Sunday Tangent: SAPPORO SOURCE DEBITO Column on the power of humor and how it preserves sanity


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Hi Blog.  Time for a Sunday Tangent.  My latest tangental column in SAPPORO SOURCE — not on human rights, but on humor.  And the power it has over us.

Download the entire issue of SAPPORO SOURCE here in pdf format.  Cover, scanned page, and text of the article follows.  Arudou Debito in Sapporo

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SAPPORO SOURCE Column 5 to be published in November 2009 issue

Look at my photo above. I look like a real sourpuss, don’t I? (Hey Editor: Go ahead and insert witty comment here.) But don’t judge this puss by his fur. I am in fact the Cheshire Cat — a man who smiles and laughs a lot. In fact, without humor, I think we would all go insane.

Humor is a funny thing. Nobody can exactly define what a “joke” is, why something is “funny”, or how one develops or cultivates a “sense of humor”. But we all know its effects.

Humor, as you know, causes that wonderful instant reaction where you lose control of yourself — and emit a smile if not a full-on loud laugh. The longer you laugh, the better you feel. It is a catharsis.

You can tell when somebody’s been under a lot of stress lately when they laugh long and loud even at the lamest joke. Why? Like a volcano erupting, laughter releases the toxins of stress that build up in this modern world.

But it goes beyond that. Consider the power humor has over us.

There’s the “likeability” quotient: We might dislike a politician or opinion leader, but one good gag from him and suddenly he is “charming”. Televised debates in Japan must have the occasional joke or they get overbearing — viewers crave that spoonful of sugar for entertainment value. I know at least one politician who gets elected on amusing charisma alone. And look how much pressure is on Democratic Party of Japan’s Okada Katsuya just to smile!

There’s the popularity factor: Have a good jester attend a soiree, and suddenly he’s the “life of the party” and soon invited back. Remember your Class Clowns of yesteryear? (It’s easy to, isn’t it?) They often go on to bigger things. Some of the richest people in the world are comedians, literally laughing all the way to the bank.

Humor even influences love. One common reason for choosing a spouse? “He makes me laugh.”

Humor is also a powerful analytical tool. Consider one variant — irony — and the social service it provides. For example, listen to what comedian Stephen Colbert said about former President Bush in 2006 during a speech at the White House:

“The greatest thing about this man is that he is steady… He believes the same thing Wednesday as he did Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday.”

Not only did many laugh at that, but some also realized the Emperor Has No Clothes. A joke can penetrate farther into the psyche than reams of political commentary. Public figures: Alienate the stand-up comedians at your peril.

In Japan, however, the lack of irony as a source of humor severely impairs political analysis (one exception: outstanding political impressionist group “Newspaper”). But not to worry: Japan too has its fount of silliness and wordplay.

Thanks to a language replete with homophones, and a set time and place for laughter (be it manzai, rakugo, or konto), Japan has no shortage of belly laughs. Humorwise, I am at home here, being an incorrigible punster (so don’t encorrige me!). In fact, bring out the booze and the stereotypes of the sexes and suddenly you have an evening of mirth and jape.

Although Japan sometimes seems to have rules just to spoil your fun, it sure knows how and when to let loose and party. And laugh.

Back to my personal relationship with humor. I talk about serious topics every single day on my blog, — so much so that people have said I depress them, and they ask why I don’t depress myself. Easy. Every single day, for at least an hour a day, I find something that is funny.

I own all of “South Park”, a show that defies gravity by getting better over the years. I collect “Simpsons”, “King of the Hill”, “Monty Python”, George Carlin, Stuart McLean, and Robin Williams. I subscribe to comic books and Britain’s Private Eye magazine (with so much irony you can’t take regular articles seriously again). I get silly in conversations with friends, and try to work in the occasional dirty joke. I guffaw at night and get back in my groove by morning.

So should you. As people who can understand English — and that means you, readers of this column — you can tap into a wellspring of well-developed humor culture, including racial and ethnic humor, accents, sarcasm, and no-holds-barred parody. Take advantage of it.

Because it is the people who do not laugh and erupt in small doses who wind up erupting in large doses — rending asunder all around them. The humorless never let themselves lose control however momentarily, and they smother their soul in the process.

Beware: It is the soulless who make the most inhumane decisions. Consider the company of some humorless historical figures: Spain’s Franco, Zaire’s Mobutu, Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, Turkmenistan’s Niyazov, Burma’s entire ruling junta. Not to mention Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and the Kims.

I agree it’s certainly less enjoyable to be laughed at than laughed with, but the people who cannot laugh at themselves are the ones who, given enough power, actively stop anyone poking fun at them. Those paranoid about not being taken seriously are the ones most likely to become dictatorial, suppressing their public until they are straddling their own political volcanoes. Yet all you have to do is laugh at them, and the walls around naked emperors come crashing down.

Humor is what will save mankind from itself, for it rehumanizes people and puts things in perspective. So, everyone, every day find a way to laugh yourself silly. Even if it means just going down to the beach alone and sniggering at the seagulls. It’s good for you. No matter what’s bothering you, I guarantee you’ll have the last laugh.

2 comments on “Sunday Tangent: SAPPORO SOURCE DEBITO Column on the power of humor and how it preserves sanity

  • Another John says:

    And my humorless, joyless (US-based with plenty of US folks in the Tokyo office) company could use this note…but I’d get whacked if I posted it on the common area board.

  • In my old eikaiwa gakkoo, I once photocopied and posted the following in our teachers’ room:

    Panel 1:
    Snoopy (lying down on his dog house): “Today I’m a dog.”

    Panel 2:
    Snoopy: “Tomorrow, I’ll probably still be a dog.”

    Panel 3:
    Snoopy: *Quiet reflection, sitting on his doghouse.*

    Panel 4:
    Snoopy: “There’s so little prospect of advancement.”

    (And at the bottom, I wrote the name of the school.)

    The non-Japanese staff loved it: Brits snickered and Aussies gaffawed. But the Japanese office manager literally flipped out. He started a manhunt for the rebellious party, sending his lackeys out to question every one of the non-Japanese teachers (Japanese teachers were excluded, of course.) “Did you put that up? Do you know who did? Huh?!”

    You want to talk about “rending asunder all around them?”

    And, no, they never did find out who posted that little Snoopy comic…


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