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Humor in Japanese art : a survey of humor in Japanese art from three selected 200 year periods Robinson, Frances Mary Playfair


The Japanese, as a people, are very different from the Chinese. As far as one can talk of national characteristics, they are less ebullient and extrovert than the Chinese. A sense of humour seldom appears in their daily life whereas, oddly enough, their art shows a lively wit. The reverse is true of the Chinese who are a witty gay people in life but are not generally so in their art. Peter Swann's provocative statement prompted this investigation regarding the absence or presence of humor in uniquely Japanese art. A secondary aim was to try to define the nature of any humor discovered. The study was limited to three periods of Japanese history in which there was a minimal amount of direct influence from China and in which there developed relatively pure Japanese art forms. Humor is defined as "a critical, yet sympathetic, human response to a stimulus occurring unexpectedly in an otherwise ordered existence." It is discussed as an intellectual-emotional response. The intellectual aspect implies an understanding of events. The emotion encountered is never one of anger, bitterness or sarcasm. It is not noble, sublime or mysterious. It is a response of warmth. The first era studied, the protohistoric period, produced haniwa, clay figures, which were investigated. While it was not possible to state that haniwa were humorous in intent, many emerged exemplifying the foregoing definition of humor. These happy and laughing tomb figures elicit a response of humor today. The nature of the humor-response was of two varieties. One was indeed Swann's "lively wit" and the other emerged as a gentile, subtle type of humor. The second period studied was that of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in which the main body of emaki was produced. The historical background to the growth of this truly national style of Japanese art was covered and many emaki were investigated. Summarizing the kind of humor found, it became evident that the Japanese is a race able to laugh at itself. Yashiro's "sympathetic smile of good will" is shown in the emaki itself and is elicited from the observer. "Lively wit" was found in scenes from the Shigi-san Engi, the Ban Dainagon Ekotoba and in the Choju Giga. A gentle, subtle humor was observed in the Yamai no Soshi scroll and in the Gaki Zoshi.. In both of these latter emaki, the pathos toned down the nature of the humor making it less lively than in the former scrolls. Finally, the last period under consideration was the two hundred and fifty years of Tokugawa shogun exclusionist policy—l6l5-1867. The Japanese form of art known as ukiyo-e was investigated. It was necessary to understand the historical background of these Japanese prints in order to determine if and when stimuli occurred upsetting a natural order of existence. Again, it was discovered that at least two kinds of humor were present. Overt and "lively wit" was demonstrable, as was a subtle, not-quite-hidden, touch of gentle humor. While there was no difficulty in proving the presence of humor in uniquely Japanese art, the nature of that humor was more difficult to determine. Swann's contention that Japanese art shows a "lively wit" was found to be true, but only in part. A subtle, quiet and warmly sympathetic kind of response was also demonstrated. Examples of these two types of humor were found both in the actual objects investigated and, also, in the nature of the response elicited from the observer. Although humor evinced different characteristics, both types found show a critical, yet sympathetic, response to stimuli occurring unexpectedly in an otherwise ordered, existence.

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