"Toenails?” I asked my Japanese friend. "Why would anyone call themselves ’toenails’?”

It was the late nineties, and I was being introduced to Japanese manzai, a traditional style of stand up comedy with two comedians.

The comedic duo in question was called とんねるず (The Tunnels). Technically, とんねるず wasn’t a manzai group; they were a お笑いコンビ owarai konbi, focusing on one-liners and impressions. Still, close enough.

“I mean,” I said pretending to gag on my words, “that’s just sick."

"It's not toenails. It's Tunnels," she replied. "TO-N-NE-RU-ZU!"

"Still kinda sounds like toenails," I said quietly but not quietly enough. 

I got a sideways look and quickly returned to my Japanese textbook.)

I probably shouldn't have included the above true but mostly irrelevant conversation because I'm not going to talk about Tunnels. Instead, I'd like to discuss a famous line by a fellow manzai comedian, Beat Takeshi.


akashingou minna de watareba kowakunai.

At a red light, if everyone crosses (the street at once), then there’s nothing to fear.

Have you heard this line before?

I’m actually not well versed on his comedy or movies—he can be very rude; I’m more of a Jack Benny kind of guy--but sometimes comedians describe reality in a way that catches on. And, late last century, this phrase caught on in Japan. Big time. It’s possible younger Japanese nowadays don’t know where it came from, but I bet you they’ve heard the phrase.

Kitano Takeshi - Credit: Dick Thomas Johnson from Tokyo, Japan, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

First, a little about the comedian. His real name is 北野 武, Kitano Takeshi, but in the 1970s and 80s he was one half of the comedic manzai duo, ツービート The Two Beats. And so, he is also called ビートたけし. Beat Takeshi.

He has directed and starred in a number of movies since the 1990s, but, more interestingly (at least to me), he helped create what has been called one of the worst video games ever. 

Move over E.T.! 

Now, back to the quote.


akashingou minna de watareba kowakunai.

At a red light, if everyone crosses (the street at once), then there’s nothing to fear.

  • 赤信号 red light; red traffic signal
  • みんなで with everyone; everyone together
  • 渡れば if cross (the street)
  • 怖くない isn’t scary

What this really means is, “There’s safety in numbers.” If people work together, the danger decreases.

Well, maybe gathering people together isn’t the best advice these days, but you get the point.

If something is a little scary for a single person to do, find others to do it with (unless it really is stopping traffic when crossing at a red light. Don’t do that. It’s rude.)

Learning a language is a big thing, a long journey. It can be scary. What if I say something wrong? What if I use the wrong politeness level? 

Let's change the saying a bit:


minna de benkyou sureba kowakunai.

If everyone studies together, it isn’t scary.

Find others who are learning Japanese. It's not hard. Japanese is a fascinating language and more and more people are starting to learn. Find more Japanese people to speak to. Many Japanese want to practice their English. Offer to help in exchange for their help. The greater the number, the better.

So, if you are feeling overwhelmed with Japanese and maybe even a little scared, just remember Beat Takeshi’s quote. There’s safety in numbers.

Did you know this phrase? Please reply to this email or leave a comment on the website.

Last week, I was happy to discover that many of you agreed with me that Japanese names in English should follow the Japanese convention. Yeah. Most interestingly, one of our members actually knew and was friends with Natsume Souseki’s granddaughter—thanks for the note, Mary! How amazing is that?


P.S. More trivia from Wikipedia: "Together with Sanma Akashiya and Tamori, Kitano is said to be one of the 'Big Three' television comedians (owarai tarento) of Japan."

P.P.S. By the way, speaking of Wikipedia--and this little tip might just be worth the price of admission--here is a good list of important Japanese vocabulary/slang words relating to comedy:


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