Jokes in Japanese: Humor and Puns to Elicit Laughs or Groans

Whether you’re hoping Japanese can get you a job, you’d like to learn enough of the language to travel or you’re just interested in how Japanese people see the world, taking a look at Japanese comedy can give you a leg up.

Also, if you want to tell and understand jokes, not only will you have to take a closer look at the language, you’ll have to learn what makes Japanese humor unique, thereby gaining cultural insight.

So what are jokes like in Japan? Let’s take a look!


1. “The orange on top of the aluminum can.”

(あるみかんのうえに ある みかん。)

The science of the joke: “Aluminum can” in Japanese is アルミ缶 (あるみかん), where the split between words is あるみ + かん, but if you move the split one syllable to the left (ある + みかん), you end up with ある (there is) and みかん (mikan/mandarin orange). 

アルミ缶の上にあるみかん is a full sentence turned into a modifier, “___ that is on top of the aluminum can.” Therefore, the phrase is “The mikan that is on top of the aluminum can,” and arumikan is repeated twice.

Granted, this is not a sentence, as there is no predicate (what is the orange even doing?!). Fragments are common in Japanese puns, and they can be inserted into longer dialogues or combined with other phrases to form full sentences.

For example:

“Do you want the orange that is on top of that aluminum can?”

Additionally, because both of the similar-sounding words are included, you can interpret Japanese puns in more than one way. In this case:

a. あるみかんの上にあるみかん
“The orange that is on top of the orange that we have/that exists.”

b. アルミ缶の上にアルミ缶(をおいてくれ)
“(Please put) the aluminum can on top of the aluminum can.”

c. あるみかんの上にアルミ缶(をおいてくれ)
“(Please put) the aluminum can on top of the orange that we have/that exists.”

So you can see, with a little extra hhhrrrrngggggh, you can change the meaning of the joke without changing the phrase.

2. “Where do the teachers eat and drink? In the staff room.”

(しょくいんは、どこで たべたり のんだりするん?しょくいんしつ で!)

The science of the joke: This one I’m particularly proud of…because I made it up myself. The joke here is in the words “staff,” “food” and “drink.” If you break the word 職員 (しょくいん, staff) down into its two Chinese characters, you get 職 (しょく, working) and 員 (いん, member).

The Chinese pronunciation, or 音読み (おんよみ), for the character 職 is しょく, or shoku, as in 就 (しゅうしょく, job-hunting) or 業 (しょくぎょう, occupation). 食 (しょく, food) has the same Chinese reading, shoku.

Some 漢字 have multiple readings when used in Japanese. For example, 食べる, to eat, is たべる, or taberu, but 食事, meal, is しょくじ, or shokuji.

The first, taberu, is the Japanese native pronunciation, and is a word that existed in Japanese before the 漢字 for “food” was adopted from Chinese, while the second, shoku, came from Chinese and is used in compound words such as 朝 (ちょうしょく, breakfast) and 後 (しょくご, after eating).

The characters 員 (いん, member) and 飲 (いん, beverage/drinking) likewise share a Chinese pronunciation, いん or in, as in 酒運転 (いんしゅうんてん, driving while drunk), 料水 (いんりょうすい, drinking water), 店 (てんいん, store staff) or 会社 (かいしゃいん, company employee).

Ergo, 職員 (しょくいん staff) and 食飲 (しょくいん, eating and drinking) * are homonyms, and you end up with:

“Where do the teachers eat and drink? In the staff (eating and drinking) room.”

* The actual word for “eating and drinking” is the reverse: 飲食 (いんしょく). If you, like me, are persistent in your joking, though, you can overcome this obstacle.

If you tell this joke out loud, use hand gestures for “eating” and “drinking,” or else you won’t receive the uproarious laughter you deserve.

3. “Japan falls into the sea and makes a splash.”

(にほんは うみに おちて、じゃっぱーん!)

The science of the joke: 日本 (にほん) means “Japan,” and ジャッパーン (じゃっぱああああん) is pronounced “Jap-paaaaan,” and comes from the onomatopoeia チャップン (ちゃっぷん), the sound of a large “sploosh,” or splashing. Therefore, “Japan falls into the sea, and Jap-paaaaan makes a splash.”

The Japanese onomatopoeia sounds like the English word for the country that is doing the falling into the sea. It’s also funny because Japan is an archipelago, so there’s a lot of water.

4. “The futon fell off.”

(ふとんが ふっとんだ。)

The science of the joke: 布団 (ふとん) is a mattress, and 吹っ飛ぶ (ふっとぶ) is “to be blown off.” As with the first joke about cans and oranges, this is a pun that repeats sounds while changing the meaning.

Unlike the former, the sound changes slightly in this joke: ふとん, or futon, becomes ふっとん(だ), or futton(da), acquiring an extra letter. It still works as a pun, though, as multiplying letters within Japanese words is one way of making them more expressive:

くさい (kusai) — It stinks.

くっさい! (kusssssssai!) — It really f***ing stinks!

ほら!(hora!) — Hey, look here.

オッラア!(orrrrrrrraaaaaaaaaa!!!!) — Hey…up yours.

5. “Thank you, Paprika.”


The science of the joke: This joke is a form of しりとり, meaning “word chain” (but literally meaning “taking butts”), a game where one person writes a word, and the next person must write a word that starts with the last character of the previous word:

ありがとう (thank you) leads to…

とうらし (paprika), which leads to…

羅針盤 (らしんばん, compass)

Generally, only the final character is used in the gameIn this case, though, the last sound is used and because it’s a joke, rather than an official game of butt-taking, this transgression is completely viable.

The first half of the word means “thank you.” The latter half means “red pepper” (in some countries, “capsicum” or “paprika”).

When using this in front of actual, real people, emphasize the middle syllable, とう, for that special comedic oomph.

This is without a doubt a “dad gag.” I would like to dedicate this award to my family, and my bell pepper seeds.

* “Paprika” is also the title of a brilliant and surreal anime movie. As you can see, all of these jokes are layered like a shallot.

What Are Japanese Jokes Like?

Japanese verbal comedy, excluding non-comedic wordplay (tongue twisters), comes in two major flavors: bad (puns), and dad (gags).

The first, 駄洒落, are like the puns we tell in English. Like when you and your friend are talking about the handsome balloon standing five feet away, and your friend says, “Hey, c’mon…don’t inflate his ego.”

Yeah, I suck at puns…in English.

One major difference between Japanese and English puns is that English uses clever substitution of a word for one that sounds the same but has a different meaning, or uses the multiple meanings of a word (to inflate a balloon with air, versus to inflate someone’s ego with praise) to create a joke.

Japanese puns, on the other hand, take both of those words and put them in the same sentence.

The verbal jokes in the second category, 親父ギャグ, are literally “old man jokes,” or “dad gags.” Those are the same as “dad jokes” in English:

“Dad, I’m pregnant.”

“Hello, Pregnant, I’m…a grandpa?!”

Resources to Practice Telling Jokes in Japanese

  • If you’re looking to improve your Japanese joke-telling skills even further, a good way to do this is by learning it straight from Japanese people themselves. To start with, watching comedy shows is a great way to learn Japanese through TV.
  • Another option is the language learning program, FluentU, which uses authentic content such as movie clips, music videos and more. You’d consume the same content that Japanese people do, with the added benefit of interactive subtitles, flashcards and personalizes quizzes. 


Thank you, thank you. I’m here till Tuesday. And now you can tell some Japanese jokes yourself!

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