Japanese Puns: a Fun Approach to the Japanese Language and Culture

Do you find yourself yawning every time you open your Japanese textbook? There could be two reasons for this. 

  • You’re not getting enough sleep.
  • Your poor old coursebook is severely lacking in the Japanese puns department.

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Why Learn With Japanese Jokes?

Japanese puns bring joy and laughter to the learning process while providing breadth and depth in the culture we are coming to grips with. Every time you learn a Japanese pun, you’re not only learning new vocabulary; you also get to understand what makes Japanese people laugh, and why.

Below, you will find our favourite Japanese puns as well as brief notes on how they relate to Japanese culture. 


About Japanese Humour

In Japan, there are two main ways of doing comedy: extreme physical humour and deadpan wordplay. Today, we are going to focus on the latter (being a language blog, it wouldn’t be very serious to upload a video of myself repeatedly falling to the ground!). 

Known as Japanese puns or dajare 駄洒落だじゃれ, these simple jokes can make young Japanese people groan, but will surely help English speakers improve both the depth of their language ability and their knowledge of Japanese culture. 

So, how does dajare work? 

Dajare is a type of humorous wordplay that relies on similarities in words to create a simple joke. The typical Japanese pun uses words that have the same sound but different meanings. 

For example:

地元区長は痔も特徴!(じもと くちょう は ぢ も とくちょう!)
The local district president also has hemorrhoids!

In English, the pun doesn’t make much sense. In Japanese, however, the phrases “local district president” (地元区長) and “also has hemorrhoids” both have the exact same pronunciation: “jimoto kuchō” / “ji mo tokuchō.”

Though dajare humour is sometimes written off as oyaji gyagu 親父ギャグおや, or “old man jokes.” they provide a fun approach to the language and help learners make new vocabulary more meaningful. 

Besides, if you ever happen to find yourself at a silent waiting room in Japan, it’s always handy to have a few puns up your sleeve.

How much is salmon roe?

pexels-cottonbro-3304176-201x300.jpgIt’s no secret that sushi is a staple of Japanese identity. It is believed that Japanese people developed this iconic dish around the end of the Edo period (1603-1868), when soy sauce was starting to be produced in large quantities. It wasn’t just a matter of flavour. Soy sauce was a significant discovery because it helped maintain the freshness of the meat at a time when refrigeration was not yet available. 

Besides, let’s admit it: the combination of flavours is great.

Oh, did we make you hungry with all this sushi talk? That’s exactly what this pun is about. イクラ (salmon roe) and いくら (how much) are both pronounced “ikura”, and you can use them together while you walk around Tokio to say that you’re in desperate need of a snack!

きっと 勝つか 
Kit Kats: Assured victory!

Japanese culture is all about academic excellence, and not only at university level. If you thought end-of-year tests are a mere formality in Japanese high schools, think again. High school exams are such a big deal, in fact, that there’s an entire subgenre of Japanese puns to talk about them!

The pun above, for example, refers to a type of candy that is usually given as a gift to someone who is about to take a test. Being full of sugar, Kit Kats are thought to aid concentration and give you lots of energy for long and demanding exams. 

From a linguistic perspective, the pun works because “kit” (きっと) means “definitely,” while katsu 勝つか means “to succeed”. By giving someone a Kit Kat before a test, you’re not only giving them a delicious study-aid, you’re also foretelling an assured victory.

5 Yen coins for good fortune!

If you’ve ever visited a Japanese temple or shrine, you may have noticed that people like to throw coins into the offertory box after they’ve said their prayers. From a ritualistic perspective, the ideal number of yen coins for doing this is five, and it all comes down to Japanese puns. Why? Because “five yen coins” (五円ごえん) can also be written 御縁ごえん, which has the same sound but means “fate” or “chance!”. 

Next time you visit a Japanese shrine, remember: by throwing 5 yen coins into the box, you get to invoke good fortune and practise your Japanese puns, all at the same time!

Have a red snapper and a Happy New Year!pexels-shivkumar-sd-1382177-1-200x300.jpg

It’s not only Kit Kats that inspire Japanese people to come up with witty dejare humour. Out of the dozens of traditional dishes that are served on New Year, a surprisingly big number derive their significance from Japanese puns, too. The red snapper ( 鯛たい), which is ) is a species of marine ray-finned fish, has a very similar sound to the expression  めでたい which means “auspicious” or “happy”.

Similarly, the second character in “black soy beans” (黒豆くろまめ) also works as a positive phrase that people usually tell each other around New Year, meaning “be strong, live well”. 

さんいしいこくにむこ → 産医師異国に向こう
An obstetrician goes to a foreign country

A second, less common type of Japanese puns is called goroawase. These are phrases that people use to link numbers with words. They are mainly used by Japanese students who need to remember dates or other numerical information and by companies that want to make their phone numbers more catchy. This might seem like a strange thing to do, but didn’t we use to repeat the line “My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nachos” to remember the planets? No? Just me? All right, then.

Goroawase may not be very popular among English speakers but it certainly is in Japan. The one above, for example, is an absurd but memorable phrase that sounds exactly like the number 14159265 (PI).

Other famous goroawase Japanese puns are:

1492 (Discovery of America)
いよくに = ”It’s a nice country”
いよくに(がみえた!)= ”Wow, I can see land!”

23564 (The exact length of a day: 23 hours, 56 minutes, 4 seconds)

にさんころし → 兄さん殺し → ”killing one’s brother”

As you can see, every Japanese joke or pun brings a hidden short lesson in Japanese culture. Thanks to Japanese puns, we get to learn about Japanese religious beliefs, their eating habits, and of course, their unique sense of humour.

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