Some lessons from a failed attempt to tell a joke in Japanese

A statue of a man holding his head in his hands

Photo Credit: Alex E. Proimos via Compfight cc

Humour is a tricky thing, isn’t it? You think of a joke to tell, you’re pretty certain it’ll get at least a few stifled giggles, and then . . . Awkward shuffling and confused stares. Maybe even a sigh and head shake. Or worse, the sympathy smile.

Now I’m not claiming to be a comedy master. Sure sometimes I swing and I miss. But it’s been a long time since I brought an entire room of sixty plus people into total silence by virtue of a badly aimed joke.

Or at least it had been until last week.

Because, like I said, humour is tricky . . . especially when you attempt it in another language.

 

Here’s what happened,

Last Sunday I went along to the Japanese Christian Fellowship in Singapore. Like most Japanese churches, they were keen for me to do a short self-introduction at the end of the service. Nothing fancy, just a basic ‘what’s your name and where do you come from?’ kind of thing.

Except for some reason – I’m blaming the heat – I decided it’d be a good idea to throw a joke into the mix.

So at the end I stood up and explained in my rusting Japanese,

“Hello everyone. My name is Levi. I’m from England. In a couple of weeks I’ll be going to Japan to work as a missionary. To the best of my knowledge I have no wife or children . . .”

Now I know that’s not the funniest of comments. I wasn’t expecting the entire congregation to collapse in hysterics. But I was not prepared for the utter silence that followed – a silence that the Singapore insects kindly highlighted for us all.

I glanced around for any kind of response among the sea of blank faces. Yup, there it was. The guy sat right in front of me: sympathy smile.

Thankfully my brain kicked in at this point and overcame my desire to ‘salvage’ the situation. Instead I just stumbled into “Erm . . . OK. Nice to meet you.”

 

Humour fail.

 

In one sense this was actually a very well-timed joke. This week we have been doing a number of sessions on culture and language acquisition, and so I was able to use my comedy failure as a case study in the perils of cross-cultural communication.

And as God would have it, the woman leading these sessions was from Japan, so she was able to dissect in quite a lot of detail where I went wrong.

This is the breakdown we came up with,

 

Place: In some churches you can get away with cracking jokes from the front. Other churches, not so much.

Occasion: Introducing yourself for the first time is probably not the best time to attempt a joke.

Content: Family is serious business in Japan – as it is in most cultures – and therefore not something people would think of as joke material.

Language: I had been quite lazy in that I had translated my ‘joke’ directly from English into Japanese. This meant it didn’t really sound like a joke in Japanese (in case you’re interested, 妻も子供も、私の知ってる限りには、いません).

Culture: The Japanese don’t really go in for the dry sense of humour that we love in the UK. In fact, I have gotten into trouble a number of times in the past for attempting irony in Japan.

 

Now I’ve never looked into the science/art of humour. But I’m pretty sure if I did, I’d discover that there wasn’t really anything I got right. It was an unquestionable fail of a joke.

The thing is that I already knew all those points. If I’d thought it through properly beforehand I would have realised those reasons for not trying to be funny during my self-introduction.

 

Yup, humour is tricky. But it’s also incredibly powerful if done properly. Laughter can calm nerves, ease tension, soothe pain, end arguments, and – as I was attempting – unite people.

So I’m not giving up on Japanese jokes. In fact, this afternoon I am heading back to the Japanese Christian Fellowship again and I will be looking for chances to make people laugh. And you will of course hear about it if I fail.

Or I should say, when I fail. Because let’s face it, it will happen again. Not in the exact same situation – I’m not that clueless. But learning to tell jokes in Japanese will involve many situations when people are laughing at me instead of with me. Or smiling sympathetically.

So there are two reasons why I need a good sense of humour as I try to learn the Japanese language and culture:

  1. To make people laugh.
  2.  To laugh at myself when I don’t.

 

OK, group therapy time.

Have you ever failed to make a joke in a different language or cultural setting?

Actually, you know what, you can share success stories as well. Maybe it’ll give me hope!

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11 thoughts on “Some lessons from a failed attempt to tell a joke in Japanese

  1. Andy Bruno

    Levi, your gaffe is as nothing to the train wreck which my jokes would result in. I think there’s a reason why they never made a Japanese version of The Office. Keep your chin up, and don’t be afraid to keep having a pun(t) at humour.

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    1. levibooth Post author

      Thanks Andy. Whenever I create another awkward silence I’ll just think of you doing your best David Brent impression. I’m sure it’ll keep me going!

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  2. Claudia

    I can’t remember the joke, but I’m pretty sure you it was you who sat in my living room staring aghast at me and said ‘…is there ANY filter between your brain and your mouth?’

    And we speak the same language!

    How does toilet humour go down in Japan? NOT well I’m guessing…

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    1. Wendy

      I’m not sure about toilet humour, but they have a different sense of what’s appropriate toilet-wise. It isn’t uncommon to see a little plastic model of a “pyramid” of poo for sale.

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  3. ateamjapan

    In my last church in Japan I got the reputation of being the guy whose jokes always bombed!! So I’m with you, bro!
    The greatest success of a joke was in my best man speech at my dad’s wedding. It was the kind of joke which I thought would get a series of groans at best, but everyone erupted in laughter! Not what I expected! But it was one rare occasion when it really did work in those ways you said; calming nerves, easing tension and uniting people. As I was saying goodbye to people at the end of the day, anyone who commented on my best man speech almost without failed complimented me on that joke, which I thought was a pretty lame gag.
    It was an odd experience because I am much more familiar with the blank confused expressions or sympathetic smiles.
    I’m still learning!

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  4. Pingback: How a handful of words gave me the joy to keep on track in Japan | Reversed Thunder

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