Doraemon spans generations as a cultural totem, a beloved character that is as much a part of Japanese childhood as birthday parties and bug hunting in summer. The blue robot cat from the future is always around, and has been since he was created 50 years ago by Fujiko Fujio, the pen name of manga duo Hiroshi Fujimoto (1933-96) and Motoo Abiko.
Although “Doraemon” is now something of a brand, it’s possible to relate the character to the historical traditions of the country, particularly yōkai (spirits/demons) of Japanese folklore. There’s also Shinto kami (spirits/gods), complex characters that are not always benevolent. They exist as humans exist: prone to mistakes, intentionally bad, occasionally virtuous. In fact, kami traditionally have two sides: ara-mitama (angry) and nigi-mitama (gentle).
“There are certain yōkai that stem from popular Buddhist tales and mukashibanashi (tales from long ago),” says Alisa Freedman, an assistant professor of Japanese literature and film at the University of Oregon. “You do see a lot of anthropomorphism in religious tales in Japan.”
How far “Doraemon” fills this role, especially given the series’ origins as an educational manga and its current status as a pop-culture touchstone, is debatable.
However, any cultural phenomenon is based on several coalescing forces, including “commercial factors” — or, at least, that’s what Freedman believes.
“I don’t think there’s a religious lineage you can trace from the Sun Goddess to Hello Kitty,” she says.
As a brand, “Doraemon” makes money. Movies centering on the character are big news, having surpassed “Godzilla” (in 2015) as Japan’s most lucrative franchise. To date, the film series has earned around ¥187 billion ($1.7 billion). Parents who were into “Doraemon” as children can now go with their own children — it’s a truly generation-spanning franchise.
However, this level of fame and, more importantly, trust can’t simply be generated by being omnipresent. The cat’s reputation is most definitely built on trust, and that’s why the child he has been sent to help, Nobita Nobi, never asks his parents for help, instead showing his worst (whiny and begging) side to Doraemon when he makes a request for help.
Still, it may baffle those who aren’t familiar with the series that Doraemon’s eventual interventions — and even his ties to the future — aren’t as case study-worthy as his present-day portfolio would have you believe.
The faults in our stars
Doraemon is a robot but he’s also flawed. This much is made clear in the first chapter of the original manga, with Nobita’s great-great-grandson saying, “He’s not that great of a robot.” It’s a brilliantly deprecating precedent to any series.
When the series “Doraemon” first appeared in 1970, it was the advent of the technological age. Gadgets and appliances were becoming more ubiquitous and more affordable than ever before.
In a section on its website on Tokyo’s history, the Metropolitan Government describes the period as a time of mechanization: “Due to technological innovations and the introduction of new industries and technologies, this period (in the 1960s) saw the beginning of mass production of synthetic fibers and household electric appliances such as televisions, refrigerators and washing machines. As a result, the everyday lives of the residents of Tokyo underwent considerable transformation.”
“Doraemon” was a reflection of this modernity, offering a comedic glimpse into the future.
Doraemon is not endowed with superpowers as such. He is, however, able to produce a lot of quick-fix items — 1,963 himitsu dōgu (secret tools), Yasuyuki Yokohama, a former professor at Toyama University, told Kyodo News in 2004. But Doraemon’s tools from the future frequently backfire. They’re not foolproof, are often convoluted — faulty, even — and, much of the time, cause more problems than the original issue they’re supposed to resolve.
“It also keeps you going,” Freedman says. “If Nobita’s problems were resolved (with a single gadget), there wouldn’t be any episode next week. It’s a narrative tool.”
And then there is the much-loved regular roster of Doraemon’s secret tools, two of the most famous being take koputā (suction cups with mini bamboo heli-blades) and the iconic dokodemo doa (literally, “anywhere door”), allowing its users the power of swift travel. Mastery over the skies as well as the quantum world makes Doraemon, while maybe not 100 percent reliable, pretty cool.
Your average Tokyo boy
Relatability matters. First and foremost, the manga’s predominantly urban setting — something Japan was moving toward in the late 1960s — made sense to a lot of people young and old.
“In 1962, the population of Tokyo broke the 10 million mark,” the Metropolitan Government website devoted to Tokyo’s history says. “In 1964, the Olympic Games were held in Tokyo, the shinkansen (“bullet train”) line began operations and the Metropolitan Expressway was opened, forming the foundation of Tokyo’s current prosperity.”
The setting of the manga wasn’t completely urban in nature, though. Instead, it locked into a “middle Japan” demographic that exists between the city centers and the countryside. The characters in “Doraemon” hang out in the backstreets of these areas and play in abandoned lots. It’s a landscape that explores the stomping ground between postwar ruin, urban regeneration and urban decay — an endless inner city.
“One of the most fascinating things (about “Doraemon”) is the different socio-economic classes being represented,” Freedman says.
Nobita is an ordinary child and his family life isn’t anything special; his mother stays at home, his father commutes to work on the train. By comparison, the mother of a local bully named Takeshi Goda (more commonly referred to by his nickname, “Gian”) owns a local store, while another bully named Suneo Honekawa comes from a well-off family with aristocratic ties. The contrast in socio-economic status is clear. In “Gosenzo-sama Ganbare,” Nobita travels back in time with Doraemon to the moment when Suneo’s family gained its social standing, hoping to nudge his ancestor into the limelight (messing things up in the process, of course).
But clearer still is the harmony in which the children in the original “Doraemon” manga play together. Fights and misunderstandings happen, but for the most part the children get along fine despite differences in class because they are neighbors.
Such a utopia seems hard to achieve but it’s ever-present in “Doraemon.”
Freedman calls this environment a conscious reaction to the “elementary school culture of the times” that captures “aspects of middle-class Tokyo that weren’t exactly lived.” There’s little doubt that Fujiko Fujio deliberately intended this fabricated universe to appear realistic yet inclusive.
Even Doraemon’s name is an echo of the unruly nature of these children: “Dora” comes from “doraneko” — a corruption of “noraneko” (stray cat) that means something akin to a “cat that does what it wants”; then there’s “-emon” (more properly “-aemon“), an antiquated suffix for male names, which makes the fact that Doraemon is from the future an etymological pun.
And, of course, a crucial component of this typical slice of Japan — with its very relatable, socially diverse set of characters — was its magic ingredient: a blue anthropomorphic cat robot from the 22nd century.
“A lot of the appeal of ‘Doraemon’ is actually that Nobita is so familiar and relatable — he’s average, goofy, lazy, a bit uncool, but still a good kid — so we recognize him,” says Caitlin Casiello, a Yale Ph.D. candidate in Japanese and film and media studies. “Therefore, Doraemon would be our friend, too. This contrast between a normal boy and time-traveling robot cat makes us feel connected to Doraemon, like participants in their adventures.”
Knowing that “Doraemon” was going to be screened on television every Friday at 6 p.m. is one of the regular, everyday aspects of the manga that has kept the series such a mainstay of Japanese life. So ingrained was “Doraemon” as a timekeeper for the nation that when the slot changed to Saturdays last year, it made headlines in many mainstream media outlets.
“It’s like Reiwa and ‘Doraemon’ changing times were the biggest changes of 2019,” Freedman says. She’s joking, of course, but there’s definitely some truth to her remark.
It’s this regularity that office worker and long-time fan Michiko Yamada, 34, attributes to at least part of the series’ comfort factor. Her view of the family set-up in the show is also interesting. “Doraemon acted like a grandparent in the household who always stood for good and had a good moral background,” Yamada says. “Nobita was always kind of lazy but Doraemon was always telling him to study, so the overall message was always good.
“Many families in the 1970s would have had an obāsan or ojīsan (grandmother or grandfather) living with them. I really think that’s why Doraemon has such an androgenous voice as well. Honestly, it has crossed my mind that he could be a grandmother or grandfather.”
Re-examining the series with Doraemon playing the role of an elder gives it some serious grounding. Nobita constantly goes above his parents and seeks help from Doraemon — a grandfather figure with all the answers.
And although Doraemon tries to be hard on Nobita, he almost always gives in, much like a doting grandparent. As comic as it is, Doraemon is typically at the receiving end of the scolding that Nobita gets from his mother once the jig is up.
“It’s just so comforting,” Yamada says. “It’s like, “Don’t worry, families are changing, times are changing.” It’s that kind of reflection of change in society, I suppose. The ’70s may have been a time when the family structure was evolving and so it was just a new way of presenting that in the media.”
‘That’s a cat?’
“My students who grew up in Asia grew up with ‘Doraemon.'” Freedman says. “My students from America are like, ‘That’s a cat?’ It’s a franchise that didn’t globalize well in the U.S. for various reasons.”
Casiello takes a stab at just why that might have been.
“A lot of cultural touchstones of Japanese family-oriented anime, such as ‘Chibi Maruko-chan’ or ‘Sazae-san,’ don’t make it to the United States,” she says. “Instead, the anime series that became ‘anime’ for U.S. audiences are aimed at older children or pre-teens, with more action than humor and often with very involved storylines and mythologies. A straightforward show like ‘Doraemon’ doesn’t fit that image for many U.S. anime fans.”
Freedman agrees. “‘Doraemon’ … (is) so grounded in Japan, or in certain forms of Japanese daily life, that it takes a certain amount of cultural literacy,” she says. “You have to be able to read the semiotic signs of Japanese culture to fully understand the jokes in ‘Doraemon.’
“Kids around the world can relate to Memory Bread, but can kids around the world relate to some of the elementary school culture in other aspects?”
The series, however, is well-loved in Asia. There are a number of reasons for this. Being a cultural powerhouse of the region, Japan is an exporter of all things pop, something Freedman primarily puts down to “patterns of marketing and globalization.”
However, with Disney acquiring the rights to the U.S. localization of the “Doraemon” anime in 2014, the young, cartoon-watching generation of North America may grow up partially knowing “Doraemon” as well. However, it’s likely they’ll see a very different “Doraemon” from their Japanese counterparts.
What they won’t know is how much Doraemon gorges himself on his favorite snack of dorayaki (red bean paste sandwiched between two pancakes), since scenes of him doing so have been cut in the United States. They also won’t know how much Nobita cries in front of the robotic cat; it’s been rotoscoped out in the Disney dub — “because in American culture, boys don’t cry,” Freedman says.
You don’t have to go far in Japanese pop culture to see some real tears. “One Piece,” for example, is famous for its emotional and over-the-top crying scenes.
However, Freedman warns against tying this societal obsession to tears back as far as Murasaki Shikibu’s 11th-century “Tale of Genji” — “where everyone’s crying into sleeves.”
Instead, she says, it has to do with children’s culture in Japan.
“It’s easy to read the emotion in the characters (and) it’s very reactive to certain situations,” she says.
“Doraemon” is both popular and divisive in India. In 2008, “Crayon Shin-chan” was banned in India and it’s perhaps not surprising, given the overtly mature antics of Shin-chan. However, it looks as though “Doraemon” may be going the same way — despite its educational roots.
“‘Doraemon’ translates well internationally, but more interesting to me are the moments when it doesn’t translate,” Casiello says. “Despite the series being very successful across Asia, every time it’s retranslated, it is opened up to new criticism regarding what sort of material is acceptable for children to watch.”
In India, some have called the series to be banned because of Nobita’s attitude: He never wants to study, he lies, he begs, he cries. The relationship between Doraemon and himself comes under fire for its quick-fix solutions to life’s problems.
Another relationship that was particularly scrutinized in India was the close friendship between Nobita and a character named Shizuka Minamoto, which was deemed unacceptable by many Indians.
Yamada, who watched the series growing up in Kawasaki, disagrees, saying instead that Shizuka represents — at least for girls — more of a model of how to deal with boys who are chasing you. Although perhaps the case in Japan, this is a point that is simply lost in translation — verbally, visually and culturally — when “Doraemon” made its way over to India.
“Children’s media is often quite explicitly the medium through which children are taught how to be members of a society through lessons about morality and personal responsibility,” Casiello says, “The fact that a children’s TV program can travel so effectively speaks to the shared nature of global media culture, that these lessons are still recognizable and useful in a new cultural context. But there are always hiccups, which can be the most productive areas for revealing what assumptions a society has about who children should grow up to be.”
It’s easy, then, to wonder: Why is Nobita and Shizuka’s friendship deemed OK in Japan, but not in India? Why is being lazy not seen as censor-worthy character trait? Why are boys allowed to cry? They’re fascinating questions, but that’s another story.
Still airing in India, it may be a matter of time until “Doraemon” joins “Crayon Shin-chan” in disgrace. For now, however, the series continues.
‘Doraemon’ in 2070
Can “Doraemon” stay this popular for another 50 years?
“I hope so,” Freedman says. “It can appeal to different markets. You’ve got the kid market of generating new narratives, new interests and you’ve got the adult nostalgia market.”
Casiello agrees. “Because Doraemon has more of a world setting around him, fans who buy ‘Doraemon’ products may feel a connection to the anime or the manga, either as current young fans or as older fans feeling nostalgia,” she says. “This might be a more old-fashioned type of toy consumption, in some ways, but not in a bad way — obviously ‘Doraemon’ is doing fine! He’s just more dependent on context.”
There’s also relevance.
“Doraemon still comes up with really interesting devices, even in the digital age, that can fail and the devices are always grounded in things that we want in daily life,” Freedman says. “Like Memory Bread: You wanna pass your math test? You eat your bread!”
Doraemon is part of the world as we know it. He’s angry, he’s happy, he’s sensible and he’s stupid. A modern kami, a replacement grandparent or a quasi-educational comedy manga that went global, whatever he is, there’s just enough going on beneath the surface here.
Fifty years may have passed since “Doraemon” first appeared and there’s sure to be a centenary further down the line as well, and yet there’s always another failsafe anniversary the robot cat can rely on. This would be celebrated 92 years from now on Sept. 3, 2112 — Doraemon’s actual birthday.