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No Laughing Matter?

Mr. Tsutomu Yamaguchi, one of the "double atomic bomb survivors" passed away on 4 January, 2010. His extraordinary experience was featured in a comedy quiz show by BBC, aired last December. This programme immediately caused a stir among Japanese viewers, which led BBC to issue apologies a few times. Here's the video-clip of the programme in question.

It may be "bad taste" and "ignorant" as some viewers thought, but it certainly isn't racist in any way, or trying to belittle the tragedy. You can see they are just being British. These men are bursting to say something funny on the topic, but they are not making light of Mr. Yamaguchi's experience or poking fun at atomic bombing itself. As far as I can see, the only offensive moment in the programme was when one of the panel said "his life wasn't curtailed" because he lived to be 93, rather carelessly and dismissively, and Stephen Fry hurriedly murmured "not exactly." If you think he had a jolly good old life, only kicking the bucket at 93, the old dog, then you should've done your homework. Just google "atomic bomb disease/ victims."

Apart from that, I do not find the programme itself particularly offensive (although it is not at all hard to imagine how his family must've felt, watching this programme). I do take issue with BBC's apology, however.

"QI[the comedy quiz show] never sets out to cause offence with any of the people or subjects it covers. However on this occasion, given the sensitivity of the subject matter for Japanese viewers, we understand why they did not feel it appropriate for inclusion in the programme."

This is fine, you may think. A good enough apology on a tricky matter. What seems to be missing in this official comment is the bit about QI frequently taking up European experiences during WWII too, this not being any preferential racist treatment for Japan. Interestingly, this part of the apology, which was reported by a reliable source of Japanese media (Nikkei), cannot be found anywhere else in the English coverage of this fiasco (so that was only my rough translation: the original text from the article was 『第2次大戦中の欧米人の悲惨な経験についてもお笑いクイズ番組で「しばしば取り上げてきた」とし、日本人だけを差別的に扱っているわけではないと釈明している』).

How charmingly condescending, as only Brits can be: "oh we shouldn't have done that. These Japanese, they're so touchy about atomic bombings. We, the mature Europeans, laugh at each other all the time, in fact, even at the Holocaust. That's the extent of our sophistication, it's part of our culture and history. But they'll never get that, will they, because they don't understand the first thing about humour (particularly the British kind)."

Oh, please don't go highbrow on us, BBC, especially with that sad excuse of a second-class comedy quiz show, with a bunch of middle-aged men in Hawaiian shirts trying so hard to be funny, desperate not to be outdone by others. If you need to make some apologetic noises, then please let it be about failing to be funny or provocative.

Granted, laughter has transcending power. To laugh at something means, to some degree, to look at things differently. That is why we can laugh at tragic events; it does not mean we are inhuman monsters who find other people's tragedy funny. We are laughing at something else that humour lets us see in the otherwise unlaughable situation. Laughter offers us a different perspective.

In fact, laughter probably is the only way we can cope with the sheer human misery in some cases. Laughter offers us some escape, as it lets you switch out of your perspective. It allows you to look at your life from outside, which is already some form of relief in itself. While you're laughing, you are outside of your own predicaments; you're no longer trapped in your life. If you can laugh, despite everything, you are OK.

This works on onlookers too; those happy people, who lead comfortable enough life, may be jostled out of their comfort zone when they laugh at something they are not supposed to find funny. It makes them feel uneasy. Laughter can have some disturbing effect, precisely because it sticks the harsh, raw reality of this world in our faces for a split second. Because of this, laughter is, by nature, subversive. In the hands of someone like Dario Fo, it can be made into explosive expressions of anger. But we don't go into that here, to keep it simple.

So, laughter is probably the greatest gift we have (some even claim that it is a specifically human ability to laugh, though I'd argue that that is a particularly human-centric idea and even smacks of imperialism somewhat. How many times have we seen similar scenes in films where the supposedly incomprehensible "natives" make some awkward attempts at jokes to the dumbfounded-and-then-delighted white people, by which we are supposed to understand that they have managed to build some connection because those who have been hardly perceptibly human so far are now shown to be "human"? But I digress).

We can laugh at ourselves, and embark afresh on this thing called life. Or, we can laugh with those afflicted, in our utmost compassion for the fundamental misery of our existence. There should be no taboo for laughter, as long as it is offered in understanding of our fellow beings. Sometimes, all we can do is laugh or cry.

Here's my complaint, BBC; you can laugh at anything you like, but please have the decency to make it funny. (And tread carefully when you apologise.)

I heard a rumour before that James Cameron was planning to make a film about the late Mr. Yamaguchi. While we cannot expect this film to be as irresistibly witty as BBC, we can at least be sure that it will be thoroughly informative, disturbing and deeply moving. I'd very much like to see this film. In 3D, of course.

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