At an Undisclosed Izakaya Somewhere in Japan
By James Winovich
On July 26, 2015
As you’re sitting there struggling to sit in seiza, your knees begging you to stop, it dawns upon you: you’re officially at your first social outing with mostly actual Japanese people, rather than the usual group of foreigners who have been your companions so far during your short time in Japan.
As you’re having a delightful conversation with one of the few English-speaking members of the group, some other Japanese person joins in the conversation with a friendly, “Hello!”
After chatting for a few moments, you realize his English vocabulary doesn’t stretch much farther than asking, “What’s your name?” And since your copy of Minna no Nihongo is still sitting unopened back at your apartment, the conversation inevitably stalls.
Your English-speaking friend tries her best to keep things universal, but before you know it they’re speaking to each other in Japanese while you are left feining interest in their conversation.
Then, through the flurry of words you don’t understand, you hear your name, followed immediately by…
While you have no idea what caused this sudden outburst of joy, instinct takes over.
Your mind makes a decision for you without your knowledge. For some reason you find yourself laughing as well.
You’re not sure why, but it feels natural. Even though you’re unsure of exactly how funny the joke was, or how personally embarrassed/offended/excited you should be about the joke, there’s a comfort in laughing along with them. We’re all familiar with it.
My friend, you’ve just performed, “The Laugh.” And it can happen anywhere:
in your class, when a student tells a joke that makes everyone laugh and point at you;
at a Bounenkai, when someone apparently has just given you a toast, since everyone is now shoving an Asahi in your face;
or even at a 7/11, when a clerk giggles at you pulling out your Member’s Card
after asking if you would like chopsticks with your Bento.
When you first start your journey in Japan, you’ll find yourself unwittingly repeating The Laugh, and can be pretty frustrating. You’ll be walking around in a haze of misunderstanding, and it’s not much fun to be so uninformed. It sucks having to regularly fake a laugh so as to not be a buzzkill, and is probably something that you endured far less frequently back in your home country.
But feel no shame.
The Laugh is a regular, temporary part of learning a new language. I like to use the metaphor of training wheels on your bike of language study. If you keep on riding, you’ll get a place where you almost never have to use The Laugh, but only if you keep on riding.
The next time you find yourself performing The Laugh, make a mental note to think about it later. When you get the chance, study some vocabulary that fits your best guess as to what the topic was. Even if you’re wrong, you’ll still be studying Japanese and getting closer to never using The Laugh again.
If you slipped into The Laugh while hanging out with some close friends, you have another option. Later in the day, you can ask someone with a better understanding of Japanese what was so funny. They might think you’re a little crazy for asking about a joke from several hours earlier, so use this tactic with caution.
Which leads me to my final note:
Never ask people why they’re laughing while they’re laughing.
This is the equivalent to having each grain of rice shout out its caloric content as you tilt your head back on a nice piece of maguro. Sure, you’ll get the information you were looking for, but you’ll suck all of the fun out of the conversation. It’s not worth it, no matter how aggressive you are in your language-learning.
So, the next time you find yourself in a haze while people around you are laughing it up, just let yourself laugh along with no shame. You’re still on your journey towards a land where the laughs are genuine, the nod doesn’t exist, and your rice is silent.
Get it? (insert your version of The Laugh here)