The Western Mystique

The Western Mystique

Can humor cross cultural boundaries?


Originally published on on August 2009

The intern at my office, Emiko, is one of the brightest young women around. She attends the super-elite Tokyo University and has a keen interest in an international career. She hopes to go to graduate school abroad, and she often uses our lunch break as an opportunity to quiz me about life overseas. Yet recently, she’s been having trouble wrapping her head around a particular intricacy of Western behavior.

Japanese culture is renowned for being difficult for foreigners to understand. Everyone has had encounters with things like tatemae and honne, uchi and soto or wabi and sabi. These things are, supposedly, so quintessentially Japanese that Westerners will spend a lifetime before we can even begin to comprehend them. But cultural differences are a two-way street. There is something so wholeheartedly Western, so acutely occidental, that it baffles even the most cosmopolitan residents of Japan: good old fashioned stone-faced sarcasm. Deadpan humor just doesn’t cross the intercultural divide. Witness a case in point:

Recently, my friend Gabe had had a long day at the office. After spending ten hours enduring the constant berating of his bucho, he escaped his white-collar prison and stopped at a sushi restaurant on the way home, hoping to nurse his pride back to health with plates of shrimp and salmon. As he plopped the first bit of maguro into his mouth, he noticed that the Japanese man sitting next to him had begun to stare. As their eyes met, the man, with astonishment on his face, exclaimed, “You use chopsticks so well!”

Now, if you’re like most Western residents of Tokyo, you’ve heard this exclamation approximately 10 bazillion times. Gabe is no exception. This time he decided to have some fun with his dinner companion.

“Of course I’m good at chopsticks,” he replied with a straight face. “It was my major in college.”

Gabe waited a beat for the man to burst out laughing. It didn’t happen. Instead, his companion froze. Then, in one swift motion, he snatched his coat and check from the counter and bolted, fleeing the freaky foreigner who had researched cutlery in college. Far from succeeding at making a friend, Gabe’s humor had possibly guaranteed that this poor Japanese man would never talk to any Caucasian ever again, for fear of having to converse with someone whose life revolved around sporks.

Illustration by Shane Busato

Illustration by Shane Busato

For the past couple of weeks, this one example has become the centerpiece of the lunch break with Emiko. Every time I tell the story, it both confuses her and makes her all the more determined to solve the longstanding puzzle.

“But why would he say that? There’s no reason,” she protests.

“Well, he was just being silly, trying to have a little fun,” I say.

“But no normal person would major in chopsticks!”

“Well, right, that’s the joke.”

“How is that funny?”

This pattern of conversation tends to repeat itself, as I grope at possible ways to explain why the concept of a college education focused on being able to consume food is humorous. Emiko gets tired of my poor performance as a cultural ambassador and moves on to more practical matters.

“Well, what should the man have said?”


“What’s the right response in that situation?”

At this, I was dumbstruck. Is there a correct response to that situation? As I thought it over, Emiko pulled out her ruled notebook and five-color pen, ready to record the answer.

“I guess you could just say, ‘No way!’ Or maybe you could—” Emiko’s hand immediately became a blur as she took down my words in neat, precise cursive. “Hey, look, that’s not really the correct answer,” I quickly added. “You could say a lot of things. You could be sarcastic in response and say, ‘Me too,’ or, ‘Wow, you must be a genius.’”

Emiko’s pen stopped and she fixed me with a critical gaze. “But what’s the right response?” she demanded.

“Well, I kind of like the genius comment, but that’s just…” Emiko clicked the red ink into position, crossed out what she had written, and then proceeded to write the new answer in immaculate lettering. This is when I decided that lunch was over.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean to suggest that the Japanese are incapable of appreciating humor, or that Tokyo University is full of stiffs (although we all know a few such folk). On the contrary, many Japanese comedians are hilarious, and actors like Beat Takeshi or Hitoshi Matsumoto certainly know how to use irony. However, when it comes to deadpan humor, there’s something that just doesn’t translate. Which brings me to the question I can never solve: what is the correct response to the chopstick compliment?