Sunday, Jul 15, 2007, 11:57:06

Japan Times and Hugh Cortazzi, Snot in the Schnurbart.

Of some strange reason Japan Times loves to publish Sir Cortazzi's observations no matter how ridiculous and boringly common they may be.

Since march 1999 he has written no less then 223 opinions as Japan Times calls his articles always reminding the reader:

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984. as if this would impress and lend credibility. We know a lot of diplomats that might as well have been serving on the moon instead of Japan since many of them upon years in Tokyo do not know the difference between miso and kuso.
We browsed through Cortazzi's "opinions" and found several that are shining examples of mediocre "Japan watching" at best, and many of the observations reminds us of a rhetorical flea-circus where the star-fleas are Revisionist, Nationalist, Ultra-nationalist, Hawkish, Militarist and the superstars are Comfort women and Nanking with Yasukuni as stage background.

We did find one flea in Cortazzi's circus that ..shall we say is a bit out of the ordinary and which he calls A Japanese sense of humour?

Off we go.

Cortazzi analyzing Japanese humour.
Japanese and Germans are thought by some "Anglo-Saxons" to have many similar qualities, including a lack of a sense of humour and a tendency to take themselves too seriously. I don't think the former is fair; the latter is closer to the mark. A recent letter in a major English daily paper was given the headline "The Japanese would do well to laugh at themselves a little more. " My immediate reaction was to wonder whether Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is capable of laughing at himself.

Cortazzi goes on:
The English, not always with justification, pride themselves on their sense of humour. No Englishman in public or private would admit that he or she does not have a sense of humour, although they would accept that not all jokes or comical situations make them laugh. Most Japanese would not, I think, attach so much importance to having a sense of humour. Instead, I think they prefer to call themselves serious people (or to use the Japanese term "majime ningen"). An English person might feel rather put out to be so labeled. Why do Japanese seem to take themselves so seriously? Is it because laughter and humour have traditionally been frowned on in Japanese culture as vulgar and low? This is not entirely fair. The humour of, for instance, the monkeys and frogs in the Choju giga (Toba Sojo) scroll surely amused Buddhist priests and the aristocrats of the 13th century. Perhaps it was in the Edo Period that humour came to be regarded as vulgar.

Mr. Cortazzi, advised by a friend who worked in the Imperial household manages to dig up some obscure Japanese humour as well as he concludes that It is not easy to make good jokes in any language and it is especially difficult for a foreigner speaking in Japanese. I was always rather pleased when I managed to get a few real laughs out of an audience. 

Well! If Cortazzi's speeches in Sapporo, Shimane and elsewhere was as deprived of whit and humour as his writings it is understandable that his poor listeners only laugh out of politeness ( Obviously they noticed that he was trying to be funny).

The fact is that the Japanese have an excellent, refined sense of humour. Especially valuing creative and improvised "razor-vitted sharp-tongued" humour. Erotic humour in Japan is, needless to say very rich, entertaining and sophisticated both written and illustrated full of fantasy. Fortunately western-christian humour does not find fertile ground among Japanese  because it often seems rude, simple and primitive and targeting, insulting something or somebody. Additionally in US, England, Germany, France humour more often than not is racist, (Jew-, Polak-, Nigger-,  Arab-, Pakistani-, muslim-jokes) and not funny at all. And another thing. Sir Cortazzi failed to mention that compared to Europe and US, the majority Japanese women posses  a natural and hart-lightning sense of humour. As for his argument that there is no word in Japanese for humour, well; the Inuit does not have a word for cold but twenty or so different words for snow just as Hungarian has over ten words for horse ( I do not know them all ).
We shall here take the liberty to take Sir Cortazzi on a short tour of Japanese humour that in spite of his deep knowledge (according to Japan Times) seems to have failed his attention. Japanese Mythology is rivalled only by classic Hellenistic humour. Japanese literature starting with Genji monogatari and and Makurazoshi (very refined humour) all the way up to Abe Kobo's Box man is very rich in satire as well as humorous details, as his trilogy starting with Sunano Onna, a masterpiece parody about male/female relations. Illustrated humour is self evident from Utamaro  to Takeda Hideo, from Bakabon to Doraemon. 220px-Okuni_with_cross_dressed_as_a_samurai.jpg

Okuni with cross dressed as a samurai.

Japanese theatre and film starting with Okuni, contemporary of Shakespeare who started the first satire/cabaret/comedy house about Kyoto officials and aristocracy getting involved with easygoing girls or visiting bordellos, becoming very popular even after the female roles had to be played by male actors, today known as Kabuki. Humour in Japanese film is ever present in Korosawa's Seven Samurais (Kikuchiyo), Sanjuro, Akahige, Dodeskaden as in Shanghai Bansking (Bakumatsu), Haguregumo (Watari Tetsuya and Momoi Kaori) not to mention Otokowa Tsuraiyo with Torasan's "Aikawarazu baka ka?" (I don't mean Mr. Cortazzi). Katsu Shintaro's humour is a joy in itself.

Maybe what Mr. Cortazzi fail to understand is, that there are certain places and activities where Japanese exclude humour, such as tea-ceremony, Kendo, Kyudo etc. etc. simply because the purpose of these highly disciplined strictly regulated art-forms and the objective is to become perfect. Any humour there and it becomes meaningless.

Finally Mr. Cortazzi writes:
The Japanese would certainly benefit in international relations if they could relax a bit more, take life less seriously and laugh at themselves as the writer of the letter in the British newspaper quoted above suggested. Abe in particular should take note!

We wonder how humorous Teflon Tony Blair and Mr Cortazzi would have been if say IRA extremists would have had nuclear-tipped exocet missiles aimed at London.

Yes, Japan Times and Hugh Cortazzi are like Snot in the Schnurbart and separating them from time to time would be utterly relieving. 

by Gabor Fabricius


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