Comedy's Tentative Return to Japan

Two weeks after quake, a series of Twitter puns is getting laughs in Japan

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The jokes Gilbert Gottfried and 50 Cent made on Twitter about the Japan earthqauke weren't funny. But could they have been? The BBC has made a largely theoretical case last week that"sick jokes" about tragic events can be a form of catharsis, assuming the teller can "distinguish well-intentioned satire from cheap nihilism."

A real-world illustration of this principle is currently underway in Japan, where ex-pat comedian Dave Spector is being praised by the press and public alike for his Twitter puns about the earthquake and the recovery. In a profile of Spector published in today's Japan Times, journalist Tomoko Otake marvels at how "many [readers] have retweeted (or forwarded) the jokes, saying Spector's attempt at humor amid the national crisis has brought them a sense of relief."

We can't tell what Spector's saying, because his tweets are in Japanese. Thankfully, the Japan Times provided translations and explanations for two of them. It's a thorough (very thorough) testament to the power of puns and empathy--some of these jokes take three paragraphs to explain.

Sukkari kirechatta mono: Kan-denchi" ("What has run out completely? Kan-denchi")

Kan-denchi is normally written with three kanji characters — kan (dry), den (electricity) and chi (pool) — and means "battery." Immediately after the quake, many shoppers hoarded packs of batteries fearing power blackouts would force them to rely on flashlights.

This caused a shortage of batteries all across Japan, especially in the Kanto area.

But by replacing the kanji for "kan" to the one for the prime minister's surname, Kan, Spector twisted the meaning of the phrase to mean that the prime minister had run out of energy — which was probably not off the mark as the Fukushima crisis is so enormous that it would sap anyone's vitality.

"Ima Amerika-gun ni Nihon ni tonyu shite hoshii kugunki: sento-ki." ("The aircraft I want the U.S. military to bring to Japan now: a fighter plane").

Instead of using the proper kanji characters meaning "fighter," he has written "sento" with a different set of kanji, meaning "public bath.

And in this way, Spector was reaching out to the tens of thousands of quake survivors at evacuation centers who had not been able to take a bath for days.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.