the kangaroo also thinks


Because Japanese contains an incredible amount of homophones it’s an outstanding language for making puns.  Especially famous are a class of puns referred to in Japanese as 親父ギャグ (oyaji-gyagu, or quite literally “old man gags”).  These puns — perhaps related to a kind of universal constant in which the humor of old men is self-consciously terrible and liable to inflict pain — are often followed by a shivering motion on the part of the receiver and an emphatic exclamation of “Samui! Samuuuuuiiii!” (samui = 寒い = cold).  I’ll give an example of one of the more famous 親父ギャグ to try to demonstrate the kind of humor that’s usually involved with this sort of wordplay.

The phrase「布団が吹っ飛んだ」is pronounced futon-ga-futonda and means ‘the futon has blown down.’  However, the (almost) identical homophonic construction futon-ga-futon-da can also be heard as ‘the futon is a futon.’  So, an oyaji who sees a futon that has fallen from the balcony where it was being aired out might see this as the perfect chance to use an age-old groaner that indicates that ‘the futon has fallen’ and ‘the futon is a futon’ at one and the same time.

I bring all this up because the other night I was at a standing bar with incredible food when the oyaji who was standing close to my friends and I decided to try out some of his 親父ギャグ on us, all of which were very, very cold and thus very, very, greatly bad.  Somehow I want to say “delightful as a train wreck,” but perhaps that isn’t quite right.  In any case he laid this one on me:

“How do you say「一期一会」(ichi-go ichi-e) in English?”

This is a famous saying in Japanese, which basically describes the transient nature of existence.  “One life, one meeting,” I replied.

“No! One strawberry, one picture!”

Of course, the whole point of this joke is that it’s utter nonsense.  Ichi-go ichi-e does mean ‘One life, one meeting,’ but homophonically it can also be heard as ‘one strawberry, one painting.’  The interesting point about this particular gag is that it requires at least a rudimentary knowledge of both languages to understand the ridiculous work of (mis)translation involved in making this pun.

Before you find yourself getting too  cold, I’ll close this off with two of my favorite 親父ギャグ, both of which are taken from the 親父ギャグ500選 (a website that presents a selection of 500 famous oyaji-gyagu).  The first of these is 「ラクダは楽だ」(rakuda-wa-raku-da) which can be heard as either “the camel is a camel” or “the camel is relaxing.”  The second — 「カンガルーも考える」(kangaru-mo-kangaeru) — can be heard as “the kangaroo is also a kangaroo” or “the kangaroo also thinks.”


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