Some years ago, a Belgian woman named An van Dienderen wondered why so many Japanese tourists visited her hometown of Antwerp, and particularly its cathedral. She learned that they wanted to see the place where the boy Nello and his faithful dog Patrasche died in the story “A Dog of Flanders.” This thin novel, written in 1872 by the English author Marie Louise de la Ramee, was virtually unknown in Belgium, so van Dienderen, who has a Ph.D in Comparative Cultural Sciences, started looking into it. She spent five years on her research, which included six trips to Japan.
In an article about van Dienderen’s project that appeared two months ago in the Asahi Shimbun, the reporter wrote that the book first became well known in Japan after World War II. Americans distributed copies of it as a way to “give hope to Japanese children.” However, the story didn’t catch on in a big way until a homegrown animated TV adaptation comprising 52 episodes, “Furandasu no Inu,” was broadcast in 1975. The show immediately became a cultural touchstone.
The story was also popular in the United States, where it was made into five different movies. However, as van Dienderen soon found out, the plot known in Japan and the one known in America are different; or, at least, the endings are.
Nello is orphaned at the age of 2 and goes to live with his poor but kind grandfather in a village outside of Antwerp. Nello finds an abused dog, nurses him back to health and names him Patrasche. Nello grows up and develops a talent for drawing, but due to poverty and bad luck he eventually becomes homeless and desperate after his grandfather dies. In the last scene, he goes to the cathedral in Antwerp to see Peter Paul Rubens’ painting, “The Elevation of the Cross,” on Christmas Eve, and he and Patrasche freeze to death on the church floor.
That is the story Ramee wrote and the one that the Japanese know, with cherubs transporting the souls of Nello and Patrasche to heaven in the very last scene. Just mention this image to Japanese people of a certain age and they invariably break into tears. However, in the American version, Nello survives his various tribulations to become a successful painter.
What a difference a culture makes.
American publishers found the original ending too dark, especially for children, and changed it. Van Dienderen herself admits that Belgians think the story is overly depressing, what with its focus on crushing poverty and the way it compares the life of an orphan to that of an abandoned dog. It’s why the book never caught on in Belgium, even though it takes place there.
Why are Japanese people so fascinated with this tale? The Asahi reporter conjectures that “even though Nello is poor, he dies with dignity, and that appeals to the Japanese sensibility.” But from a modern Western perspective, “dignity” hardly enters into it. There’s nothing heroic or defiant about Nello’s death. It’s quite miserable, in fact.
World War II, the end of which will be commemorated next week, was a hugely traumatic experience for the Japanese, and many commentators have insisted that the country welcomed the role of victim: John W. Dower’s award-winning history of the American occupation was titled “Embracing Defeat.”
Often when Westerners discuss this situation, they do so to explain why the Japanese hesitate to acknowledge their responsibility for the war, but it may, in fact, have more to do with that “sensibility.” In 1975, Japan was still in its miraculous growth phase, which wouldn’t end until 1990. People had reason to be optimistic, but they became obsessed with a dog that froze to death in a church on Christmas Eve.
Are the Japanese inherently pessimistic? There are certainly social and economic phenomena that indicate as much. The half-century reign of the Liberal Democratic Party could be explained two ways. It was either proof that people were satisfied with the status quo, as the LDP itself claims, or proof that people didn’t think their vote mattered because all politicians are crooks and the country is run by bureaucrats anyway (shoganai). Though the rate of household savings in Japan has declined dramatically over the past 20 years due to the sluggish economy, the country still boasts the highest total savings amount in the world, about $13 trillion. The reasons are various, but it comes down to a belief that the future is never assured, even though you pay into a pension system your whole life. And the scandal that has seen the government scrambling to find pension records that don’t seem to exist any more only reinforces this gloomy outlook. Though bank and postal savings interest rates are virtually zero, Japanese are averse to mutual funds and other investment schemes because they involve some risk.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, as Barbara Ehrenreich indirectly pointed out in her book “Bright-Sided,” a study of America’s appropriated and oppressive optimism, which she blames for the financial meltdown of 2008. Americans embrace risk because they have been conditioned to think positively. Japanese reject it because life has shown them you shouldn’t.
Or maybe it’s popular culture that has shown them this. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference. The company that makes the popular animated series “Doraemon,” about a robot cat from the future who lives with a middle-class Japanese boy named Nobita, once tried to sell the series to broadcasters in the U.S. The Americans liked the cat but were uncomfortable with the boy, who is a bit of a loser. In most episodes, Doraemon has used his special powers to save Nobita from some predicament. Americans found the boy too difficult to identify with and turned down the series.
The Japanese scratched their heads. Who wouldn’t want to be Nobita, a kid who was always being rescued from the curse of everyday existence?