Henny Youngman, the British-born American comedian known as the King of the One Liners, often made his wife, Sadie Cohen, the butt of his jokes. “Take my wife, please!” was his signature one-off. The biggest joke was on the audience that came to his show, where his wife of sixty years was laughing along with the revelers.
Long after Youngman entered that great comedy stage in the sky, we have British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt to thank for what was immediately portrayed as an international incident. His diplomatic fail: a momentary lapse in memory regarding his wife’s nationality.
His wife of nearly ten years is Lucia Guo from Xian and she’s not Japanese. Hunt got the two mixed up. “My wife is Japanese - my wife is Chinese. Sorry, that was a terrible mistake to make,” he said in a public meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Hunt’s quick recovery to the blunder drew warm laughter.
There are a couple of solutions. Barring bitter historical rivalries to percolate into war between China and Japan, Hunt’s wife, mother to their three children, could go on tour and correct his mistake. “Take my husband, please!” Or we all could lighten up a bit and laugh at the unexpected, like those present did when Hunt made his blunder. They weren’t thinking, “What will Japan do?” They were wondering how his wife would react. Both Hunt and Yi speak fluent Japanese and converse in the language with each other, so it’s not a stretch to think that Hunt simply had Japan on his mind. He didn’t really forget what nationality his wife is.
Nevertheless, the video footage was ripe for the Twitterverse. Just like Japan and China’s rivalry has extended for centuries, so too has the penchant for making elite politicians the butt of jokes. Late night comics earn their pay poking fun at political foot-in-the-mouth syndrome, and diplomats are not immune from misspoken treasures. When they mess up, they draw even more reaction since they are trained at the level of somniferous influence to say all the right things in the right way.
We need more moments like the one-liner from Jeremy Hunt. He reminds us of what a colorful world we live in, that we all make mistakes, misspeak, and that when this happens, life goes on. In the case of China and Japan, often cast as the Bette Davis and Joan Crawford of Northeast Asia, the stakes seem higher. These moments bring out headlines of bitter rivalries, feuding neighbors, contentious competitors. But just like with Bette and Joan, whose rivalry sold tickets at the box office, negative headlines don’t tell the full story.
China and Japan are much less rivalrous than Davis and Crawford, who were the biggest female film idols of rival studios Warner Bros. and MGM. Even Joan and Bette could bury their personal animosities for the sake of working together to revive careers in their sunset years. Separately they appeared in over 200 films, but it is their rivalry that makes their memory last for the ages.
Today China and Japan are realizing that as they sit on the cusp of the third decade of the twenty-first century, trade and investment—in people, goods, and services—is a win for both. Majority publics in both countries prefer peace over strife. Person exchanges is at all-time highs, including foreign students and tourists. This is not to downplay ongoing battles about disputed islands, maritime lanes, and contested histories, the latter growing stronger in the digital media age. It’s to recognize that we need not jump to conclusions about animosity and hatred whenever China and Japan are in the same sentence.
A lot of time has passed since Youngman’s pre-feminism comedic era: “I take my wife everywhere but she keeps finding her way back.” We’re so serious now, politically correct, often wound too tightly about nationalities. Long before our dumbphones had our heads buried in tweets, the New York Telephone Company had a service called “Dial a Joke” where you could call to hear prerecorded jokes. Youngman, then in his 70s, was the most popular comedian the service ever hosted.
We need to laugh together, and use that feel good energy to get to know each other beyond books and borders. It’s the best medicine for a bitter taste from the past.
Nancy Snow (Ph.D., International Relations), lives in Tokyo, Japan and is professor of public diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies. Snow is affiliated as a visiting professor and guest lecturer with Tsinghua University. She is the author of 11 books on communication, diplomacy, and politics, including Japan’s Information War, the Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy, and Propaganda, Inc.: Selling America’s Culture to the World.