What is Owarai? Japanese Comedy

owarai comedy japan Culture
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Writer’s profile

Mao Goto is a Japanese freelancer who was born in Hayama, Kanagawa prefecture and raised in Tokyo. Since 2016 she lives in the Taito Ward, home to a lot of Japanese culture hotspots such as Asakusa, Akihabara, and Ueno. She has been interested in the field of English education in Japan and got her Master’s degree in March 2020. A lover of photography, travel, sweets, and cross-stitch. Contact her via Facebook.

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Comedy is what you want to watch when you need a good laugh. Comedians around the world work hard every day on TV and on stage to bring laughter to their audiences. Comedy is also very popular in Japan, with live comedy performances on various stages and on TV. So what exactly is comedy in Japan? How does comedy in Japan differ from other countries? Let’s take a closer look at the colorful world of Japanese comedy.

What is Owarai?

Comedians in Japan often use props

In Japan, comedy, in general, is called “owarai (お笑い)”, and is a form of entertainment in which comedians bring laughter to their audiences on stage through TV shows and manzai programs. There are many different types of comedy, including situational comedy, comedies in which only one person puts on a show, comedies in which two or three people work as a group, impersonation comedies, comedy musicals, and more. Comedy shows are held on stages all over Japan, and many customers go to comedy shows in search of a good laugh.

Manzai

One popular type of “owarai” is called “漫才 (manzai)”. Manzai is basically a pair of two comedians acting out two roles respectively called “ボケ(boke)” and “ツッコミ(tsukkomi)”. “Boke” is the person who says funny or unintelligible things in the show’s material, and “tsukkomi” is the person who points out the mistakes or unintelligible things to boke in a fast-paced, laugh-out-loud manner. 

You may have often heard this Japanese phrase “なんでやねん (Nandeyanen, Why?)” in that often comes up in Japanese entertainment. This is one of the typical examples of a tsukkomi phrase. Comedy in manzai is the exhilaration of pointing out funny points in a fast-paced and speedy manner, which leads to laughter.

Geinin

The comedian performing owarai is truly the central figure on stage. As mentioned above, there are various types of comedians who are called “芸人 (geinin)”, some of whom perform comedy alone and some of whom perform comedy in groups. Here is a brief introduction to the types of geinin in Japan.

Pin geinin

Pin geinin (ピン芸人) is a performer who works alone. The Japanese word “pin” is said to have originally come from the Portuguese word “pinta”, meaning “point”. At some point in Japan, it transformed into meaning “one” in dice or karuta, and the remnant of this word is said to have influenced the current Japanese word. Since these pin comedians are one-person comedians, many of them do impersonations or perform using props.

Comedy duo (konbi)

The comedic duo style is very unique to Japan

A comedy duo (お笑いコンビ, owarai konbi) is a group of two comedians. Comedy duos are often in charge of manzai shows that consist of a boke and tsukkomi comedian. “Konbi” is an abbreviation of “combination”, and unlike a one-person duo, each person has their own role to play in their owarai, which allows them to express their comedy in a richer way in front of the audience.

Comedy Trio

The trio takes turns making fun of each other

A comedy trio (お笑いトリオ) is a group of three comedians, as trio means “three”. Due to the composition of the group, the members can change up the order and roles of the boke and tsukkomi for varied comedic effects.

Japanese sense of humor

No country in the world has a comedic style quite like Japan

Compared to comedy shows around the world, Japanese comedy and sense of humor is said to be very unique. For example, one characteristic point is that while social satire is popular and influential in the West, there are very few comedians in Japan that address socially sensitive themes such as politics or religion. This is because, in Japan, overtly funny stories and jokes are more likely to be widely accepted than funny takes on a single social issue and making a joke out of it. 

Another difference is that in Japan, comedies are often performed by several comedians as a group such as comedy duos or comedy trios, whereas in the West, stand-up comedy is often performed by just one person. 

Where to see Owarai in Japan

If you want to experience this kind of unique Japanese comedy, the best way is to go to a live Japanese owarai show. One of the best places to see a show is Yoshimoto Theater, which has three main locations in Osaka, Hakata, and Tokyo. Yoshimoto is known as a well-established comedian agency with both new and veteran comedians. If you want to see famous Japanese comedians perform live, you should visit the live venues of Yoshimoto Theater. If you want to see live performances more easily, you can watch comedy shows that are often being broadcasted on TV. Owarai competitions in which comedians compete with each other with their stories to win are aired several times a year, and you can also watch these programs on TV. Recently, many Japanese comedians have been making their way to YouTube to perform their comedy, so if you have a favorite Japanese comedian that you would like to watch and enjoy, YouTube may be a good place to start.

We have looked at what “owarai” is in this article, but how is Japanese comedy different from that in your country? The point of laughter may differ from country to country because of cultural and national influences. If you are interested in Japanese comedy, please feel free to visit an owarai theater, watch YouTube videos or catch a show on TV to experience Japanese comedy. We hope you can find your favorite geinin and enjoy their comedy!

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