Fun. Serious ideas do for export. A nation's fun is for home consumption only: it would evaporate before it could be convey ed across the border. For this reason, we must abandon the endeavour to give the foreign reader any full and particular account of the Japanese mind on its comic side. Perhaps the best plan would be to say what Japanese fun isn't. It certainly does not in the very faintest degree resemble French esprit, that child born of pure intellect and social refinement, and reared in the salon where conversation rises to the level of a fine art, where every word is a rapier, every touch light as air. Shall we compare it with the grim mixture which we Northerners call humour, the grotesque suffused with the pathetic? It may seem a little nearer akin to that. But no, it lacks alike the hidden tear and the self-criticism of humour: it has no irony, no side-lights. It is more like what we may picture to ourselves in the noisy revelling of the old Roman saturnalia, the broad jest, the outrageous pun, the practical joke, the loud guffaw,
"Quips, and cranks, and wanton wiles,"
Weighed down by this incubus at the top, the national spirits sought a vent in the lower strata of society. In the inimitable sketch-book of Hokusai, the bourgeois artist who threw all classical rules to the winds, we see the sort of people who really "had a good time," while their betters bored themselves to extinction, namely, the Japanese shopkeepers and artisans. We see their homely jokes, their drunken sprees, their occasional sly hits at superiors, as when, for example, a group of street Arabs is depicted making fun of some Confucian sage behind his back, or as when the stately Daimyō's procession becomes a procession of grass hoppers bearing a mantis in a basket. The theatre, which no gentleman ever entered, was their happy hunting-ground, the pieces being written expressly to suit them, so that what nourished on the boards was, as may be supposed, not precisely a classic taste. The same in literature:—we must turn our backs on the books written for the upper class, and betake ourselves to vulgar company, if we want to be amused. Often, no doubt, the expressions are coarse. Nevertheless, let us give honour where honour is due. Though spades are called spades, we rarely, if ever, encounter any attractive refinement of wickedness.
It will have been gathered that most of the European forms of fun have Japanese parallels. Japanese puns, for instance, are not so very unlike our own, excepting one class which rests on the shapes of the Chinese written characters. Their comedies are of two kinds. The more modern ones are genuine comedies of manners; those handed down from the Middle Ages, and ranking as semi-classical because acted as interludes to the Nō, or lyric dramas, are of the nature of broad farce,—mere outline sketches of some little drollery, in which a leading part is generally played by the man-servant Tarōkaja, a sort of Japanese Leporello, and which always ends in a cut and run. Japanese comic poetry is mostly untranslatable. Fortunately their comic art speaks a dialect which all can more or less understand, though doubtless acquaintance with Japanese manners and customs, traditions, and superstitions will add much to an appreciation of the artists verve.
And here we must leave—very inadequately treated—a subject of peculiar interest. To undertake the explanation of any Japanese puns or other jokes, would be a laborious business and cruel to the reader,—still more cruel to the jokes. We have thought, however, that some amusement might be derived from a perusal of the following specimen of the mediæval farces. The translation is literal.
RIBS AND SKIN. (HONE KAWA.)
The Rector of a Buddhist Temple.
His Curate. Three of the Parishioners.
Rector.—I am rector of this temple. I have to call my curate, to make a communication to him. Curate! are you there? are you there? Halloo!
Curate.—Here am I! What is your reason for being pleased to call me?
Rector.—My reason for calling you is just simply this:—I, unworthy priest that I am, am already stricken in years, and the duties of the temple service weigh heavily upon me. So do you please to understand that, from to-day, I resign this benefice in your favour.
Curate.—I feel deeply indebted to Your Reverence. But as I am still deficient in learning, and as, moreover, no time, however late, would seem too late to me, I beg of you to be so kind as to delay this change.
Rector.—Nothing could please me more than your most charming answer. But you must know that, though retiring from the rectorship, I do not intend to leave the temple. I shall simply take up my abode in the back apartment; so, if there should be any business of any kind, please to let me know.
Curate.—Well, if it must be so, I will act in accordance with your august desire.
Rector.—And mind (though it can scarcely be necessary for me to say so) that you do everything in such a manner as to please the parishioners, and make the temple prosperous.
Curate.—Pray feel no uneasiness on that head! I will manage things in such a way as to please the parishioners right well.
Rector.—Well, then, I retire without further delay. So, if there should be anything you want to ask, come and call me. Curate.—Your commands are laid to heart.
Rector.—And if any parishioner should call, please to Jet me know.
Curate.—Your injunctions shall be kept in mind. Ha! ha! this is delightfull To think of the joy of his ceding the benefice to me to-day, just as I was saying to myself, "When will the rector resign in my favour? when will he resign in my favour?" The parishioners, when they hear of it, are sure to be charmed; so I mean to manage in such a way as to give them all satisfaction.
First Parishioner.—I am a resident in this neighbourhood. I am on my way to a certain place on business; but as it has suddenly begun to threaten rain, I think I will look in at the parish temple, and borrow an umbrella. Ah! here I am. Hoy! admittance.
Curate.—Oh! there is some one hallooing at the gate! Who is that asking for admittance? Who is that hallooing?
First Par.—It is I.
Curate.—Oh! you are indeed welcome!
First Par.—It is long since I last had the honour of coming to enquire after you! but I trust that the worthy rector and yourself are still in the enjoyment of good health.
Curate.—Oh yes! we both continue well. But I must tell you that, moved by some impulse or other, my master has deigned to resign the benefice in my favour. So I pray that you will continue as heretofore to honour our temple with your visits.
First Par.—That is an auspicious event; and if I have not been already to offer my congratulations, it is because I was not apprised of it. Well! my present reason for calling is just simply this:—I am off to-day to a certain place; but as it has suddenly begun to threaten rain, I should feel much obliged if you would kindly condescend to lend me an umbrella.
Curate.—Certainly! Nothing easier! I will have the honour to lend it to you. Please wait here an instant.
First Par.—Oh! very many thanks.
Curate.—Here, then! I will have the honour to lend you this one.
First Par.—Oh! I owe you very many thanks.
Curate.—Please always tell me if there is anything of any kind that I can do for you.
First Par.—Certainly! I will call in your assistance. But now I will be off.
Curate.—Are you going?
First Par.—Yes. Good-bye!
First Par.—I am much indebted to you.
Curate.—Thanks for your visit.
First Par.—Ah! well! that is all right. I will hasten on.
Curate.—As he said I was to let him know if any of the parishioners came, I will go and tell him what has passed. Pray! are you in?
Rector.—Oh! that is you!
Curate.—How dull Your Reverence must be feeling!
Rector.—No, I am not dull.
Curate.—Somebody has just been here.
Rector.—Did he come to worship, or was it that he had business with us?
Curate.—He came to borrow an umbrella; so I lent him one.
Rector.—Quite right of you to lend it. But tell me, which umbrella did you lend?
Curate.—I lent the one that came home new the other day.
Rector.—What a thoughtless fellow you are! Would anybody ever dream of lending an umbrella like that one, which had not even been once used yet? The case will present itself again. When you do not want to lend it, you can make an excuse.
Curate.—What would you say?
Rector.—You should say: "The request with which you honour me is a slight one. But a day or two ago my master went out with it, and encountering a gust of wind at a place where four roads meet, the ribs flew off on one side, and the skin on another. So we have tied both skin and ribs by the middle, and hung them up to the ceiling. This being so, it would hardly be fit to answer your purpose." Something like that, something with an air of truth about it, is what you should say.
Curate.—Your injunctions shall be kept in mind, and I will make that answer another time. Now I will be going.
Rector.—Are you off?
Rector, Curate.—Good-bye! good-bye!
Curate.—What can this mean? Let my master say what he likes, it does seem strange to refuse to lend a thing when you have it by you.
Second Par.—I am a resident in this neighbourhood. As I am going on a long journey to-day, I mean to look in at the parish temple and borrow a horse. I will go quickly. Ah! here I am! Hoy! admittance!
Curate.—There is some one hallooing at the gate again! Who is that asking for admittance? Who is that hallooing?
Second Par.—It is I.
Curate.—Oh! you are indeed most welcome!
Second Par.—My present reason for calling is just simply this: I am off to day on a long journey, and (though it is a bold request to make) I should feel much obliged if you would condescend to lend me a horse.
Curate.—Nothing could be slighter than the request with which you honour me. But a day or two ago my master went out with it, and encountering a gust of wind at a place where four roads meet, the ribs flew off on one side, and the skin on another. So we have tied both skin and ribs by the middle, and hung them up to the ceiling. This being so, it would hardly be fit to answer your purpose.
Second Par.—Why! it is a horse that I am asking for!
Curate.—Yes, certainly! a horse.
Second Par.—Oh well! then there is no help for it. I will be off.
Curate.—Are you going?
Second Par.—Yes. Good-bye!
Curate.—Good-bye.! Thanks for your visit.
Second Par.—Well! I never! He says things that I cannot in the least make out.
Curate.—I spoke as my master had instructed me; so doubtless he will be pleased. Pray! Are you in?
Rector.—Oh! that is you! Is it on business that you come?
Curate.—Somebody has just been here to borrow our horse.
Rector.—And you lent him, as he fortunately happened to be disengaged?
Curate.—Oh no! I did not lend it, but replied in the manner you had instructed me.
Rector.—What! I do not remember saying anything about the horse. What was it you answered?
Curate.—I said that you had been out with it a day or two ago, and that, encountering a gust of wind at a place where four roads meet, the ribs had flown off on one side, and the skin on the other, which being the case, it would hardly fit to answer his purpose.
Rector.—What do you mean? It was if they came to ask for an umbrella that I told you to reply like that! But would anybody ever dream of saying such a thing to a person who should come to borrow a horse? Another time, when you do not want to lend it, you can make a fitting excuse.
Curate.—What would you say?
Rector.—You should say: "We lately turned him out to grass; and becoming frolicsome, he dislocated his thigh, and is lying down covered with straw in a corner of the stable. This being so, he will hardly be fit to answer your purpose." Something like that, something with an air of truth about it, is what you should say.
Curate.—Your injunctions shall be kept in mind, and I will profit by them next time.
Rector.—Be sure you do not say something stupid!
Curate.—What can this mean? To say a thing because he tells me to say it, and then, forsooth, to get a scolding for it! For all I am now my own master, I see no way out of these perplexities.
Third Parishioner.—I am a resident in this neighbourhood, and am on my way to the parish temple, where I have some business. Well, I will make haste. Ah! here I am! Hoy! admittance!
Curate.—There is some one hallooing at the gate again! Vho is that hallooing?
Third Par.—It is I.
Curate.—Oh! a hearty welcome to you!
Third Par.—It is long since I last had the honour of coming to enquire after you; but I trust that the worthy rector and yourself are still in the enjoyment of good health.
Curate.—Oh yes! we both continue well. But by the way, my master, moved by some impulse or other, has deigned to resign the benefice in my favour. So I pray that you will continue to honour our temple with your visits.
Third Par.—That is an auspicious event; and if I have not been already to offer my congratulations, it is because I was not apprised of it. To-morrow being a religious anniversary in my family, I should feel greatly obliged if our worthy rector and yourself would condescend to come to my house.
Curate.—For myself, I will come; but my master will scarcely be able to do so.
Third Par.—What! has he any other business on hand?
Curate.—No, he has no particular business on hand; but we lately turned him out to grass, and becoming frolicsome, he dislocated his thigh, and is lying down covered with straw in a corner of the stable. This being so, he will scarcely be able to come.
Third Par.—Why! it is the rector that I am talking about!
Curate.—Yes, certainly! the rector.
Third Par.—Well! I am very sorry such a thing should have, occurred. At any rate, do you, please, be so kind as to come.
Curate.—Most certainly, I will come.
Third Par.—Now I will be off.
Curate.—Are you going?
Third Par.—Yes. Good-bye!
Curate.—Good-bye! Thanks for your visit.
Third Par.—Well, I never! He says things that I cannot in the least make out.
Curate.—This time, at all events, he will be pleased. Pray! are you in?
Rector.—Oh! that is you! Is it on business that you come?
Curate.—Somebody has just been here to ask both Your Reverence and myself to go to him to-morow, when there is a religious anniversary in his family. So I said that 1 would go, but that you would scarcely be able to do so.
Rector.—What a pity! I should have liked to go, as I just happen to be at leisure to-morrow.
Curate.—Oh! but I said what you had instructed me to say.
Rector.—I do not remember. What was it, then, that you answered?
Curate.—I said that we had lately turned you out to grass, and that, becoming frolicsome, you had dislocated your thigh, and were lying down covered with straw in a corner of the stable, so that you would scarcely be able to go
Rector.—You really and truly went and said that?
Curate.—Yes! really and truly.
Rector.—Well, I never! You are an idiot! Speak as I may, over and over again, nothing seems to be able to make you understand. It was if they came to borrow a horse, that I told you to make that answer! The end of all this is, that it will never do for you to become rector. Get along with you!
Rector.—Won't you get along? Won't you get along? Won't you get along?
Curate.—Oh dear! oh dear! oh dear! oh dear! oh dear! But, Reverend Sir, for all you are my master, it is an unheard-of shame for you to beat me thus. And for all you are the man you are, you cannot be said to have been without your frolics either,—that you cannot!
Rector.—When was I ever frolicsome? If I ever was, out with it quick! out with it !
Curate.—If I were to tell it, you would be put to shame.
Rector.—I am conscious of nothing that could put me to shame. If any thing there be, out with it quick! out with it quick!
Curate.—Well then, I'll tell it, I will.
Rector.—Out with it quick!
Curate.—Well, then! the other day, pretty little Ichi, who lives outside the temple gate, was here.
Rector.—And what about Ichi, pray!
Curate.—Just listen, please! Don't you call it a frolic to have beckoned to her, and then to have disappeared with her into one of the back rooms?
Rector.—Insolent rascal, inventing things I never did, and bringing shame on your superior! After this, by the God of War with his Bow and Arrows, I shall not let you escape me!
Curate.—For all you are my master, I do not intend to let myself get the worst of it.
Both.—Ah! ah! ah! (Fighting.)
Curate.—Has the old fool learnt a lesson? Oh! oh! I am glad! I am glad! I've beat! I've beat!
Rector.—Deary, deary me! where is he off to, after having put his master in such a plight? Is there nobody there? Catch him! I won't let him escape! I won't let him escape!
- Though the Japanese are respecters of dignities, we have ourselves heard some who had had personal experience of life in a Daimyō's palace under the old regime, apply to it the popular verse, Kiite gokuraku mite jigoku, that is "Heav'n to hear tell about, but Hell to see."
- It was first published by us a quarter of a century ago, in the "Asiatic Transactions," and afterwards in a work entitled The Classical Poetry of the Japanese, which has long been out of print.
- The "cover" of an umbrella is called by the Japanese its skin. Similarly they speak of the skin of a tree, the skin of an apple, the skin of bread (its crust), etc. In fact, the outside of most things is termed their "skin."