Explorations in Japanese Culture
Ah, Doraemon, one of Japan’s most lovable cartoon characters that many have never heard of. While many are familiar with the exported cartoon characters of Japan such as Totoro (this blog’s namesake), Pokemon and of course Hello Kitty, few know of one of the most popular まんが (manga) and アニメ (anime) characters is the lovable blue cat ドラエモン! (Doraemon)
Brief History of Doraemon
Doraemon made his debut in Japan in December of 1969 in four educational kids magazines published by Shogakukan Inc. Most children first meet Doraemon in his half hour show that has been broadcast by the Asahi National Broadcasting company since 1979. The Doraemon manga was created by Hiroshi Fujimoto and Abiko Motoo, one of the most successful duos in manga history. The two worked under the pen name of “Fujiko Fujio,” however later Doraemon stories were written only by the late Fujimoto Hiroshi. Doraemon’s success has continued since his early creation with weekly appearances in CoroCoro and dozens of feature films that are consistently successful in the box office. But who is this strange blue cat with no ears?
Who is Doraemon? (ドラえもんは誰ですか？)
There are two things you might notice about this blue cat, one being his lack of ears and the other the fact that he has a pouch. To clear up the mystery of the ears, they were bitten off by a robotic mouse from the future and Doraemon has since developed a fear of mice. Don’t worry, he can still hear fine though. The pouch however, is one of the most fundamental aspects that make the Doraemon story.
The premise of Doraemon is simple and explained in the first manga. Nobi Nobita (written in Japanese style of names) is a fourth-grade boy who lives in Tokyo with his mother and father. An only child, Nobita is the class weakling and dunce who is in constant need of rescuing. One day the strange blue cat-style robot Doraemon pops out of his desk and without introduction proceeds to eat Nobita’s afternoon snack. Doraemon explains that he is from the 22nd century, sent by Nobita’s great grandson to help him. Because of Nobita’s mistakes, his entire family is living in poverty. Equipped with his four dimensional pouch filled with all types of 22nd century gadgetry, Doraemon begins the long journey to save Nobita from a future of failure and poverty.
The Average Doraemon Story
The plot of each episode of Doraemon follows an infinitely repeatable formula. Typically the story begins with Nobita calling out for Doraemon’s help after suffering from the torment of his peers, or poor performance in school. With either patience or resign, Doraemon reaches into his pouch to pull out a new gadget that seemingly offers the perfect solution to the problem. Of course, as you probably expect, things usually start to go wrong when Nobita or his friends start to get greedy or the problem becomes bigger during their zany adventure.
I recently watched an episode where Nobita tries to find a way to avoid one of his friend/occasional bully after embarrassing him by showing him up in front of the other kids through a demonstration on magnets. As he runs to doraemon for help, Doraemon presents him with N & S pole stickers that he can use to attach to anyone and magnetize themselves. Doraemon begins by demonstrating with Nobita’s parents by placing a S on the mother and a N on the father. When they come close to each other they are repelled apart, until Doraemon changes the poles and they are brought together in a blush-inducing hug. Below is the 7 min episode:
The example above also shows that a number of Doraemon stories do not strictly focus on gags, but also take a look at issues of moral and ethical importance. Stories have been told about bravery in the face of danger, self sacrifice for others, parental love and guidance and even the importance of reading. While the stories may depart in subject matter, the foundation to all Doraemon stories is always the gadgets pulled out from Doraemon’s pouch!
The Gadgets of Doraemon
Two of Doraemon’s most famous gadgets are the Take-copter and the Wherever Door. The Take-copter is a small beanie-like hat with a propeller that acts as a personal helicopter for the wearer lifting them high into the sky. The wherever door is pretty obvious in that it lets you go wherever you want to. Another is the Gulliver Tunnel, which lets you walk through to slowly shrink down, and of course they always have access to Doraemon’s time machine, located in Nobita’s desk. Aside from these frequently used gadgets, Doraemon always seems to have something new in his pouch to help them out.
What Makes Doraemon So Special?
When I first saw an episode of Doraemon, I fell in love immediately. I have since been watching all the episodes I can find and have began reading the manga for translation practice. Doraemon isn’t just special simply as another form of entertainment, but also because of the glimpse into Japanese family life that the show provided at the time when it first aired. Nobita’s parents are typical for Japan in the 1970s, with a father who is a stocky and mellow salaryman and a hardworking housewife mother who tries to make Nobita study hard and grow up to become a successful hard worker. An article in Time magazine also made an interesting analysis that I have copied and pasted below:
Indeed, Doraemon’s crossover appeal may be best appreciated if you set him next to the other cartoon figure that Japan has long made ubiquitous. Hello Kitty seems to have no reason to exist other than to be cute. Utterly adorable, often clad in pink and entirely passive, she seems to represent what little Asian girls are told to be in public. Doraemon, by comparison, is as tubby and twinkling as a salaryman after one too many beers. Hello Kitty, after all, has no mouth and never moves; Doraemon seems often to be all mouth, and in every 30-minute episode of his show, is to be seen worried, chortling, goggle-eyed, at peace or pounding on the floor in frustration and then calmly dipping his paw into a bag of cookies.
Overall, Doraemon is one of the most popular characters in Japan that many casual partakers of Japanese culture have probably never heard of. One visit to Japan and you will see the blue cat’s face everywhere, as some refer to him as the “Japanese Mickey Mouse.” If you ever get a chance to read the manga or watch the show I highly encourage you to do so. It is enjoyable and charming in a way that makes it timeless.