When Japanese People Say “American Joke”

When Japanese People Say American JokeJapanese humor is funny (surprise). It comes in all different forms, from cheap slapstick, to short skits, to long joke setups, to detailed storytelling. To foreigners, some of it may seem a bit outdated, or cheesy, or just weird. Of course just like humor of your own country, there is plenty of bad humor. Unfunny people are more common than funny people, and this includes what you see on TV. But there is too much out there to not find something you like.

However, there is a phrase that bothers me when it comes to comedy in Japan.

The Japanese word for joke is: 冗談 (じょうだん).

There is a separate word for a different type of joke: American Joke (アメリカンジョーク)

This gives the impression that Japanese jokes are different from American jokes.

Now the standard explanation you’ll get from a Japanese person is that an “American Joke” is:

1) filled with sarcasm
2) requires cultural knowledge
3) requires concentration
4) is difficult to understand

The problem with the word American Joke is that it used when a Japanese person doesn’t get the joke, and thinks it’s not funny. It’s kind of like a way of being nice to the joke teller, letting them know that it may be funny, but it’s too difficult to understand.

Japanese people use the phrase amongst other Japanese people, even if an American isn’t involved.

It almost can be used interchangeably with the phrase 寒い(さむい) (that joke wasn’t funny).

American Joke is misleading

Now there will be plenty of arguments that Japanese humor is different from American humor. So American humor isn’t funny to Japanese and vice versa.

This is just so over broad. Yes, there will be certain areas of humor that are unique, and less appealing cross culturally. But there are just as many similar areas and themes, that work beautifully and in harmony.

Even more importantly, humor is personal. Based on your experiences, education, and upbringing, certain things will be more funny than others. People don’t laugh at the same things.

Let’s look at a major example that many of you may have experienced.

Two of the most common jokes foreigners love to make to Japanese people are:

1) When asked where you’re from, you say you are Japanese.

2) When asked how long you’ve been studying Japanese, if you are really good, you state a ridiculously short amount of time like 3 weeks.

Now I’ve done this before a number of times in the past. And reactions were split:

– Sometimes I got a puzzled look, followed by a “oh, American Joke!”
– Sometimes I got a genuine laugh.
– Sometimes I got a つっこみ, where the person plays along with the joke and inserts his own punch line.

American Joke creates misunderstanding.

If I’m not funny (don’t worry, it happens a lot), give the not funny reaction like “はぁー.” You don’t need to justify my bad joke.

What do you think about American Joke? Misguided meaning?

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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


When Japanese People Say “American Joke” — 12 Comments

  1. Reminds me of Time Travelers


    “American Joke” flag hanging in the background



    Everyone laughs

      • The joke is that you are cutting the pizza in 8 slices instead of 6 slices. The person says that eating 8 slices would be too much. But actually, it’s still the same amount of pizza!

        • Ahh I see, thanks! I was confused because I thought 切る meant something else than “cut” in this case, like the person was ordering 8 pizzas or something. I think this was because where I live they never cut the pizza for you – you have to do it yourself!

  2. I’m wondering how much sarcasm is actually used in the Japanese language. Or if it’s a western concept – hence them not getting it. Really curious to know.

    • Sarcasm is of course way more common in Western humor (especially American). However, that doesn’t mean it has zero existence in Japan.

  3. I remember reading somewhere that Japanese didn’t understand sarcasm at all. It just seemed weird to me. I guess it’s just uncommon. All my jokes are sarcasm. :-(

    • It does exist, just many people don’t like that form of humor compared to the way it is welcomed open arms in many Western countries.

      • This is actually interesting. Just like Adam said, I think it’s a matter of culture and maybe exposure, not so much about “not getting it”. I haven’t paid attention to this before, but recently I’ve become aware of how common sarcasm is in the Western culture. Nowadays I often find many people unnecessarily sarcastic, even though I used to love heavily sarcastic humour. Now it often seems less funny and kind of mean.

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