Professor of Japanese Literature, Cultural Studies, and Gender, University of Oregon
The “Career Woman” parody skit (Kyaria ūman neta) by Chiemi Blouson with B was one of the most significant popular culture phenomena of 2017. This parody of a woman who takes control in romance and work, as demonstrated by how she regards men, premiered on the television show PON! (NTV) in January 2017, provided a second life for Austin Mahone’s 2015 pop song “Dirty Work,” and coined popular catchphrases. Frequently performed on television and widely circulated online, the skit was parodied by fans and made into commercials. It was camped (extended through irony and bad taste) in performances ranging from children’s recitals to gay burlesque. The skit exemplifies how parodies reflect trends and biases and spread recognition, if not acceptance, of gender roles through laughter. It also demonstrates how parodies tend to depoliticize social issues rather than promote social change.
Broadly defined, a parody is a cultural work that imitates or appropriates an individual’s style or an existing text for comedy or ridicule. Its first literary use is generally attributed to playwright Ben Jonson in the 1590s, and the term is derived from the Latin parodia and the Greek pariodia, denoting a burlesque poem or song (Oxford English Dictionary Online, s.v. “parody”)—“para” means to run side by side (e.g., “parallel”) and an “oide” is a song. A related negative definition is “to be an inferior copy or travesty.” Parody spans genres and media and is both commercially available and fan produced.
In their analyses of architecture and literature respectively, Linda Hutcheon (1986–87, 2000) and Simon Denith (2000) argue that parody relies on “intertextuality,” a term coined by the poststructuralist Julia Kristeva in 1966 and now often used for a text within another text, as allusion or influence; in parody, the source text needs to be apparent for audiences to understand the joke. Hutcheon and Denith explain how parody entails critique. Hutcheon sees parody as a means by which cultural producers cope with earlier texts, for parody “repeats” past features with “critical distance that allows ironic signaling of difference at the very heart of similarity” (1986–87, 185); parody shows how we differ from, rather than are uncomfortably similar to, things from which we would like to distinguish ourselves. Denith examines the “polemical” qualities of parody, which differentiate it from “pastiche,” or the mixing of elements from multiple texts often in homage and without commentary (2000, 9). Parody differs, too, from “satire,” which, as a genre that conveys social criticism, uses exaggeration to foster disapproval of the object of ridicule; parody, as I will show, can convey a more positive, albeit highly mediated, message of cultural acceptance. “Spoof,” frequently used synonymously with parody, implies a hoax (ibid., 194). Parodies are difficult to translate across nations and time periods because they involve language plays in addition to cultural knowledge.
In contemporary Japan, the most mainstream form of parody, and the one with the widest reach, is television comedy (owarai). An estimated 70 to 80 percent of television personalities in Japan are comedians (owarai geinen), who also sing, dance, act, and have other talents (Corkill 2011). Especially this decade, there have been more variety programs and fewer drama series on Japanese television due to several factors, including program costs, audience tastes, social media, and the entertainment management system. As analyzed by Patrick W. Galbraith and Jason G. Karlin (2012), television has been the major force in promoting celebrity “talents” (tarento); belonging to select entertainment agencies is a prerequisite for their appearances. The number of young female comedians has grown since around 2015, in part due to their increased representation by entertainment agencies, which still represent fewer women than men. For example, Chiemi Blouson with B was one of Watanabe Entertainment’s approximately 104 comedy acts in 2017, only around seventeen of which included women. At the influential R-1 Grand Prix Contest (R-1 Guranpuri; for which the winner receives 5 million yen and additional television promotion) in 2017, four out of the nine finalists were women, compared to two out of nine in 2016 and one out of nine in 2015 (Shibata 2017). As of 2018, no woman has won.
Although female comedians have been on television before 2015, and hail from different generations, younger comedians have achieved instant fame with routines about gender that grab public attention. Unlike some earlier female Japanese comedians, who joked about being “ugly” (e.g., Masami Hisamoto), several current comedians trade on their own sexiness and craft confident characters. They disrupt the dichotomy of “pretty versus funny” that has underpinned female comedy in Japan and elsewhere (Mizejewski 2014). They have ties with fashion brands and magazines, as exemplified by Blouson’s feature in Vogue Japan and Naomi Watanabe’s popularity as a plus-sized model. Having a memorable appearance is an important part of owarai, as comedians are known for wearing certain outfits (Toshiaki Kasuga’s pink vest) or exaggerated makeup (Ayako Imoto’s eyebrows).
Television variety programs promote the genre of one- to three-minute comedy skits, or “conte” (konte), premised on topical storylines or personas (neta or tane, seed; read backward). The most popular neta are those common to urban Japanese daily life (aru aru neta). Humor through understanding the character or situation elicits a sense of comfort or sympathy and helps cement communities. Neta based on women’s daily lives and historical experiences include Nana Takamatsu’s young lady skits (ojosama neta; 2015) and Nora Hirano’s 2017 “Bubbly Dance” exaggerating 1980s fashion and dance moves. Forms of parody prevalent in owarai include impersonations of celebrities and stereotypes (monomane), such as Naomi Watanabe’s Beyoncé and Lady Gaga (starting in 2008) and Razor Ramon RG’s Donald Trump (2016).
Television parody skits rely on word plays and catchphrases, which reach new contexts as they circulate. For example, “Dame yo. Dame dame.” (No way. No. No.), the catchphrase of the female comedy duo Japan Electric Association (Nihon Erekiteru Rengo) and how the garishly made-up robot (Koyuki Hashimoto) rebuffs her human partner (Soko Nakano), inspired by seeing an older man trying to convince his young girlfriend to go to an onsen hot springs, was chosen as one of the thirty semifinalists in the 2014 annual poll of top buzzwords by the Jiyū kokumin-sha, publisher of Gendai yōgo no kiso chishiki (Basic knowledge of contemporary terminology) that serves as a barometer of national zeitgeist. Each year, the five-member poll committee, consisting of literati, professors, and journalists, chooses thirty buzzwords, narrowed to a top ten and then one winner, related to current events, politics, scandals, sports (especially baseball), gender issues, and popular culture; many terms start on television comedy routines. Among the top ten buzzwords of 2017 was “35 billion” (sanjugo oku), the number of men on earth, from Chiemi Blouson with B’s “Career Woman” skit.
Chiemi Blouson with B’s skit (four monologues, two sets of two, by the end of 2017) is formulaic: Blouson starts by ordering Brillian, who play her male coworkers, to pick up papers she scatters or to reach something from a high place for her. She remarks in the first monologue, “I am glad to have been born a woman” (Onna ni umarete yokatta). She flips her hair, struts, and speaks directly to women who are good at their jobs and have satisfying personal lives. She gives them love advice full of humorous metaphors, advising them: not to chase after men, to dump current boyfriends, and not to pine over former ones because they are not good enough for them and get in the way of work. Her advice is funny because of her outlandish catchphrases, including “bad woman” (dame onna), and statements like “Men are like gum. Do you keep chewing the same piece even after it has lost its flavor? How about chewing a new piece?” Blouson is flanked by Brillian, who take off their shirts revealing keywords (e.g., 35 billion) inked on their backs. The skits end with Blouson seductively perched on the men’s legs. She parodies norms of heterosexual relationships by reversing power dynamics between men and women, both at work and in love.
In an interview with the Tokyo Sports newspaper on May 4, 2017, Blouson, admitted that she thought of the career woman parody on the morning of her scheduled television appearance. The direct inspiration was Mahone’s song, which had not been popular in Japan in 2015 but recirculated thanks to the skit. In June 2017, Mahone and Blouson recorded a remix replete with the skit’s catchphrases.
In addition to the song, the jokiness of Blouson’s love advice, and memorable catchphrases, other reasons for the skit’s popularity include its sexiness and ease of imitability of humor grounded in the body and gender performance. Different from television dramas that use visual tropes to code power dynamics among characters (i.e., career women wear pants suits), comedy camps accepted notions of femininity. Blouson’s tight skirt, bobbed hair, and severe makeup mark her career woman as a caricature.
In 2017, metaparodies of the skit, both commercial and fan produced, proliferated. For example, the skit led to commercial deals with Brandear, Ensemble Stars, and NTT DoCoMo (the mobile communications subsidiary of Nippon Telegraph and Telephone), among other companies. The skit spawned at least four NTT DoCoMo commercials, following the common Japanese formula of unfolding as a narrative rather being than a stand-alone ad. While the first two commercials focused on men’s desire for Blouson and fears about a talented salaryman being headhunted, the third and fourth depicted a career woman (actress Mitsuki Takahata) attracting her boss. Celebrities mimicking Blouson on television include child actress Mana Ashida and fashion model Rora.
Arguably, the explosive popularity of Chiemi Blouson with B’s skit would not have been possible without a long history of representations of workingwomen on television dramas. As I have discussed elsewhere (e.g., Freedman 2018), since their start, Japanese dramas have featured workingwomen. Even police procedurals, medical dramas, and serials based on shōjo manga, depict women employed outside the home. While most plots involve the pursuit of love, scenes of work are integral to narrative structures and character development. While various television categories of workingwomen have emerged, the narratives through which they have been portrayed support the family as the nation’s backbone and work as a rewarding, necessary part of life. Both comedies and dramas are propelled by viewer empathy. While many dramas (e.g., Tokyo Love Story [Tokyo rabu sutorī], Fuji, January–March 1991) strive to make audiences cry for the main character, comedy skits are only successful if audiences laugh. From the earliest series until now, dramas show that, because women cannot achieve all they desire, they should be happy with their current situations (Freedman and Iwata-Weickgenannt 2011). Unlike the working mothers on “home dramas” (hōmu dorama), young workers on NHK morning dramas (renzoku terebi shōsetsu), and historical women in taiga dramas (all popular television genres), women on primetime dramas need to choose between having careers and having families of their own. They cannot have both—whether to remain empathetic characters or to comment on women’s realities. Although often pictured as more competent than their male colleagues, female employees cannot be seen as more successful. The most positive change has been the diversification in the work fictional women do. Women are portrayed as integral to Japanese companies, especially as lifetime employment breaks down and hiring patterns become more differentiated. Dramas encourage women to love their careers and to feel comfortable with the life courses they have chosen. In her comedy routine, however, Blouson questions, “Why can’t women have it all?” Yet the question remains unanswered.
Workingwomen parodies are not new or limited to Japan, as evident by the I Love Lucy episode “Job Switching” (September 15, 1952). However, the skits performed by this new generation of comedians reveal current notions of working women and the culture created for them. They occur at a time when women are increasingly entering the public sphere, in fields from television comedy to politics (e.g., Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, elected in 2016), and when popular culture acknowledges workingwomen’s frustrations and thereby provides comfort (e.g., 2016 Sanrio character Aggeretsuko). Other workingwomen skits include Natsuko Yokosawa’s 2016 parody of female corporate employees around the age of thirty (arasa OL neta) and monologues of exaggerated behaviors of women at the office and in work-related social events.
As stated by Linda Mizejewski, “Women’s comedy has become a primary site in mainstream pop culture where feminism speaks, talks back, and is contested” (2014, 6). But not all comedians are feminists. Rather than promoting a feminist agenda of rectifying gender inequalities, parody skits like that by Chiemi Blouson with B acknowledge how far women have come in the workforce and how notions of life-work balance might be in reach, although legislation, economic programs, and policies have not been enacted to promote gender equality but instead to augment the labor force (Freedman and Iwata-Weickgenannt 2011). They demonstrate the postfeminist empowerment of the individual through such factors as sexuality, cultural capital, and money (Mizejewski 2014, 8). Current comedy skits reflect a larger social acceptance of a fashionable, progressive image of workingwomen but perpetuate beliefs that women who choose full-time careers are more sexually liberal, a notion earlier extended in television dramas. Television programs cannot take controversial stances as easily as novels, the fine arts, and other media, due to the need for mass audiences, advertisers, and the state support of networks—one reason television tends to represent and reinforce rather than overturn dominant social discourses. They exemplify how popular culture, as primarily a form of entertainment, usually comforts and amuses rather than offers solutions to pressing social concerns. Parody both provides a means for discussing topics otherwise difficult to approach and depoliticizes public issues, making them seem instead like personal concerns. Comedy skits exemplify television’s continued influence in classifying gender roles and giving face to discussions about women occurring in other media. Parody renders possibly threatening identities less powerful by exaggerating their characteristics and making them laughable. While providing role models, comedians propagate biases and stereotypes. Yet they express women’s choices empathetically and thereby are a barometer of the emotional impact of historical change.
Chiemi Blouson, whose stage name was derived from the French word for “jumper,” debuted as a solo artist in February 2016. From January 2017 onward, her act has included “with B.” B is short for “Brillian,” a duo comprised of Tokuda Kōji and Sukiura Chiaki. ↑
See Aoyama and Wakabayashi 1999 for a discussion on the translation of Japanese literary parodies. ↑
The loan word “parodi” arguably became more prevalent in Japan in the 1970s through the proliferation of parody magazines (e.g., Surprise House [Bikkuri hausu]; 1974–85), advertisements (e.g., Tokyo Metro’s 1976 manners posters showing celebrities suffering from bad behaviors), and other commercial media (see Parodi, nijō no koe—Nihon no 1970 nendai zengo sayuo). ↑
Conte are not new, and were, for example, a staple of late 1920s fashionable literary magazines like Bungaku jidai (Age of literature). Aru aru (yoku aru), slang popularized by television (e.g., Hakkutsu aruaru daijiten, Fuji Television, 1996–2004), denotes a shared experience and can be translated as “I get it. It’s happened to me, too.” ↑
Freedman, Alisa, and Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt. 2011. “The Japanese Television Drama Around 40 and the Politics of Happiness: Count What You Have Now.” Asian Studies Review 35, no. 3: 295–313.
Freedman, Alisa. 2018. “Tokyo Love Story: Romance of the Workingwoman in Japanese Television Dramas.” In Introducing Japanese Popular Culture, edited by Alisa Freedman and Toby Slade, 48–58. Oxford: Routledge.
Galbraith, Patrick W., and Jason G. Karlin, eds. 2012. Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Hutcheon, Linda. (1986–87) “The Politics of Postmodernism: Parody and History.” Cultural Critique 5: 179–207.
Hutcheon, Linda.  (2000). A Theory of Parody: The Teaching of Twentieth-Century Art Forms. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.
Mizejewski, Linda. 2014. Pretty/Funny: Women Comedians and Body Politics. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Parodi, nijō no koe—Nihon no 1970 nendai zengo sayuo. 2017. Tokyo Station Gallery Museum, February-April.