Is that really funny? - humor and identity in Japan and China

Is that really funny? - humor and identity in Japan and China

Editor's Note: For more information on this time period, see James Huffman's essay, The Meiji Restoration Era, 1868-1889

In 1868 the Meiji state declared itself the legitimate political administration in Japan, throwing off the yoke of 250 years of traditional bakufu rule. While the Meiji Restoration may have been bloodless, it still transformed a stable agrarian society into a more modern industrial nation. This, in turn, caused significant social upheaval. In its bid to renovate, the country’s leadership attempted to create a new social order by utilizing the persuasive powers of the performing arts. The Meiji oligarchs wanted to realign Japanese society so it could compete with 19th century Europe and America, and the government used comedy and the performing arts to mold a new social structure of civil society for its own advantage. The situation developed as a strange foreshadowing of a comment American comedian Steve Martin uttered centuries later, that “hey, sometimes comedy is not funny.” For the new Japanese state, humor was serious business.

Humor or comedic performances offer us a unique portal through which to examine how a nation conceives of itself and to learn about how it views its neighbors. While Japan has not produced many strict theorists of humor in comparison with, for example, China or France, the country has produced major comedic talent and the myth of stern and unfunny Japanese should be put to rest. A major Tokugawa era scholar of medieval era humor (quite bawdy even by today’s standards), Ôkura Toraaki (1597-1662), believed that “underneath comic laughter there lies a perception of truth.” The Japanese did not necessarily develop the concept so prevalent in western humor theory that comedy speaks truth to power or that it represented a rebellious attitude. Toraaki’s ideas were almost more Zen, and he asserted that comedy “makes true things funny and funny things true.” “Without ‘the true’ underneath,” he explained, “there will be nothing really comic.”1 With that in mind, analyzing Japanese post-Meiji jokes about China, and Chinese humor about Japan, is a rare window to understand unwritten and often unseen attitudes. The Japanese book cover reproductions below are a forceful image how quickly and how far Meiji authorities moved from worrying about comedy and entertainment that mocked the government and portrayed Japan in a poor light internationally to encouraging a new vision of China among the Japanese people. The mockery of China and its use as a motif in turn of the century Japan did not monopolize humor and entertainment but it certainly provided a certain strain of belief that supported imperial beliefs in superiority and championed the goal of an imperial Japanese empire.

Looking at humor, and other performing arts, we can visualize the following points about Meiji/Taisho Japan.  1) The decaying role of China provided fodder for Japanese comedic sketches in live performances and certainly for cartoons and pamphlet books produced for the masses but also read by women and children. These images produced a rather pathetic public mindset of China but in a non-threatening way (at least for the Japanese). 2) In contrast to the constant use of China as a comparative model in Japanese political humor, China ignored the use of Japan as a foil for comedy until much later in the 20th century. For the sake of brevity I generalize the argument but this duality of use and imagery in the two countries’ respective comedic performances raises interesting questions about the role of humor in nation state building and national identity. What’s more, how the idea of “funny” translates across borders and time should concern us as an arena for historical inquiry. I apologize at the outset; as the famous British novelist Evelyn Waugh and others have remarked, once we begin to analyze humor it ceases to be funny, but in the same manner as writing a Michelin Guide review of a pizza joint, I will try my best with this disjointed approach.

Meiji autocrats feared obscenity and lewd behavior, ironically two of the core ingredients to late Tokugawa and early Meiji humor. They felt that this type of humor cut away at social mores. Moreover, they diverted government time and money toward its eradication. An ordinance in August 1872 reminded performers that no obscene or lewd acts were permitted, neither were acts that mocked the imperial lineage.2 The February 22, 1872 Tokyo Nichi Nichi newspaper announced to the population that the government prohibited theater “which parents and children could not tolerate to see together.”3

Among the first steps the embryonic Meiji government imposed were laws designed to improve the image of Japan to foreigners. Banning nudity also played a major role in the new regulations. In this realm they were not too different from their European counterparts or Chinese compatriots across the East China Sea. These entertainment regulations brought about two results. First, they initiated a process that drove performances from temporary and haphazard venues in the streets and open areas to licensed, controlled spaces that could be monitored by the police and other authorities. Second, performance regulations forced a clear separation between performer and audience that had not previously existed. As the new century approached street performers with their monkey skits, magic shows, dancing dog and pony shows, and horseback riding performances decreased. Ticketed forms of amusement where the audience member paid a fee to enter a regulated establishment became the norm. In this fashion the government was able to impose its control on the lower rungs of society in alignment with the elite modernizing program.

Such moves to ban certain types of humor did not mean, however, that predatory comedy, the kind that mocked what Japan had been prior to the Meiji Restoration, was off limits. In fact, with the arrival of a more extensive print media industry and Japan’s movements onto the Chinese mainland, one quick result of this emphasis on entertainment and media was the production of a new visualization of the Chinese and the Qing Dynasty. This change in how China was now openly castigated, but in what the Japanese considered sophomoric tones, is an oft-neglected feature of Japan’s early empire. Humor was of course nothing new but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries it had a new aim – empire.4 It might seem offensive now (it will when you read through the content) but at the time these products were considered funny and sold with that corporate mindset. We should not shy away from our analysis due to this unpleasantness but instead ask ourselves how and why were such products available. In many ways, these products paralleled the arena of discrimination in the United States that minstrel shows and blackface dolls occupied, or similar such deprecatory images of Black Americans and other minorities. In Japan such humor was not the only market but it played a role in galvanizing social ideology. At the turn of the 20th century Japanese spent a lot of time amusing themselves at the expense of the Chinese. This mindset grew during WWII and I argue would have an influence on modern Chinese entertainment after 1949.

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Front cover of a wartime Japanese pamphlet of victory pieces celebrating the defeat of the Qing Empire. This image was entitled, “Crushing the Chinese Melon,” in reference to China being carved up by colonial interests like a ripe fruit.5

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The front cover of a book of humorous stories about Japan's defeat of the Qing Empire, entitled Great Comedic Failure of the Chinese6


The two images above are a small portion of an otherwise large number of productions, including song books with more degrading titles such as Popular Songs on Subduing the Chinks!7

The point about these books, pamphlets and cartoons is not to underscore their ugly nature, that goes without saying, but rather to analyze why at the time they were sold as humorous. That issue speaks volumes about attitudes and assumptions from almost less than a century ago.8 Other scholars view the proliferation of these images as a new type of mass education, taishû kyôiku. From the turn of the century mass society wanted to know more about what was happening and they gained quick access to the rapidly changing information landscape around them through newspapers, documentary films and books. The increasingly literate and educated public was taking more of an interest in outside world beyond village borders and the region.9

Mockery as humor is a tricky issue to define because the Japanese and Chinese languages are laced with a cascading selection of terms denoting humor: kokkei in Japanese which may translate best as “comical” (huaji in Chinese 滑稽) as well as fûshi in Japanese, translatable as “satire” (fengci in Chinese 風刺), to point out a few. But there are more terms such as okashii, and the more recent transliterated English term humor into yûmoa in Japanese and youmo in the Chinese language.10

Regardless of what term is used and how it is defined, the crux of the matter is that humor is understood on a native level and thus cumbersome to analyze from the outside. Basically, as we are all aware, once you have to explain why something is funny, it is no longer worth reciting. According to recent Taiwanese research regarding these ideas, “humor is subtler and more elegant than huaji, which in turn is more direct and shallow; huaji can entertain children, humor cannot. Humor is more tolerant and pleasant, and “fengci ‘sarcasm’ is severe, poignant, and usually hostile.”11 On the Japanese side of the equation, the English term humor implies gentle, kindly laughter and so does the transliterated Japanese term yûmoa. Warai, a Japanese verb meaning to laugh, focuses on the act of laughing itself maybe and not the humor. The problem is, getting back to our topic, that none of these terms include obscenity or stretch the definition a bit wider to include the very nature of a the less opaque humor in 19th or early 20th century Japan that did little to mask the geographically diminutive nation’s glee at dominating its larger continental neighbor.12

What’s more, even though many of the Japanese produced images and humor that derided China, Chinese exchange students returned to the mainland from study abroad in Japan with their own experiences of Japanese comedy and that knowledge produced new forms of entertainment and humor in China. The Japanese had borrowed much in the form of Buddhist parables and sermons from the Chinese and some scholars argue that these models influenced the beginnings of rakugo and oral comedy in Japan.13 Centuries later the Japanese visual arts in the form of comedic cartoons and even spoken comedy repatriated to revolutionary era China.

Chinese humor and images of Japan

Humor evolved differently in China but by the late 19th century these concepts transformed in part through interaction with Japan. There do not seem to be the same reams of material where the Chinese mock the Japanese and there may be several reasons for that absence: traditionally, Japan as a comedic concept did not occupy much space in Chinese performance or comedic productions. Moreover, the Chinese had their own long history of comedy and this would shift only much later after the end of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. In some ways, China’s use of Japan as a humorous foil took a much longer time to develop but this change has begun to emerge in recent years. Even with the negative thrust of Japanese propaganda toward China in the 1890s and then toward Russia, early 20th century Japanese comedy seems to have made an impression on Chinese scholars who still held Japanese modernizing efforts in great esteem. Lin Yutang, Lu Xun, Zhou Zuoren and other great early 20th century Chinese literati and thinkers intermingled with Japan (and the west in Lin Yutang’s case) as the main conduit for new thought and ideas about modernity and the future. I would say, and Chang-tai Hung’s work bears this out somewhat, that Feng Zikai’s comics and drawings of life and politics in China get published at precisely the same time when the Chinese media and reading public in China developed a taste for this sort of visual national reflection.14 Feng Zikai (1898-1975), a motive force in Chinese cartoons and essay writing was also the cartoonist for many of Lu Xun’s early works, and spent a formative ten months in Japan during the early 1920s. One of his contemporaries advised him, “Don’t eat too much of their raw fish and cold rice….and don’t fill yourself up on their militaristic thinking either…But having said all of this, Zikai, I encourage you to go, for all of it will provide ideal subject matter for your art.”15 The 1920-30s in Japan was the era of what is usually termed a time for erotic grotesque nonsense. To analyze a bit more concretely the era “was marked by an enormous energy, the urge to create, and acerbic challenges to the status quo.”16 The fecund era of 1920s Japan reflected its ideas back toward China in myriad ways. In Japan, too, the idea of humor was going through transformation – no longer only served by mocking the Chinese but heralding a robust new age of theatre and ribald comedy.

In 1930s China, Chinese writers and humorists were paying more attention to the idea of humor and its intersection with politics and international relations. Youmo, the new Chinese term for humor, emblemized for many young Chinese a new sense of modernity, much in the same way it had for the Japanese when they mocked the Chinese. “Lin Yutang and others assigned rich values to youmo on the grounds that the Chinese word of ancient origin, huaji, was inadequate for modern times. Huaji meant merely “trying to be funny,” whereas the more subtle humor evoked “thoughtful laughter.” It was warm in relation to cold satire, and the humorist faction held the view that the thriving of youmo indicated a strong, probing, free play of the mind.”17 What’s interesting in this comparison is the fact that the Chinese focused more internally on themselves whereas the Japanese used the Chinese as a foil for discussions of their post-Meiji modernization.

One struggles, though, to find the equivalent Chinese mockery of the Japanese in the modern era, though some examples surely remain in xiangsheng, a popular brand of Chinese standup comedy.18 As World War Two in China ended and slipped into the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists, humor once again took a back seat, even though the profession itself expanded and gained social prestige. As Hou Baolin, China’s premier xiangsheng performer from the late 1930s onward, explained in an interview, “before liberation, xiangsheng performers were not much better off than beggars. In winter few people came to the market to listen to us in the cold wind. We were forced to perform in brothels which was a harrowing experience.” Towing the party line just as the Cultural Revolution had ended, Hou suggested that postwar China equally cherished comedy because “As a form of art, xiangsheng won liberation together with the working people. It has now become a weapon for the revolutionary cause; it serves our workers, peasants and soldiers.”19

While Communist-led China was, and is not known for its collective humor, mocking of Japan as the enemy did not completely disappear. In popular Cold War Chinese films such as The Underground War, the cartoonish image of a Japanese soldier, complete with wartime Hitlerian moustache and funny background music, played upon the actor’s entrance. Nonetheless, such images were more a sporadic occurrence in the few non-Communist proscribed entertainment products that made it to market.

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Image still from the Chinese movie: The Underground War

In the post-Cultural Revolution era the Japanese as unfunny foils in Chinese martial arts films played an expanding role though the impetus for this grew more from the Hong Kong film industry. Hong Kong was obviously not under mainland rule, but its stimulus was felt widely throughout the Chinese speaking world. Bruce Lee was an early initiator of this genre but in more recent years Jet Li in Fearless, a remake of the original Bruce Lee 1972 blockbuster film Fists of Fury, built on similar motifs. We should also not ignore the separate school of Hong Kong comedy films such as Tokyo Raiders that mock Japanese sumo but this is more lighthearted than the films of the 1960s to 1980s.

This avoidance of dealing humorously with Japan suddenly changed orientation almost at the dawn of the 21st century with Devils on the Doorstep, the 2000 tragi-comedy/history film about WWII and China directed by and starring the Chinese enfant terrible of film, Jiang Wen. The film won the main prize at the Cannes film festival but was subsequently banned in mainland China, perhaps in part for its ambivalent use of humor to discuss the war. At one point early in the film, Japanese actor Kagawa Teruyuki, playing an imperial Japanese soldier suddenly taken prisoner with his Chinese translator, yells at the peasant and his wife who are enjoined to keep them as prisoners. While captured, the Japanese soldier believes that his sidekick Chinese translator (and a collaborator) has been teaching him insulting Chinese phrases that he can use to taunt the Chinese peasants who were ordered to house the two POWs. The scene is hysterical not only for the funny Chinese dialogue that is mismatched with the Japanese soldier’s intentions, but also for the reaction of the Chinese peasants. The Japanese soldier yells at the top of his lungs over and over again, “Big Brother and Big Sister, Happy New Year! I am your father!” The audience laughs because what he is saying in his pidgin Chinese makes little sense considering his precarious situation as a POW. The scene must have shocked international Chinese audiences since humor was so rare an element in this genre of film. It broke a taboo and we are starting to see it more in subsequent productions.

This essay is a short step into thinking about the interaction of humorous ideas across borders in East Asia but also about the manner in which the concept of funny has gained currency as a mechanism for national identity and providing a moment of levity amidst what would normally be considered a comedy free zone. This humor is not always amusing a generation later but the fact that it was produced with that mindset means that we should not ignore it as an historical archive. While the Japanese spent arguably more time in pursuit of humor that placed China at the center, a detectable shift in how China views Japan with the resulting production of more edgy humor may be in store for the future. Much more work remains to be done, and is being accomplished in some areas, but teachers and students alike will easily be able to add their own examples to this growing body of knowledge.

1Makoto Ueda, “Toraaki and His Theory of Comedy,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 24, No. 1, Oriental Aesthetics (Autumn, 1965), p. 21. There are several key books about Japanese humor, though some focus purely on the literary side of production. The scholarship on this in Japanese and Chinese is too large to view in its entirety here but in English the most succinct and recent discussions are Marguerite Wells, Japanese Humour, St. Martin’s Press, 1997; Howard Hibbet, The Chrysanthemum and the Fish: Japanese Humor Since the Age of the Shoguns, Kodansha International, 2002; Jessica Milner Davis, edited, Understanding Humor in Japan, Wayne State University Press, 2006. See also two excellent books on performance comedy in Japan: Lorie Brau, Rakugo: performing comedy and cultural heritage in contemporary Tokyo, Lexington Books, 2008; Heinz Morioka and Miyoko Sasaki, Rakugo: the popular narrative art of Japan, Harvard University, 1990.

2Kurata Yoshihiro, ed. Meiji no engei (Engei shiryô senshû, vol. 1, (1980), p. 26. (Unless noted all Japanese books are published in Tokyo. I have kept Japanese names as they usually appear, last name first).

3Tokyo Nichi Nichi Shinbun, February 22, 1872.

4As Michael Baskett notes, this is a problem because war and these types of “humorous materials” are not usually considered remotely funny in our current times. Michael Baskett, “Dying for a Laugh: post-1945 Japanese service comedies,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 23, No. 4, 2003, p. 291.

5Tsukitei Bunto, Nihon daishôri daishinsaku geizukushi shukushô no tomo, Osaka: Kashiwabara keibundô, 1895.

6Ichimon Naishi, Kokkei shina taihai, Osaka, Hakata seishôdô, 1894.

7ちゃんちゃん征伐流行歌 is the title in Japanese but there was also a similar volume entitled, ちゃんちゃん征伐音曲集. There are several ways to translate these titles; none really depict the negative emotions related to how Japanese taunted Chinese students with this epithet in the early part of the 20th century. Peter Duus provides an excellent analysis of Japanese political cartoons of this era in his, “Presidential Address: Weapons of the Weak, Weapons of the Strong-The Development of the Japanese Political Cartoon,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 60, No. 4 (Nov., 2001), pp. 965-997.

8The eminent historian John Dower has explored many of these issues relating to the visual media of Japan’s empire on MIT’s excellent open sourceware site: I encourage readers to read Dower’s essays and peruse the expansive collection for more on this topic.

9Ôno Kimi Takanori, “Minkokuki ni okeru Feng Zikai manga no ryûkô,” Tokyo daigaku chûgokugo chûgokubungaku kenkyûshitsu kiyô, dai 8 gô, 2005, p. 66.

10In 1924, Peking University professor Dr. Lin Yutang, who had completed graduate studies at Harvard and Leipzig, coined the Chinese loan-word youmo in two articles in the Chenbao Literary Supplement.

11Liao, Chao-chih and Tsung-chin Chang, “Sense of Humor: Americans vs. Taiwanese,” paper presented at the 18th ISHS Conference, Denmark: Copenhagen. Available at http:/

12Jessica Milner Davis, editor, Understanding Japanese Humor. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2006, p. 8.

13Heinz Morioka and Miyoko Sasaki in Rakugo lean toward this argument in opening sections of their book.

14See Chang-tai Hung, “The Fuming Image: Cartoons and Public Opinion in Late Republican China, 1945-1949,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 36.1 (January 1994): 122-145; and his War and Popular Culture: Resistance in Modern China, 1937-1945, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

15As quoted in Geremie Barme, An Artistic Exile: The Life of Feng Zikai (1898-1975), University of California Press, 2002, p. 50.

16Miriam Silverberg, Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times, University of California Press, 2006, p. 8.

17Diran John Sohigian, “Contagion of Laughter: The Rise of the Humor Phenomenon in Shanghai in the 1930s,” Positions 15:1, 2007, p. 139.

18There are several excellent sources in English on Chinese postwar standup comedy. See Perry Link, “The Crocodile Bird: Xiangsheng in the Early 1950s,” in Jeremy Brown and Paul G. Pickowicz, editors, Dilemmas of Victory: The Early Years of the People’s Republic of China, Harvard University Press, 2007, pp. 207 – 231. Perry Link, “ The Genie and the Lamp: Revolutionary Xiangsheng,” in Bonnie McDougall, editor, Popular Chinese Literature and Performing Arts in the People’s Republic of China, 1949-1979, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984, pp. 83-111.

19Hou Baolin, “Xiangsheng and me – an interview with Hou Baolin,” Chinese Literature, February 1980, p. 101.

Barak Kushner teaches modern Japanese history in the Faculty of Asian & Middle Eastern Studies (formerly the Faculty of Oriental Studies) at the University of Cambridge and has a PhD in History from Princeton University. Dr. Kushner is a 2008 Abe Fellow who will be conducting research concerning “Cold War Propaganda in East Asia and Historical Memory.”  He worked in the US Department of State as a political officer in East Asian affairs and taught Chinese and Japanese history in North Carolina, USA. As a scholar he has written on wartime Japanese and Chinese propaganda, Japanese media, Sino-Japanese relations, Asian comedy and is presently penning a history of ramen noodles. melon small.jpg
Type,Article; Theme,History; Topic,History-Modern; Topic,Imperialism; Topic,International Relations; Topic,Popular Culture; Theme,Using Pop Culture to Teach About Japan;
comedy, Meiji, Japan, China, humor, Kushner, Barak, World War II, racism, ethnocentrism,,Meiji, society