Since a few years ago there has been this comedy craze (owarai boom) in the Japanese society which still continues, or even grows bigger today. If you turn on the TV, you are most likely to see a bunch of people who are called GEININ (young comedians) pump up the shows especially in evening and night programs.
Although Japan is many times associated with the image of hardworking, super-serious, stern-faced and labor-stressed people, the culture of laughter is deeply rooted in the people and society from early history as mass entertainment.
Here, I would like to give you a brief introduction to the history of mass entertainment in Japan.
Well I can't tell you since exactly when human beings started "laughing". Primitives could have laughed when somebody did something funny, or even when somebody just tripped over something. If I start discussing the history of laughter, it'll become an anthropological paper so I'll skip over that part and talk about the origin of laughter in entertainment, i.e., performances with the purpose to make audience laugh.
About 1,400 years ago, Japan had a strong relationship with China especially in trade. Through the numerous trades, many new things came into Japan and entertainment was one of them. Firstly, let's have a look at karuwaza, a kind of acrobatics which China boasts as her specialty still today.
Acrobatics itself in fact, was not something entirely new to Japan when the Chinese kind came in. Historical materials prove that there were acrobatic shows performed only in the courts to entertain the high-class people even before karuwaza was introduced. However, Chinese acrobatics appealed to Japanese as exotic since they used knives and fire with never-before-seen musical instruments. The foreign acrobatics amused and surprised the audience very much.
Since then, karuwaza enjoyed the privilege of being the top entertainer in the Imperial court for years and years. Nevertheless, when the authorities changed to Confucianists who more than anything valued civility, acrobatics was dragged out from the court. It simply wasn't acceptable to the new authorities because it was considered something unethical and uncivilized.
GEISHA (= people who perform gei = performers) displaced from the court soon started performing in front of lay people. The people loved the acrobatics and the performers enjoyed a great success outside of the court. This is said to be the very beginning of Japanese mass entertainment.
From this point, acrobatics developed a wide variation of entertainment including KOKKEI the equivalence to pierrot, MONOMANE which the performer imitates animal calls, KUGUTSU a marionette performed with music, magic-like KIJUTSU and GENJUTSU, and KARUWAZA that evolved into higher levels.
Traces of written OWARAI (comedy) can be seen in literatures but only for those who were literate, so I think I can say that laughter in public entertainment had all started here with performances that can be enjoyed with eyes and ears.
This time I explained the origin of Japanese mass entertainment, so from the next volumes I would like to write about how it evolved to what we see today. I will also pick up on mass entertainment which has a farily long history and is popular even today such as RAKUGO and MANZAI. Stay tuned!