“He will yet fill your mouth with laughter and your lips with shouts of joy.” Job 8:21
A hush settled over the room as I concluded my first Japanese speech. Instead of the expected response of laughter, I was greeted with dead silence. I had just made the painful discovery that Japanese humor was significantly different from American humor. Our assignment that day was to speak on a subject familiar to us, so being raised in Texas, I chose deer hunting. That was a huge mistake, and I compounded the problem even further by using a satirical approach. I thought I had cleverly titled the speech “How I Killed Bambi’s Mother,” but this vain attempt at humor was entirely lost on my horrified audience and as a result, went over like a lead balloon. My effort was doomed from the start as satire is typically not used by the Japanese and the imagery of a missionary bearing weapons to slay cute forest creatures was certainly not a laughable matter.
While the Japanese sometimes like to think of themselves as a serious people (majime ningen), they definitely have a sense of humor. Slapstick forms of humor are often seen on TV, which accounts for Mr. Bean’s huge popularity a number of years ago. Comedy team acts known as manzaishi are quite common in Japan. They are composed of a straight (serious) man (tsukkomi) and a funny man (boke) and their fast-paced jokes are usually centered on misunderstandings, puns and other verbal gags. Interestingly, many of these jocular performers are from the Osaka area of Japan, which has a reputation for comedic wit. Rakugo (落語, meaning literally “fallen words”) is another much subtler form of Japanese humor where a lone storyteller wearing Edo era clothing sits cross-legged on the stage with a paper fan as his only prop. This performer typically shares a gently amusing tale based on the dialogue of two or more characters and it is designed to entertain a more sophisticated audience.
After several failed attempts at humor when preaching in Japanese, I eventually learned that the safest form of joking was to make fun of myself using self-deprecating humor. Japanese may be unsure when a joke is intended, so they will refrain from laughing to avoid possibly embarrassing the speaker. Humor is one of the most subtle and demanding forms of communication as it requires not only refined linguistic skills, but also an in-depth understanding of the culture and one’s immediate context.
Although we know that Jesus wept as He shared the pain of those grieving Lazarus’ death (John 11:35), the Scriptures do not explicitly record that Jesus ever laughed. Yet, Jesus frequently told stories that must have provoked laughter among his listeners as He often used absurd life scenarios to highlight a spiritual truth. Laughter is often portrayed as an indication of God’s blessing (Genesis 21:6) and an expression of joy, which is listed among the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). Of course, not all laughter is equal, as some forms are coarse and vulgar, and some so-called entertainment comes at the painful expense of others. This type of laughter does not honor God nor His creation, but the misuse of humor does not diminish our calling to live joy-filled lives that are often evidenced by laughter. True joy that comes from God can powerfully transcend our circumstances and our cultures.