Yesterday, I was reading a good blog post by reader “Johnl” who has lived in Japan for 30 years. The article is about the importance of fashion and image in Japan (and why it matters), but it also talked about the differences between Japanese and American humor.
Early on, I noticed that Japanese people do not react to sarcasm. Much of my sense of humor relies on sarcasm, but they just didn’t get my jokes. I have come to believe that the intentions implied by speech are not trivial.
I noticed this same thing. Sarcastic jokes don’t seem to work. Japanese people didn’t seem to really notice the sarcasm. If I joke in English, they understood the joke, but if I tried in Japanese people would often take me literally. Being American, sarcastic jokes are very common but I slowly realized that it doesn’t always work in other cultures.
But it’s not just Japanese/American culture. For example, when I lived in Ireland, I found the same thing: sarcastic jokes were not common. Instead, Irish humor was more subtle and witty. Friends and co-workers would say something subtle and clever, just a few words, but I often missed the joke until too late. When my Irish friends were drunk, and slip into really Irish-English, it was hard for me to follow the conversation sometimes. There were many subtle jokes I missed. ;-)
In the same way, I noticed that Japanese jokes tend to state the obvious. Someone is doing something kind of silly, but no one says anything. Then, someone breaks the ice, states what they’re doing and thinking, and everyone has a good laugh. It’s hard to explain, but it makes sense in the context. Plus, I noticed Japanese love puns or oyaji gyagu (“Old man gags”) a lot too.
Interesting how people enjoy humor, but different cultures have different ways to express it.
P.S. Read Johnl’s article if you can. :-)