game show. They`re people who are often on variety for a living.


    Do you know that most contestants on US game shows, and this was basically 100% of the contestants on the Dating Game, are young actors in acting schools in Los Angeles? I saw Pee Wee Herman on the dating game as early as 1979. David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jorge Garcia from Lost, there are tons of actors who used their contacts in LA to get “screen time” on a game show.

    Not true of Jeopardy of Family Feud, but definitely true of the basic game shows.

    I was really taken aback by your statement and it shows how well the game shows mask that.

  35. heh. very funny! I spent 3-4 years watching inane kid’s shows on NHK (public broadcaster) with my daughter before she outgrew them. I’m sure they are spoofing the most famous one “Okaasan to issho” (Together with Mom) – which is the longest running show of any genre in Japan. It features a section with the “A-I-U” song that pretty much every Japanese person knows, with kids invited to the set to sing and dance along. Here it is:

    A-I-U = 1st 3 letters in the Japanese syllabary

    In the past, NHK kid’s shows were typically taped on a big sound stage, with lots of pastel lighting on the rear cyc wall with big gobos (patterns) – I guess to save money on the staging. These days they use more constructed sets/props.

  36. NBC retooled the great British “Coupling” for US audiences with horrible results (although they did an admirable job with “The Office.”)

    Again, what a bizarre example! It’s very well known that Coupling was a steal of the US tv series Friends. I mean, that’s basic common knowledge. When NBC licensed it for the US it was a huge joke on TV about how they stole Friends and then NBC is paying for it to come back.

    This is under no circumstances a one way street. It reminds me of when I was in high school and I asked a Nigerian friend to tell me about the TV shows he watched at home and he was like, Kojak, Streets of San Francisco, Baretta, Planet of the Apes…

  37. Anonymous@43, thanks for the link–we watched that show with our kiddo when we lived in Osaka in ’98-2000. I loved that the crowds of onstage children were just plain kids, including a fair number who were clearly not all that interested in what was going on–most danced along with the host, but it’s the ones staring off into space that really made the show work. And of course, the camera focuses in on any tot whose finger is up his/her nose…

  38. I’ll admit that some of my examples of US TV execs stealing ideas weren’t very good examples, and true enough, there aren’t many new ideas out there, but I don’t think there’s any evidence that Coupling was a direct ripoff of Friends; sure they have a similar kind of cast, but that could apply to a lot of shows. I was under the impression that the creator of Coupling based it on his own marriage, and was inspired by Seinfeld , not Friends. But enough of that, we have gotten way off the subject.

  39. Remember when The Simpsons went to Japan and visited America Town?

    They were also featured on a Japanese Game show:

    Here’s the full recap:
    [via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirty_Minutes_Over_Tokyo%5D

    The Simpsons decide to appear on the game show, The Happy Smile Super Challenge Family Wish Show, telling the game’s Japanese host Wink that what they wish for is to get plane tickets back to Springfield, but they have to go through a rough ride and suffer physical torture (particularly Homer).

    The Simpsons are given their tickets, but they must be retrieved from a bridge over an active volcano. Lisa is able to get the tickets, but the bridge breaks and the whole family falls into the volcano, which is actually only orangeade – with lots of wasabi added. The family get their plane tickets and leave Japan. As they leave, their plane is confronted by Godzilla, Mothra, Gamera and Rodan but Lisa goes to sleep and the monsters let the plane fly off on the journey back to America.

  40. It should also be emphasized that the contestants are excusively drawn from the present pantheon of “tarento” celebs.

    Unlike American game shows, the common man plays no part. The people earning the fabulous cash prizes are those that already have tons (although some, but by no means all, contribute their earnings to charity).

    These tarento are EVERYWHERE. Every show, no matter what the subject or kind or genre, seems to have a panel of tarento, either participating, commenting on, or even just offering a facial-expression-reaction inset in the corner of the screen. The inset, I assume, is to help audiences figure out what the proper response should be when watching TV, since Japanese people are so passive and incapable of making independent decisions that even TV watching is a challenge.

  41. #42
    I guess what I meant was more the illusion of “random people”. I know that they aren`t just people who walk in off the street, particularly in the case of more involved shows.

    But that`s not really the point. The US game show is presented with the pretense that those participating “could be you!!”
    It`s part of their design – and clearly it works for US viewers.

    Japanese game shows, on the other hand, never have that pretense. They`re designed to have celebrities participate – not “regular” people. The “prizes” they give out are pretty much never really given out – it`s just part of the show.
    The game show celebrities of Japan are just that – celebrities who pretty much make their entire living appearing on game shows. They are usually on countless shows. They`re not minor celebrities who occasionally appear, or up and comers who use their connections to get on – they`re people who may appear on 5 shows a week for 10 or more years.

  42. I don’t like this kind of humor in any culture. I think it demeans everyone involved: the hosts, paid to dole out humiliation and the participants, willing to surrender their dignity for a few bucks.

  43. To post 38

    Celebs do go on American game shows, just only for guest appearances.

    Also, Japanese humor is based on their culture, though I haven’t figured out what exactly in their culture causes them to laugh at stupid things.(ex: the whole 2 guys and 1 slaps the other with a paper fan)

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