Laughter of the Samurai: Humor in the Autobiography of Etsu Sugimoto

By Dodge, Georgina | MELUS, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Laughter of the Samurai: Humor in the Autobiography of Etsu Sugimoto


Dodge, Georgina, MELUS


Etsu Sugimoto's autobiography, A Daughter of the Samurai, was published in 1925, and critics since have sometimes dismissed it as the work of a conciliatory Asian American writer intent on furthering relations between Japan and the United States by lavishing praise upon her adopted country. Elaine Kim, in her ground-breaking introduction to Asian American literature, situates Sugimoto among the "ambassadors of goodwill," who saw themselves as diplomats whose mission was to gain understanding for their homelands by explaining foreign customs to a Western audience (24).(1) Although Sugimoto does indeed fulfill this role in her autobiography, beneath the bowing facade of a compliant Japanese woman is a wordsmith whose love for and pride in her native culture refuses to be quashed by the weight of American misunderstanding.(2) Throughout her autobiography, Sugimoto gently rebuffs American disapproval of Japanese customs and employs subtle humor to critique America. In doing so, she seeks to establish her identity as an intellectually and morally superior individual who delicately maneuvers the boundaries between two cultures.

If we accept Foucault's argument that the control of discourse yields power, then Sugimoto occupies a unique position as both autobiographer and humorist. As autobiographer, she assumes the triple role of author, narrator, and protagonist in her narrative. As humorist, she is teller, audience, and often the butt of her own humor, which both originates from her and frequently situates her as a target through self-effacing criticism of her own actions or Japanese customs.(3) Sugimoto should also be identified as the primary audience of her humor, because none of the reviewers of her day or critics of ours have bothered to mention this facet of her writing. From this site of ultimate control, Sugimoto subtly manipulates discursive positions, moving from the role of a naive immigrant who does not comprehend the laughter of those around her to that of a knowledgeable cultural anthropologist whose own humor is subtle but pointed.

It should be understood that Samurai is not a comic text, nor is Sugimoto a comic figure as those terms are usually applied to Western literature. In his study of ancient and early Japanese humor, R.H. Blyth notes that the jokes and antics that often characterize Western comedy are "just wit, without any increase of our wisdom or understanding of life" (162). In contrast, japanese humor tends to contain some deeper meaning that is often didactic or informational. This is not to imply that bawdy witticisms are not also an important element of Japanese humor; however, Sugimoto employs the humor found in classical Japanese literature, which J. Thomas Rimer describes as displaying sobriety and a lack of vulgarity" (16).(4) Her use of a more refined form of humor is in keeping with her purpose to assert her humanity and to establish her moral superiority, as a representative Japanese woman, over an American readership.

Ironically, Sugimoto's use of humor to defy American interpretations of Japan mirrors the development of humor in Japanese literature, which evolved as a form of opposition against the very class that Sugimoto represents. During the Tokugawa era (1600-1868), the rapidly expanding merchant class of Edo (now Tokyo) employed humor to express its dissatisfaction with life under samurai rule. The laws of Tokugawa's shoguns centered upon Chinese-derived Confucian traditions that placed restrictive doctrines upon many forms of social behavior. As an escape from moralizing ideology, the masses turned to literature, and jokebooks were produced that gave voice to the merchants' intent to subvert rulers' decrees (Levy 2).

As an expression of her dissatisfaction with American responses to Japanese culture, Sugimoto uses humor to explain the Japanese character to an American readership by comparing customs of the West with those of the East and defending the one that she believes to be more practical or moral. …

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