Celebrating Exactly 100 Years Before Doraemon’s BirthdaySociety Culture
Born in the Boom
The Doraemon manga appeared in the pages of magazines from 1969 to 1996. In all, nearly 1,350 episodes were published over those years, including more than a dozen book-length works. The creation, centered on a robotic cat from the future named Doraemon, reigned supreme during the glory years of the Japanese manga industry.
The manga was adapted for an animated television series in 1979, and the following year was turned into a movie. The original Doraemon stories that appeared in magazines until 1980 were also republished by Tentōmushi Comics in a 19-volume paperback edition. In just a five-month period from October 1979 to the following February, some 15 million copies of those paperbacks were sold.
The Doraemon manga appeared during the era when Japanese industry managed to overcome the oil shocks of the 1970s, setting the stage for the remarkable economic growth of the 1980s, which ushered in the most affluent period in Japan’s history. It was the period of “Japan as number one,” to borrow the title of Ezra Vogel’s influential 1979 book on Japan.
Against this backdrop of economic affluence, the 1980s were an era when Japanese people began to enjoy trips overseas. These tourists, as well as foreign Japanese correspondents, noticed how popular Doraemon had become outside of Japan, particularly in Asia, and the number of articles written overseas about the manga increased dramatically.
Pirated Editions Rife in Asia
Japan’s neighbors in Asia first came into contact with Doraemon through pirated editions in Hong Kong back in the 1970s, followed by versions in Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, China, and Indonesia. These pirated editions continued even after countries obtained the rights to publish, so for a long time the bad money was driving out the good. There was a groundswell of interest in Doraemon in those countries, even though the manga was not strongly promoted, and a giant illegal market was formed with Hong Kong and Thailand serving as hubs. Even after legal editions based on the Universal Copyright Convention began to be published in the early 1990s, it is said that this did not dampen the piracy.
The popularity of Doreaemon spread further overseas as the adaption to television led to a sharp increase in the number of fans, just as it had done in Japan. Previously the manga had mainly spread to Asian countries but with the introduction of the animated series, the robot cat's popularity went global. By way of comparison, by 1993 the manga was being published in 8 countries, while the televised anime was broadcast in 19 countries.
The first overseas location to broadcast the anime was Hong Kong, in February 1982, followed a few months later by broadcasts in Thailand and Italy. That same year Doraemon also reached TV screens in nine countries in Central and South America. One country that missed out, though, was the United States, which has yet to broadcast Doraemon even though CNN secured broadcasting rights in 1985.
Dreams and Adventures in an Everyday Setting
The creator of Doraemon, who is known by the pen name Fujiko F. Fujio (1933–96), came up with the idea for the unique character: a robotic cat who travels back in time from the twenty-second century (the robot was created on September 3, 2112, to be exact). The other characters in the manga also have distinctive, fully contoured personalities, the likes of which you might find in The Brothers Karamazov of Dostoevsky. These characters are the young boy Nobita, Takeshi (nicknamed “Jaiyan,” a play on his "giant" size), and Suneo.
Another important aspect is that Doraemon depicts the most affluent period for Japan, along with the eternal theme of human hopes and dreams, and a sense of adventure. All of this contributes to the classic character of the series. This may have contributed to how the creation managed to win the hearts of men and women of all ages around the world in such a relatively short period of time.
More specifically, the Doraemon manga depicted the everyday life of Nobita, Jaiyan, and Suneo. Normal everyday lives are not filled with adventure, but the children in the manga can have such experiences at times thanks to the secret gadgets that Doraemon has, such as his time machine and his “small light” that has the power to shrink a person or an object to a tiny size. Thanks to Doraemon and his gadgets, Nobita has access to a virtual world where his dreams can come true. Young readers, meanwhile, can identify with his daily life, where he has quarrels with friends, is scolded by his mother, and has to endure the agonies of homework.
Japan’s “Goodwill Ambassador” to Asia
The increasingly affluent middle class in Asian countries, admiring the futuristic lifestyle, tended to be attracted to the manga. It offered people in those countries a realistic image of the sort of childhood they had dreamed of, and which could be achieved, in contrast to the less familiar Western images of childhood that only corresponded to the lifestyles of Asian elites. The character Doraemon was thus embraced by many Asians, becoming what might be described as Japan’s best “goodwill ambassador” to Asia in the era after World War II. This has resulted in Doraemon having name recognition in Asia that surpasses even prominent Japanese corporations like Toyota, Sony, and Canon.
The deep-rooted popularity of Doraemon in neighboring Asian countries was demonstrated in September 2012 amidst the anti-Japanese protests in China following the decision of the Japanese government to nationalize the Senkaku Islands. These protests coincided with a planned exhibition in Beijing celebrating the cat's “pre-100th birthday.” Although delayed by 11 days, the event was held despite the political turmoil, attracting a huge number of fans. This attests to how extensively Doraemon has found acceptance in China since it was first introduced there 20 years ago. The Doraemon culture that has charmed people in China has the power to form common ties between people around the world, and proved strong enough to weather an unfortunate, temporary political clash.
The occasion of the pre-100th birthday of this enduring classic, Doraemon, serves as an occasion for fans in China and the rest of the world to celebrate a manga that has become a common part of everyone’s cultural heritage.
(Originally written in Japanese on October 15, 2012.)
Boku wa Doraemon (I Am Doraemon), (Shōgakukan Inc., July 5, 2004, issue)