親父 (oyaji) in Japanese is a somewhat derogatory word for middle-aged men (for instance, my informant said that the word 親父 reminds her of a half-drunken forty-ish man sprawled on the couch in a sweaty wife-beater, watching a baseball game). ギャグ (gagu) is derived from the English word gag, and literally just means joke. Translated literally then, 「親父ギャグ」 is “middle-aged man jokes,” which is not far from its contextualized definition.
親父ギャグ aren’t just meant for middle-aged men, however. In short, an 親父ギャグ is simply any extremely lame joke, usually some form of pun or wordplay. There is a stereotype (or a blaison populaire of sorts) in Japan that dictates that middle-aged men are the ones that most often tell these jokes, because they do not care whether other people find it funny, as long as they themselves think that the joke is funny. Indeed, my informant’s father is an 親父ギャグ man, and when he tells one of these jokes, he finds his joke funny, but also finds it funny that none of his audience thought it was funny– in fact, he almost takes pleasure in their raised eyebrows and the shaking of their heads as they say, tiredly but affectionately, “Oh, there he goes again.”
My informant grew up in the city of Naha in Okinawa, Japan, and had 親父ギャグ engrained in her life from a young age by her own father. 親父ギャグ are most times made purposely lame–it seems as if it is a way, almost, of lowering oneself on purpose, so that other people are encouraged to be more themselves as well, a sort of ice-breaker. Look, the performance of it says, there’s no judgment here! Oftentimes 親父ギャグ can liven up a gathering or conversation in that way; it is extremely difficult not to smile or laugh at someone who is laughing hysterically at their own lame joke. When telling an 親父ギャグ, the subliminal aim is not to make everyone laugh at the joke–the point is to have everyone laugh at you laughing at your own joke, making yourself seem more accessible to everyone around you. In that sense, it is often a great act of bravery to tell an 親父ギャグ (unless, of course, you think it’s actually funny, and are embarrassed when nobody laughs at the joke itself). Both parties need to accept that the joke is lame, and laugh about it.
Some examples of 親父ギャグ from my informant’s father, which may or may not retain their humor through the translation (not that there was much humor in them to begin with):
A: “How do you say sidewalk in Japanese?”
B: 歩道？ (pronounced hodou, sidewalk, in Japanese.)
C: なるほどう！ (pronounced naruhodou, means I SEE! in Japanese)
Get it? Or this:
I’ll eat konnyaku tonight.
(This is funny, or supposed to be funny, because the food is konnyaku, and “I’m gonna eat tonight” casually is “konya (tonight) kuu (eat)” so they sound almost exactly the same.)
These are the kind of jokes that would get glazed-over expressions, silence, and low “ohhhhhhh my goodness…….” kinds of reactions if told in America. The difference is, that these jokes’ significance rest in their very lameness.
In Japan, a society governed by relatively strict social hierarchies and characterized by an almost extreme amount of politeness, these lame jokes are a way to let off some steam, and temporarily cast off any forms of judgment. 親父ギャグ are relaxing, in a way, because they do not require much effort from either party–the performer is not really trying to be funny, and all the audience needs to do is roll their eyes a bit, and smile.
ANNOTATION: In Japan, there is a popular children’s book series called 「かいけつゾロリ」(Kaiketsu Zorori), published by Poplar Publishing. The original books were also made into a feature-length film, a comic, and an anime. In this series, the fox protagonist of the story (and a wanted criminal) keeps traveling around the world with the goal of becoming the “King of Pranks.” This fox protagonist, Zorori, is the owner of the ぶっくらこいた (Bukkura Koita), a book that tells 親父ギャグ (oyaji gyagu) so bad that they physically freeze all those who hear it. In the series, he often uses this books to freeze or confuse his pursuers and opponents in order to make a quick get-away. That 親父ギャグ are used in a children’s series to add humor, then, illustrates the way 親父ギャグ are often viewed in Japanese society–something to make fun of, a distraction of sorts, but something people enjoy and find humorous all the same.
<Hara, Yutaka. Kaiketsu Zorori No Doragon Taiji. Kaiketsu Zorori. Tokyo: Poplar Publishing, 1995.>
<原, ゆたか. かいけつゾロリのドラゴンたいじ. かいけつゾロリ. Tokyo: Poplar Publising, 1995.>