Does Prime Minister Noda Have a British Sense of Humor?


On September 2, 2011 Noda Yoshihiko replaced Kan Naoto as prime minister of Japan, having been elected to succeed Kan on his resignation as president of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan. The overseas media, in reporting on the story, made some disparaging remarks about how Japan has had six prime ministers in five years; they also took note of Noda’s comparison of himself to the eel-like dojō, or loach. Some of the media in Britain reported this in positive terms as an expression of the new prime minister’s self-deprecating sense of humor. How very British a take, I observed with interest.

Comedy in Japan generally follows the duo boke-tsukkomi format, where the boke is the dullard and the tsukkomi is the wit who ribs him. In contrast, Britain has tended toward an approach where solo comedians make themselves the butt of jokes to get laughs. A classic example of this sort of British humor, from around 20 years ago, is the TV character Mr. Bean, who was also quite popular in Japan. Along with many other Japanese, I found the bizarre quirks and odd behavior of this character to be absolutely hilarious.

Poking Fun at Yourself

The predilection in Japan for comedy based on the boke and tsukkomi roles, if viewed from a fresh perspective, might be said to reflect the dependence of each on the existence of the other. And the jokes aimed by the tsukkomi at the boke can also sting other people, including some of those in the audience. In self-deprecating humor, by contrast, there is no reliance on anybody else as the butt of the jokes; in other words, no other person is stung by the humor. It might even be described as the comedy of individualism.

Another important point regarding self-deprecating humor is that it is premised on an objective view of oneself. Being able to look at yourself from the perspective of other people and become aware of your own faults reflects broadmindedness and a spirit of objectivity. It also requires a great deal of intelligence. The same sort of self-deprecation can be seen in the tendency of British people to ridicule the weather and cuisine of their own country. One does not as often see the Germans, with their great pride, or the Americans, with their strong sense of justice, poking so much fun at their respective cultures. Of course, without a true sense of pride, it would not be able for the British to laugh at their own weaknesses as they do.

Sticking to a Loach Approach

It is interesting that the British media picked up on the hints of intelligence in Prime Minister Noda’s comparison of himself to a loach, and his vow—playing on the joke further—to improve politics even if it requires having to “crawl through the mud” like the bottom-feeding fish to do so. I wouldn’t say that the members of the ruling DPJ and the opposition Liberal Democratic Party absolutely require this self-deprecating view of themselves, but it would be helpful for them to be equipped with the sort of mental outlook that makes it possible to view oneself objectively and with a sense of humor.

Some might say that with the abundance of serious problems facing Japan and the sort of masochistic cynicism prevalent among its citizens, the country cannot stand much more self-deprecation. But I still think it would be a welcome development for Japanese politics to become infused with the sort of humorous outlook that can generate a convivial atmosphere and with a broadminded attitude that allows for an objective view of oneself.

Prime Minister Noda’s cabinet has started off with an approval rating of over 60%. The fact that this initial support level exceeded the new prime minister’s own expectations probably reflects the public’s fatigue with superficial populism and their eagerness for down-to-earth politics that does not shun the travails of crawling through the mud. I hope that the new prime minister will be able to maintain an objective perspective on how the public is viewing the policies he advances and how the international community is regarding Japan’s actions. This is exactly what will be needed to push ahead with the sort of politics that Japan truly requires. (September 22, 2011)

(Originally written in Japanese.)

Japan Noda Yoshihiko Democratic Party of Japan comedy humor manzai Britain self-deprecation loach