What makes a funny joke? Only time can really tell.

In 1998, a young comedian named Kentaro Kobayashi was building a career that has led over the years through films, novels, manga and cartoons until his appointment as Director of the Opening Ceremony of the Games. Tokyo Olympics. Interestingly, in his novice phase he was drawn to the Holocaust as a source of humor, rather than the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an atrocity closer to home.

Interesting, too, that his bouncy gag on “(trying) to play the Holocaust with those human-shaped papers for a children’s TV show” apparently elicited no outrage at the time – or for decades. decades later. The standards change, maybe.

His abrupt dismissal 23 years later raises many questions: what is funny and what is not? What is offensive and what is not? How tasteful can humor be without being humorless? What a good taste must Would humor be if not to degenerate into cruel mockery of the victims, the sick, people who are different?

The Jewish human rights group Simon Wiesenthal Center quickly ruled on Kobayashi. “Anyone, no matter how creative, has no right to make fun of the victims of the Nazi genocide,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the center and director of global advocacy. Referring to the Paralympic Games, he added: “The Nazi regime also gassed disabled Germans. “

Kobayashi himself apologized profusely. “I think it was a time when I couldn’t make people laugh as much as I wanted, and I was trying to get people’s attention in a superficial way,” he said.

Fairly shallow. Yet, so what? says columnist Carolina Landsmann of the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. Addressing Tokyo Organizing Committee Chairperson Seiko Hashimoto, she wrote, “And now, very seriously, Hashimoto, tell us. Have you gone mad? For nearly 80 years, Jews have made, laughed and lamented jokes about the Holocaust – as for hundreds, if not thousands of years, they have spoken of the other calamities that history has inflicted on them.

“This is why honest Jews must utter a cry that can be heard as far as Japan,” Landsmann concludes – “we were not hurt! Who cares about a joke told in 1998 … Bring back Kobayashi and go down from the roofs.

What is funny, what is not funny? For the ancient Greek comic poet Aristophanes, everything was funny – in the hands of a comic master. He is the first comic book author whose works survive, the gadfly of classical Athens. For him, nothing was sacred. In his plays, staged mainly at the spring festival of the god of wine and fertility Dionysus, he mocked peace, war (this at a time when Athens was at war and losing), politics, politicians, philosophy, philosophers, excretion, secretion – and Dionysus himself, whom he portrays (tasteless) as a great buffoon. He was dragged to court at least once – by a politician who had smelled his sting – but basically he got away with it. More than that, he’s won awards, not to mention an immortal name.

Laughter and pain may or may not be weird bed mates, but they are definitely bed mates. They are inseparable. The September issue of PHP magazine offers a small but revealing example. Its general theme is how to cultivate “an easy mind” in the face of the many challenges that this enviable state faces. One contribution is that of a musician and writer named Sekaikan Ozaki. How does he cope with the lead blues? With laughter.

You must first find out that life is funny, even – maybe especially – when it seems anything but. At 36, he has had its ups and downs. His singing career finally launched, he is on stage one evening when he loses his voice. Can a singer get worse? He burst into tears. Then he attacked himself violently, hitting his neck so hard that he suffered a whiplash. Suddenly he saw it for what it was, if only you could see it that way – hysterically, silly funny.

What is funny, what is not? In December 2010, the UK’s national television channel BBC suffered a spectacularly sharp tacky attack – for which it later apologized – mocking a “double hibakusha”, a survivor of the two atomic bombings. Visiting Hiroshima when the first bomb fell, Engineer Tsutomu Yamaguchi immediately returned home to Nagasaki. Panelists on the BBC’s humorous quiz show “QI” wondered, amid much glee, if Yamaguchi was the luckiest man in the world – to have survived; or the most unlucky – for his double contact with the modern apocalypse.

“Was it funny,” The Diplomat newspaper asked in March 2011, “that the show’s panelists joked about radioactivity and the bomb ‘landed on Yamaguchi and bounced off’?

The Simon Wiesenthal Center has reprimanded Japan once, once in 2011 after rock band Kishidan performed – just for fun? – in Nazi clothes. “As someone who has visited Japan more than 30 times,” said Rabbi Cooper at the time, “I am fully aware that many young Japanese people are woefully ignorant of the crimes against humanity committed during WWII. world by Imperial Japan in occupied Asia, not to mention on Nazi Germany’s genocidal “final solution” against the Jews in Europe. “

Some laugh because they don’t know, others because they do. The question “What is funny?” – or even what the fun is – remains unresolved.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues discussed by national media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History”.

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