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‘They’re not prudes’: What is Japanese humour and why don’t we get it?

Takashi Wakasugi’s offbeat sense of humour helps him pay the bills.

After moving from Japan to Australia, Mr Wakasugi decided he’d combine his passion for comedy with the need to improve his English.

“So I tried [stand-up comedy] and I loved it,” he says.

Mr Wakasugi now performs stand-up around the country — using this Western style of performance to unpack his Japanese identity and poke fun at it.

In one set, for example, he laments how his Japanese obsession with cleanliness means he can’t watch the Lord of the Rings films without wondering when the characters last brushed their teeth.

“F***ing shampoo, Gandalf!” he pines, before adding, “I’m so Japanese”.

A Japanese man in a colourful shirt, performing stand up comedy
Takashi Wakasugi says there are some big differences between Australian humour and Japanese humour.(Supplied: Takashi Wakasugi)

But when asked to sum up the humour of his homeland, there’s no easy answer — a country’s humour is complex, layered and in the case of Japan, very opaque to the outside world.

“I think the most popular answer to what is Japanese humour is: It’s physical and it’s quirky,” Mr Wakasugi says.

He says again, “quirky”.

So what exactly is Japanese humour and how did it develop over the centuries?

A comic-erotic diva

For Tomoko Aoyama, an Associate Professor of Japanese at the University of Queensland, one of the earliest figures in the history of Japanese humour is not a person, but a goddess.

An illustration of a Japanese woman in traditional dress.
Meet Ame-no-Uzume: Comic-erotic performer and shamanistic trickster.(Getty Images)

In Japan’s Shinto religion, Ame-no-Uzume is the goddess of humour, or as Professor Aoyama calls her, “a diva”.

“[She was] Japan’s first comic erotic-performer and shamanistic trickster,” Professor Aoyama tells ABC RN’s Late Night Live.

Quirky stuff.

Ame-no-Uzume appears in the 8th century texts Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, which chronicle mythology and history.

In one story, the sun goddess Amaterasu retreats to a cave and the world descends into darkness. Cue Ame-no-Uzume, who uses a comic-erotic dance to invite her out. She succeeds and light is restored.

In Professor Aoyama’s eyes, this “diva” rescued the world with laughter.

She says the goddess of humour is “brave and powerful” and in having no taboos about sex or her body “is quite different from the stereotypical image of Japanese women”.

‘Wacky and iconoclastic’

Australian Roger Pulvers is an author, translator, playwright, filmmaker and reporter, who has mostly lived in Japan since 1967.

Read More:‘They’re not prudes’: What is Japanese humour and why don’t we get it?