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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Learning Through Laughter

Waka Sekine

Jul. 19, 2016

Some teachers in Japan are using a form of standup comedy to help students improve their communication skills.

Young people who spend time on smartphones and video games can have problems when they try to communicate face-to-face. Schools are dealing with the problem by adding something new to curriculums: tag-team standup comedy called manzai.

And students aren't just getting laughs, they're getting results.

This spring, Tokyo University of Science started a class that incorporates manzai. Many students at the school excel at logical thinking. But when it comes to expressing themselves, they're not so confident.

Manzai is rapid-fire, standup comedy originating in Japan. It involves 2 performers -- a jokester and a serious person. The humor comes from their interaction.

Manzai needs good ideas and funny jokes. But to get a laugh, the performers need to work together closely and perfect their comic timing.

Gen Ito, a teacher of pedagogics, launched the class after seeing many students pass written tests for jobs, only to struggle in their interviews.

"Many students communicate online every day. But face-to-face interaction presents a problem. Some of them said they weren’t able to highlight their strengths in job interviews, so I wanted to help them in that area," Ito says.

Yuuki Hosaka has been going through the job search process. He decided to take a manzai class because he thought it would improve his public speaking skills.

"When I meet someone for the first time, I tend to clam up. I get nervous and can't think of anything to say. I'm taking this course to help prepare for job interviews. I want to make an impression on the interviewers," Hosaka says.

The class welcomed special guest lecturers -- professional comedians.

"It's awkward and embarrassing to be yourself in front of a group of people, isn't it? But in this classroom, it's okay to make a fool of yourself. Just be like any weirdo you'd see on the street," comedian Ushiro City tells the students.

They learn the importance of getting into character, and they commit themselves to playing their characters.

"When I perform with my partner, I pay attention to the reaction from the audience. I’m starting to understand that timing is important when you speak. I've learned tips for communicating with people face-to-face, which will help when I want to express my opinions during job interviews," Hosaka says.

“I see changes in the ways the students present themselves, especially when they’re trying to make a good impression on someone,” Ito says.

An elementary school is also incorporating manzai into Japanese language classes in all grades.

It was Principal Eiichi Tabata who decided to introduce manzai into lessons. He says it has helped students get along, and brightened the atmosphere of the entire school.

"Bullying, trouble, truancy -- they all start with communication problems. If we can communicate sincerely, we avoid hurting others and build relationships," Tabata says. "Our school has been incorporating manzai into lessons because it uses laughter to make those connections.

There's been a lot more laughter in one 6th grade classroom.

The basic manzai scenario pits a jokester against a serious person. Students are given a template and then write their own stories. Since students fill in the blanks to make a skit, younger kids can also take part.

"If it’s funny, then laugh. But even if it’s boring, I still want you to give the writer some positive feedback," teacher Yuugo Suzuki tells the students.

Suzuki cautions them on certain points when they make their manzai skit.

Osamu Ikeda, an expert in education at Kyoto Tachibana University, also says it's important to avoid offensive language.

“There’s a degree of embarrassment built into manzai because of the goofy nature of the jokester character. We want to teach communication skills while avoiding insults, so we need to emphasize the importance of being sensitive,” Ikeda says.

Another ground rule is that teams are decided by drawing names. That gets all the children involved, and helps students make connections outside their established circle of friends.

Hinau Funada and Saki Matsushita were paired up for the first time. Saki is the jokester and Hinau is the “serious person." They came up with the theme of "summer."

"Winter's finally here," Saki says.

"Actually, it's summer," Hinau replies

"Really?" Saki asks.

"For sure," says Hinau.

"Here I was thinking it was winter because it's so hot. You know, global warming's changed everything," Saki says.

Saki used to be shy and had found it difficult to get along with others. Her mother, Yumiko Matsushita, was starting to worry about her.

"Even when she went to school, she was sometimes too afraid to walk into the classroom," Matsushita says. "She couldn't join activities like athletic meets or dancing. It was hard for her to do things as part of a group."

But manzai is helping Saki come out of her shell. She says thinking about how she and her partner make people laugh has helped her express herself.

"I was surprised to discover new parts of my partner's personality. My writing skills have also improved," Saki says. "Before this, I could never express myself at school. Outside of school, it was no problem. Now I can express myself at school too.”

The students had the chance to perform for their parents. Saki’s mother came to cheer her on. At last, it’s Saki and Hinau’s turn.

"Global warming doesn't explain this heat! Look, you’re wearing short sleeves!" Hinau says.

"But look, long pants," Saki replies.

"That's only because you don’t own any shorts," Hinau says.

"Could be. But at least I don't get mosquito bites!" Saki says.

Saki's new outlook has surprised her mother.

"That was wonderful! Going to school used to be so painful for her. This is the first time I’ve seen her smile in a classroom," Matsushita says. "She used to get upset thinking that other kids were talking about her. Now she’s found a way to turn her feelings around ― she can even laugh about it.”

Bringing manzai into education has given students new outlooks and skills. With the success of these programs, the laughter just may spread to many more classrooms.