Ahh, dad jokes. Love them or hate them, you can’t deny that their roots in clever wordplay once upon a time demonstrated a clever, Shakespearean-like understanding of the English language. Nowadays, they’re more likely to get an eye-roll and exacerbated groan.
The same is true in Japan, except instead of “dad jokes” they’re called “oyaji gyagu,” translating to “middle-aged man gags.”
Oyaji gyagu are a type of clever pun called dajare, a Japanese term for wordplay. While dajare were once a staple of high-class entertainment for feudal lords, now they’re met with reactions by less enthused audiences (or victims?) whose typical response is to shiver and comment on a sudden chill in the room by saying, “Samui…” meaning, “It’s cold…”
The origins of the modern-day oyaji gyagu date back to the 70s, after folk duo Anonenone’s single 魚屋のおっさんの唄 (“Fishmonger’s Song”) set the stage for a trend of pun-filled comedic songs à la Weird Al Yankovic. These songs hit the mainstream and the baby boomers grew up listening to them.
Now all grown up and the main demographic using and abusing these cheap puns today, the baby boomers inspired the name “middle-aged man gags,” although some oyaji gyagu are popular with young children too.
Whether your goal is to show off your chops in Japanese or annoy your friends, try out some of these different types of oyaji gyagu at the next event you’re invited to. Just don’t overdo it, or it might well become the last event you’re invited to.
Similar sounds, different meaning
These types of oyaji gyagu use two words or phrases that sound the same but have an entirely different meaning.
For example, take the Japanese version of the name for New York: ニューヨーク (nyūyōku)
This sounds identical to the Japanese word for “taking a bath”: 入浴 (nyūyoku)
Put these two homophones together and you get the phrase ニューヨークで入浴, nyūyoku de nyūyōku, or “taking a bath in New York.”
Here are a few more examples (note that the words aren’t always homophones, but at least sound quite similar):
eiyō ga ēyo~
“Nutrition is good!”
kataomoi de kataomoi
“My shoulders are heavy from this unrequited love.”
karē wa karē~
“This curry is so spicy!”
isu ni suwattemo, issu ka
“Is it okay to sit in this chair?”
Ambiguous word separation
Japanese can be very tricky when it comes to word separation. Where does one word end and the next begin?
This next type of oyaji gyagu is called ぎなた読み or ginata yomi, and it embraces this ambiguity to turn a relatively innocuous phrase into something dirty and/or hilarious.
For example, take the following phrase:
“I made bread.”
Simply by changing where the pause goes in this sentence, you get a whole new, raunchy meaning out of it:
“I ate underpants.”
Eek! As you can clearly see, the smallest change can make a huge difference in Japanese.
Let’s take a look at some more examples of dangerously similarly-sounding phrases:
“Hmm… that’s puzzling.”
“I’ve been waiting to poop.”
“I forgot my brush.”
“I forgot to put on a bra.”
- 倒産か、 辛かったな。
tōsan ka, tsurakatta na
“Bankruptcy, huh? That’s gotta be tough.”
tōsan, katsura katta na
“It looks like dad bought a toupee.”
Play on common greetings
Japanese greetings (挨拶, aisatsu) can quickly become extremely repetitive. It’s always “ohayo gozaimasu” when you come into work in the morning, then “otsukaresama desu” when you leave for the evening.
Some punny folks came up with a remedy to break up the repetition of common Japanese phrases, simply by turning the word into an entirely new word halfway through.
Take the following phrase for “thank you”:
It’s a classic, but how can we spice it up?
“Thank you” + hot pepper
Here, we took the last “tō” sound of arigatō and tacked on a whole different word that starts with that sound, “tōgarashi,” which means “hot pepper.” How’s that for some spice?
Take a look at these other examples of wordplay on common Japanese phrases:
“I’m heading out now.”
“I’m heading out now” + muscle
“See you soon.”
“See you soon” + toilet
“Excuse me” + electric fan
“Good evening” + wine
There is so much fun to be had with oyaji gyagu. It’s a great way to play around with Japanese and experiment with similar-sounding words or phrases.
But with this power comes great responsibility. Don’t overuse it, or your power might swiftly turn into a new ability to turn any room samui with your bad jokes.
For more on learning Japanese
- Learn Japanese with our original study materials on GaijinPot Study
- Questions about studying Japanese in Japan? Take a look at the Japan 101 section on Higher Education and Studying Japanese
- Join our GaijinPot Study Facebook group to connect with fellow learners
- Learn more about the GaijinPot Study Placement Program