Woman Rush Hour and Political Humor in Japan

I like a good laugh, and that is one reason I have always been interested in comedy in Japan. I wrote a book about a comedian turned film director (who didn’t shoot that many comedies), have often sought out comedy films, and even have made going to lots of yose to watch rakugo and manzai one of my goals this year in Japan. I sometimes consider it a challenge to myself, as jokes can in some cases be one of the hardest aspects to understand about a foreign culture, but it also is a way of approaching Japan from a different direction.

The manzai team Woman Rush Hour did an act on TV recently that has made me think about comedy in Japan again.

One difference that observers have noted regarding humor in Japan is the seeming lack of political satire in Japan. Although it seems that comedy in the United States, and in many other countries as well, is dominated by political humor, to the point that such comedy can be more trusted by young people for its political analysis than regular news media, there appears to be virtually none of that in Japan. I’ve read many bad explanations of that, ranging from the old claim (which I in fact encountered when I was younger) that Japanese don’t have much of a sense of humor to the Japanese-supported stereotype that such humor is not welcome in a society focused on harmony. The first is simply a product of orientalist ignorance (anyone who has been to a yose knows that Japanese comedians can be hilarious) and the second just ignores history. In fact, there have been plenty of cases of political humor from the Edo era on. Just listen to Enoken’s amazing “Is This What They Call Freedom?” from 1954—which satirizes American H-bomb tests, the Cold War “peace,” Japan’s subservient relation to the USA, the SDF, and postwar Japanese politics—and you can see there has been very biting political comedy on a popular level from long ago.

If there is a lack of political satire in Japan, the reasons are more historical than cultural. Some have pointed all the way back to the Edo era to a history of censoring critiques of those in power. In the postwar, there was the famous case of the radio show Nichiyo gorakuban, which was eventually pushed off the air in June 1952 because of its aggressive political gags. That should underline the fact, however, that this is also an issue of media. One can still see political cartooning in the major newspapers; in live stage comedy, there are groups like The Newspaper or individuals such as Matsumoto Hiro who do political humor all the time. I believe the issue is largely one of broadcast media, especially of television. One sees this tendency with film as well, but it appears the broader the reach of a media, the more restricted it is.

That does not mean there is absolutely no political humor at all on television in Japan. Comedians are used as hosts all over television, even with current affairs shows. Beat Takeshi has hosted a prime-time political affairs show, TV Tackle, for nearly 30 years, and Matsumoto Hitoshi (of Downtown) and Ota Hikari (of Bakusho Mondai) have their Sunday morning shows. If Takeshi and Matsumoto are a bit on the right, Ota is a bit on the left. One also can see comedic impersonations of Abe and other politicians. But as with such impersonations, which spark a laugh simply from the attempt to impersonate rather than to satirize the politician’s positions, the general sense is that little of this humor pokes deep to the core of a political issue or takes a side, especially of those without power. Matsumoto has been criticized by leftist cultural critics for his apparent support of Abe’s rightwing regime.

It was against this background that Woman Rush Hour’s routine caused quite a commotion. Woman Rush Hour (WRH) is an established manzai duo with Muramoto Daisuke as the boke/clown and Nakagawa Paradise as the tsukkomi/straight man. Signed to Yoshimoto, they formed in 2008 and are a well-established act, even winning The Manzai competition in 2013. Muramoto in particular has appeared a lot on TV variety shows, establishing what you could call a “kiraware” character (a character you like to hate). 

In the December broadcast of The Manzai (which has ceased to be a competition), WRH did an act that was political to the core. It started out in a rather normal fashion, with Muramoto discussing Yoshimoto geinin (comedy talent), and noting how they seem to be everywhere. The first big gag is him complaining that while there are Yoshimoto geinin who have been arrested and caused huge scandals, somehow Muramoto himself has been voted the most hated geinin in Japan. So he declares he wants people to know him better. 

He first states that he is from Fukui Prefecture, a quite rural prefecture on the Japan Sea coast, but that few know much about Fukui. Here the tone starts to change. 

“I want want you to at least know where Fukui is. You ready? It is right across from North Korea!”

He then says he is from Oi-cho in Fukui, which is where a major nuclear reactor is. And it is next to a town which also has a reactor, which is next to a town with another reactor, etc. 

“There are four nuclear power plants in this small area. But in Oi-cho, there are no stores open after seven. After 7 o’clock, the whole town turns black!

“Just let me say this: Where the hell does the electricity go!?”

That gets a great laugh, but WRH is already touching on two very delicate topics: North Korea and nuclear power (especially the fact that the dangers of nuclear power have been forced onto rural areas while Tokyo gets all the electricity). The political humor will only increase in magnitude.

After this begins the pattern that structures the last half of the routine. In their patented rapid fire delivery, Muramoto poses to Nakagawa whether he wants to live in some place and Nakagawa says yes. “But if you want to live there, you have to love the place.” So Muramoto asks questions to Nakagawa about his knowledge of the location in a back and forth that leads to the final gag.

The first round is with Fukui, but the joke is basically a light one about depopulation. But the next one is on Tokyo, which ends up with a biting gag about Governor Koike Yuriko only caring about herself. Then it gets serious with Okinawa, as Muramoto mentions the Henoko base construction and the Takae helipad construction. Asking Nakagawa what the budget Japan pays to the US military every year is called—the Omoiyari Yosan (Sympathy Budget), by the way—Muramoto then presses him on who Japan should have sympathy for before America. Nakagawa blurts out: “It should have sympathy for Okinawa!”

The next rounds each take up major issues. One on Kumamoto Prefecture, which suffered a major earthquake a year and a half ago, asks why Japan is spending outrageous amounts on the 2020 Olympics when there are over 100,000 victims of Kumamoto and Fukushima still living in temporary barracks. Another on the USA ultimately criticizes Japan for being a “convenient" customer of US military hardware. 

The last round is about Japan, and it summarizes the routine. Despite all the problems they have mentioned, people in Japan still seem more concerned with the geinin scandals mentioned at the beginning of the routine. Muramoto asks his partner what is a bigger problem in Japan than North Korea, Okinawa, Kumamoto, and Fukushima, to which Nakagawa blurts out:

“The low (political) consciousness of the Japanese citizenry!”

And Muramoto then points at the camera and seriously declares:

“We are talking about you!”

Especially with the last reference to the audience, the routine was quite shocking to many. Not only has nothing like this ever appeared on recent Japanese TV, but the humor itself was quite current and pointed—not the wishy-washy kind that sometimes goes get onto the TV screen (and could be seen in a couple of the other acts on the same program). And it really attacked the audience.

It was also good manzai. Some friends have disagreed with me on this, but I thought it was really well constructed, starting easy, but still setting up issues to be returned to later. It had the repartee manzai is famous for, while also showing off WRH’s personal talent. Some of the gags fell flat (which can be a problem with political gags, which can sometimes make you less laugh than nod your head in agreement), but some were hilarious. The audience was laughing. 

The routine made the news. Not only was my Facebook feed full of friends talking about it the next day, but there were news stories about it, and Asahi TV even did a 20-minute news story about it on their morning show. It was of course debated on Twitter, with not a small number of people complaining that politics should never enter into manzai, but also a good number declaring this was the humor they had been waiting for.

It should be pointed out this was not something that new for Muramoto, who writes most of the WRH routines. On the one hand, one could argue this is just an extension of his love-to-hate “kyara,” or that it was possible because of his kyara. On the other, he had already made a name for himself for his political comments outside his routines, especially for criticizing Japan’s current remilitarization. On one show, he said he would never go off to fight a war for Japan, which made the right wing furious. He has declared himself a fan of George Carlin, so you can see he is trying to do something similar in Japan. 

Muramoto might not be the best spokesman for the left in Japan, but he did an interview with Asahi TV discussing why political humor seems to be absent in Japan that is quite on the mark. While I wish he could have discussed the media self-censorship I mention above, he underlines that this is a larger social problem. He says he cannot even talk politics to his girlfriend or to his friends, without them cringing and blaming him for ruining the conversation. Japanese society as a whole has made politics a dirty subject that must be avoided or swept under the rug. To him, political humor cannot survive in Japan if the citizenry is like this. That’s why he blamed the audience at the end of the routine. (At the same time, he stresses that some love his humor, especially those in Okinawa, Kumamoto, and Fukushima who have been the victims.)

I think it is important to blame media conglomerates, the government, and educational institutions for creating this kind of citizenry. But the fact remains that if political humor cannot be sustained without a vigorous political consciousness, that is also true of democracy. The lack of political humor in Japan is thus an illness that goes to the heart of this nation.

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