Japan is renowned for its “special” humor. However, most people don’t actually know much about Japanese humor aside from the crazy game shows you might come across on TV or the internet from time to time. So, what is the Japanese sense of humor really about? What makes the Japanese laugh?
“Western” jokes, in the form of a short story or the retelling of a conversation with a punchline at the end, are rather uncommon in Japan. So-called “American jokes” or “black (humor) jokes” that aren’t too different from western jokes indeed do exist, but it is questionable whether they’ll make any Japanese burst into laughter. Most Japanese that I tried telling these kinds of jokes to, weren’t quite sure what to laugh about, and even after explaining the punchline they didn’t seem to be too amused. There is one type of joke, however, that can be found on every corner: the pun.
Unlike in European languages, Japanese create words not based on individual letters but fixed units of sounds. So, because of this system, the number of available sounds to create words is small. Thus, there are countless words that, while having a different spelling, are pronounced the exact same way. The syllable “sun”, for example, can have over 30 different meanings depending on which Chinese character is used. This characteristic of the Japanese language makes it incredibly easy to create puns. And that is why there is a much stronger tradition of puns, or dajare, in Japan than there is in western countries.
Arumi kan no ue ni aru mikan
A tangerine on an aluminum can
What’s supposed to be funny about that, you ask? Arumi means “Aluminium”, kan means “a can”, aru means “to be, to exist”, and mikan finally means “tangerine”. Despite consisting of four completely different words, in Japanese, the beginning and the end of the short sentence sound exactly the same.
Dajare is indeed traditional comic Japanese wordplays, but that doesn’t necessarily make them the best choice for getting a laugh out of Japanese people. Especially well-known dajare won’t do much for you. Even so much so that they–or dajare in general–are also often referred to as oyaji gyagu (“old person’s joke”), so be sure to use them with care!