Title: Does Taking Doraemon Seriously Crush Its Appealing Spirit of Affectionate Whimsy?
Doraemon: “It’s me*. Hope I haven’t upset you.”
Nobita: “Who, who…, Where did you come from? What, what….”
Nobita: How…, how…, how did you come out of a place like this?
Doraemon: “If you ask me everything all at once, I can’t answer you.”
Doraemon: “And anyway, what does it matter? I’m here to save you from a horrible fate.”
*(The personal pronoun Doraemon uses for himself, “boku,” is an informal one used especially by boys and young men.)
In March 2008Japan's Foreign Ministryappointed Doraemon the nation's first "anime ambassador." First broadcast in 1979 and based on the cartoon above introduced in manga form in 1969, the Doraemon animated TV series celebrated its 35th anniversary in 2014. Between 1979 and 2005, 1787 fifteen-minute episodes in the original series were broadcast. The new edition begun in 2005 continues to the present. Every summer a full length Doraemon film, now totaling more than fifty, is released to theaters. The 2014 animated film Stand by Me Doraemon pulls together in one continuous narrative the main story threads for a new cohort of children from the 1979 television inception through the first seven years of the anime series. A major commercial success in Japan, this film ranked number 1 on the box office charts for 5 consecutive weeks and the second highest-grossing Japanese film in Japan for 2014.
Disciplining surmise with method, structural analysis of contemporary Japan’s most recent endearing and enduring work of the imagination, in which the slightly defective blue robot cat Doraemon sent from the 22nd century becomes the helper and companion to the similarly slightly defective ten-year‑old boy Nobi Nobita, gives us the means to understand the dedicated attachments binding Nobita, Doraemon and their ever renewing and replenishing audience. Not another child, not a sensei, not a father or grandfather, certainly not a mythical hero or trickster, Doraemon is a Mother, a most specifically Japanese Mother, which makes all the difference in Japan. (Mother is capitalized to indicate the symbol ‘Mother’, not the observable behavior of any individual mother or the two-dimensional character “Mama” in the cartoon).
Doraemon’s relationship to his charge Nobita plays out the pattern of persevering care founded in the combination of affectionate indulgence (amae) and autonomous responsibility that reproduces the Japanese cultural ideal of the care of a mother for her child. Doraemon does not demand or insist or discipline; he indulges, he supports, he encourages, he puts up with, he whines, he weeps, he even mildly chides his charge. With true devotion Doraemon carries out his task of caring for Nobita as his constant companion and helper to improve Nobita’s character, and yet his help never refashions Nobita into anything like a modern Momotarō, Japan’s traditional child folk hero, which is the robot’s explicit purpose. The minor contradiction the story models, the opposition of the thousand and one amazing and dazzling gadgets from the future Doraemon pulls from his pouch at Nobita’s insistence to the amusing futility of their use, continues to pull viewers in, but the gravity of the major contradiction centering on Doraemon’s loveable nature and abiding affection for the eternally unregenerate Nobita, holds them through the decades.
The major contradiction of the story displays the ways Doraemon does and does not help Nobita build a capable, self-reliant character (Yokoyama “Doraemon, Nobita”). Like his own gadgets, Doraemon is not quite right for the job he has been assigned. Because Doraemon perpetually fails to resist Nobita’s persistent importunity, Nobita never learns to rely on and develop his own capacities, and so does not grow at all, let alone grow into a modern Momotarō. What role relation available to children models this interaction in real Japanese life? What role dare not speak its name here and yet informs Doraemon’s fundamental character and his relationship with Nobita? We are told Doraemon’s own flawed technology prevents him from straightening Nobita out, but it looks as if he simply won’t. In any event, he doesn’t. Doraemon presents himself as having come to save Nobita from a horrible fate, but later we learn that actually Nobita’s distant descendant sent Doraemon back to the past “to whip the disappointing boy into shape” (Orbaugh 113). But this never happens. And this is not what Mothers do. Technology appears to give Nobita’s great-great-great grandson 10-year-old Sewashi the capacity to (re)form the child Nobita’s character by steady correction and guidance through Doraemon’s presence. This appearance is illusory.
If so much of Doraemon seems merely silly to adults who did not watch these cartoons as children, it is after all a children’s cartoon franchise, not Oedipus or Odysseus. Episode plots are formulaic. Nobita, a ten-year-old boy and only child who lives in Tokyo, and the central character of the cartoon, is an utter mediocrity or less in everything he does. The children in his neighborhood – the big bully Gian, the sneaky nerd Suneo and the cute girl Shizuka -- are his friends and figure prominently in his adventures with Doraemon. As the episode begins, Nobita has a problem. In the words of young fan Mijea, “so many hundreds of stories start off with Nobita running home in tears, crying "Doraemon! Do something!".” Doraemon scholar Yokoyama (“Doraemon, Nobita” 507), who takes a quantitative approach to Doraemon analysis (Yokoyama “Doraemongaku”), starts here too: “Faced with some unpleasant situation, tears streaming from his eyes, Nobita flies into the house calling out “Doraemon!” and tries to get him to fish a gadget from the future out of his pouch to solve the problem” (Kōshita jōkyō ni taishite, Nobita wa namida o nagashinagara, “Doraemon!” to yonde uchi ni tobikomi, jitai kaiketsu no tame no himitsu dogu o yōkyū suru no de aru). Doraemon always resists but finally always yields. At first the gadget performs as required, but then unintended and unforeseen consequences result, making matters worse, but funny. Nobita seems to have learned his lesson by the end, but tomorrow’s episode reveals that he has not. Wash, rinse, repeat as needed. Suitable for daily use with children.
Fujimoto Hiroshi, creator of Doraemon, and Claude Levi-Strauss, author of “The Structural Study of Myth” (which celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2015), two giants of 20th century mythology, form a gestalt on a Mobius strip. “When a manga hero becomes a success, the manga suddenly stops being interesting,” said Fujimoto. “So the hero has to be like the stripes on a barber pole; he seems to keep moving upward, but actually he stays in the same place” (Shilling 43). From Levi-Strauss (Levi-Strauss 105) we learn that
…a myth exhibits a “slated” structure which seeps to the surface, if one may say so, through the repetition process. However, the slates are not identical. And since the purpose of myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction (an impossible achievement if, as it happens, the contradiction is real), a theoretically infinite number of slates will be generated, each one slightly different from the others. Thus, myth grows spiral-wise until the intellectual impulse which has originated it is
More than 2000 fifteen-minute spiraling “slates” and over 50 full-length movies across more than 35 years have evidently not exhausted the impulse that moves Japanese children and now their parents who themselves once watched as children, to attend to Doraemon and Nobita’s ever-turning barber pole.
Analysis of the artifacts of popular culture requires both a reliable technique and a reliable method. Techniques of interpretation, far from providing reliable understanding of the place of a popular artifact in its culture, operate on pop culture as a projection system that, between the object and the interpreter, reproduces ever more intricately the capacity of the object to insinuate itself into the popular imagination and thicken descriptions. As examples of interpretation in this mode, at one end of the range Shiraishi (293) approvingly quotes Shilling’s (44-45) cotton candy characterization, “a breath of freedom and a glimpse of a funnier, friendlier world where all dreams, even foolish ones, can come true.” At the other end, in the dyspeptic view of The Anime Encyclopedia’s unattributed “Doraemon” entry (Clements and McCarthy 158), “…the cat’s techno assistance causes more trouble than it is worth.” The Wikipedia Doraemon entry shares this view: “A typical story consists of Doraemon using one of his gadgets in order to assist Nobita in various ways, often causing more trouble than he was trying to solve.”
Interpretation often tries to find some way to make its material useful to people trying to understand the wider world as well. McVeigh (220) offers an interpretation tying Doraemon to sentient automata, contrasting a “Western” view of robots that might well turn on their creators with a more benign Japanese view:
For example, in Doraemon the dreams and aspirations of a peaceful and prosperous life are projected onto a feline robot. In this anime, a linkage is made between children (specifically, Nobita) and robots, both of which can be viewed as “blank slates” not corrupted by the evil adult world.
In this mode of interpretation, the object interpreted becomes an illustration of a general point, usually referred to as the object’s meaning, here, that the Doraemon corpus shows how Japanese people think about robots. Surely, one thinks, there must be more than this in even one episode.
Nakamura, celebrating Doraemon’s 35th anniversary on television, draws her comparison with other Asian cultures to focus on education:
Why is Doraemon so loved around the world, and especially in Asia? Many Asian societies place great importance on academic achievement and exam results, so children need to study constantly. Maybe children in Asia identify with Nobita, who is always being yelled at by his mother to “study harder!”
Surely, one thinks, there must be more than this in even one episode.
Maybe Asian children do identify with the lazy and poor student Nobita; or possibly Doraemon and Nobita, one or both, can be viewed as “blank slates;” but would anything in Doraemon impel us to think so? And how would thinking so help us understand why Doraemon has been so phenomenally popular for so very long? In the best bricolage tradition, anyone might take up as much of Doraemon as they care to – there is so much of it! - and use what they’ve taken for their own purposes, e.g., to illustrate Japanese and Western intuitions regarding imaginary automata called robots, to speculate about Japan’s well-known “kyoiku mamas.” In one remarkably creative venture, the Japan Visiting Nurses and Nursing Care Association has even published in their professional journal a series of seven one-page articles in which Yokoyama (“Doraemon, Nobita”) aims at helping their members gain the acceptance and trust of those families they visit by working through the ways the remarkably strange stranger Doraemon came to be accepted, trusted and loved by the Nobi family.
While an interpreter looks at a cultural object to understand how it can be, in what way it is, true, valid, appropriate in its variable cultural setting, helping the symbol do its job, as it were, structural analysis generates falsifiable hypotheses by demonstrating the underlying relationship of those elements of cultural knowledge in contradiction which the myth models, revealing the cultural impasse preventing action from resolving this contradiction. It does so by recognizing that what is being structured in an artifact of popular culture is cultural knowledge, knowledge about relations among categories of thought represented by words and objects as specific instances or members of multiple categories in a specific cultural relationship.
This immense Doraemon transformation set tells us that in the same way advanced technology only seems to solve peoples’ problems but cannot really do anything worthwhile about human relationships, mothers only seem to prepare their children to make their way in the world but cannot really do so. Or, maybe mothers do prepare their children for the wider world, but they try to seem not to. While new technology is introduced regularly in real life in Japan, and fantastic technology every day in Doraemon, relations between real mothers and their children change with the pace of the child’s development, and cultural patterns of mothering change very little over comparable spans. These different rates of change make it possible to use the rapid introduction and evaluation of technology to model the very long-term effects on adult character of mothering in the Japanese way and the profound contradictions of mothering practices. Mothers are beloved. Can it possibly be because they do not have any lasting effect on their child’s character? Of course not. But if so, why does Japanese culture represent them as unable to prepare their children for life in the wider world?
Structural analysis of symbolism, of cultural knowledge, requires the analyst to take a position outside the culture of interest and to take interpretations of cultural objects from within that culture as additional information requiring explanation. But structural analysis only offers hypotheses on the place of local knowledge in its local cultural setting, the setting of its audience. It has nothing of a universal nature to offer at all regarding the knowledge it structures, in this case, mothers. What is universal is the psychology which underlies the symbolic mechanism in the way it structures symbolism, that people everywhere establish relations between the categories of thought by analogy.
The present analysis builds on the cognitive methodology pioneered by Matsuya (2012) for the popular Japanese anime Doraemon to understand symbolic structures as public patterns for action based on interested local knowledge, rather than as embodied loci of encoded, disinterested meanings. Symbols thus establish relations among the categories of thought to the end that people might still act in the face of paradox, contradiction and dilemma. Symbols work by linking figuratively, analogically rather than causally, the domain in which action is necessary but problematic to other domains of experience, knowledge of which does provide a basis for confident action.
Concern for how symbols construct and structure culture dominated anthropology in the long post-war period. Levi-Strauss’s (105) hypothesis cited earlier, that “the purpose of a myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction,” opened an immensely productive period in the analysis of symbolism. Yet in time it became clear that if a symbol might mean both one thing and its contradiction or opposite (Kertzer 69), a putative property of symbols commonly called ‘multivocality’, the useful scientific work to which the concepts of meaning, symbol, and communication might be put must be significantly vitiated, lending more support to cognitive than semiotic theories of symbolism (Lakoff).
At the same time Levi-Strauss was developing his semiotic approach to the structural analysis of symbols, Goodenough was urging consideration of culture as the knowledge one requires to participate in society. Extending this shift to cognitive analysis, Sperber made the compelling case that, as is true of words and sentences, “if symbols had a meaning, it would be obvious enough” (84), concluding that the Saussurian semiology project “established, all unknowing, that symbols work without meaning” (52). As Dreyfus and Rabinow (44) have expressed the matter so cogently, anthropology is to be found among “…the sciences of man that take meaning seriously, that is, hermeneutics, and … which abandon meaning altogether, that is, structuralism.” In this conception, symbolism is one kind of knowledge (cultural knowledge, local knowledge), distinguished from 1) analytic knowledge (knowledge of words and language) by being incapable of paraphrase; and from 2) synthetic or encyclopedic knowledge (knowledge from experience of the world; recently, scientific knowledge) by immunity to being dislodged by novel experience or internal contradiction. What symbols do, then, is establish relations among the categories of thought by means of statements about the world and objects in the world, to the end that people might become able to act in the face of paradox, contradiction, dilemma, puzzlement. How symbols work is by linking analogically rather than causally or logically the domain in which action is necessary but problematic to other domains of experience, knowledge of which has provided a basis for confident action.
Cultural knowledge is structured thru the relational logic of analogy, that some things are like other things in particular ways, and so connects the concrete elements of experience to the general categories of thought of a culture as instances of that category in ways that may help people find associations that will allow them to act where they could not before. No element of symbolism can bear an interpretation on its own, but only as it finds its place in a set of relationships, one of the most common being the way “difference” can be construed as “opposite.” At the same time, however, analogic thinking draws attention away from points of difference in the domains being compared. The creation of cultural knowledge relies on both aspects of analogic reasoning. Godelier (173) reminds us why we hide so much from our social selves: “…there is something in society which is part of the social being of its members and which needs opacity in order to produce and reproduce itself.” Consequently, this “not being able to talk about something,” openly and explicitly, that something necessary and important to group solidarity and even group existence can only function as long as it is not talked about, makes society work, even as it keeps us from understanding our own collective creation and recognizing these creations as our own. In this way, humans make myths the way oysters make pearls, working around rather than solving a problem, but enlarging and changing the whole as we smooth out the rough edges. And yet, even while the underlying contradiction has not been and will not be resolved by this activity, the cultural creation covering it and making certain actions but not others possible can be both deeply attractive and compel attention.
Even all these years after the dissolution of the cultural category ‘auteur’ in the vitriol of deconstructionism, it is still no longer certain that method can justify the structural analysis of creations assigned to an identifiable individual, or even a small team, in so far as there seems not yet to be a reliable way to show that this individual or team creates entirely from within the full cultural discourse of their society. While the only possibility open to the bricoleur for the purpose at hand is to stick together as best he can the ancient and broken bits of culture always already lying about his feet, the lingering modernist notion of the creativity of the individual artist is another way of saying she does not share the values, ideas, motivations and materials of the collectivity from which she springs, Athena-like. The artist may celebrate the folk and draw on the folk tradition, but he is not of the folk. At least now we can recognize this creature too, the creative artist, as another cultural construct, another symbol. To be as long-lived and popular as Doraemon, its creator and support team would seem to have at least one foot in Japan’s collective unconscious, but how to demonstrate this? How can we know that what people get out of Doraemon has anything to do with what Fujimoto and his team put in?
Drawing from a still lively folk tradition can at least support the foundation of a method that will allow us to raise the question. Ouwehand’s structural analysis of popular woodblock prints - the Edo era’s cartoons - that immediately flooded the city following the great Tokyo earthquake of 1855, identifies the link between earlier and recent creators and consumers of Japanese popular culture in the figure of Momotarō (Peach Boy). This late Edo tsunami of cheap cartoons portrays multiple interpretations of the traditional child folk hero Momotarō and his animal companions (a talking dog, a monkey and a pheasant) descending into the bowels of the earth to quell with just a drinking gourd the writhing of the giant catfish (namazu) which caused earthquakes in Japan in those days. In one of the Doraemon franchise’s earliest theatrical movies, “Boku, Momotarō no Nan na no, sa” (Doraemon: What I am for Momotarō), released in 1981 just two years after the inauguration of the television series, Nobita pops out of the peach and Doraemon bears Momotarō’s iconic banner “Nihon Ichi” (“Japan Number 1”), self-consciously connecting Momotarō lore to Doraemon. Doraemon plays to mythic rather than modernist sensibilities.
Ouwehand’s analysis asserts that “the earthquake prints not only represent and illustrate in word and picture the great Edo earthquake of 1855 – in other words they are not only a report of this event – but that they also form, by means of a certain interpretation of the earthquake, a reaction to it” (Ouwehand 237). These woodblock prints were produced and consumed at that time the way newspapers are even now, to be handled only a moment and then discarded forever. And yet the remaining sheets still number in the thousands. These woodblock prints of catfish, coins, carpenters and child-heroes were the creation of many, many hands and minds, immediate, unorganized, anonymous. We cannot suspect, accuse or convict anyone, certainly no one we would want, today, to call an artist, or even a reporter, of having put anything into them. In Ouwehand’s assessment,
The pressure of social unrest and dissatisfaction within the collectivum of the folk culture, and the expectation of a new, ideal time, increased by the catalyzing tension of a collectively and numinously experienced earthquake disaster, found an outlet in the religiously-charged representations of the collective medium of the namazu prints (238-39).
This deep connection to folk culture Ouwehand locates in these prints justifies at least the attempt to analyze the structure of this newer but equally vast and appealing body of connected cultural material, even if it is not produced obscurely and anonymously by many hands, but, in the present case, within the conventional bounds of Japan’s 20th century commercial entertainment industry by a small number of known, indeed now famous, cartoon artists (Condry). Doraemon’s creator died in 1996 but the franchise continued as popular as ever (Yokoyama “Doraemon no Miryoku”). That Momotarō and his animal companions re-establish the axis mundi with a drinking gourd and so calm the rumblings of the earth, jostles evocatively with Nobita, Doraemon, and the rest of his pals, for anyone who knows them both, which in Japan is everyone. What they see is that in so many ways Nobita is no Momotarō. But in Doraemon, they are confronted with deep ambiguity, a very un-catlike earless blue robot cat from the future, the orthography of whose name combines in its appearance something both foreign to Japan and from pre-modern Japan, that talks like a boy and acts like a Mother.
Doraemon, Nobita, Technological, Humanity
With the first pass, the present analysis generated a syntagmatic structure that could permit a lesson, a moral, well within the range of available interpretations such as those discussed above: the futuristic gadgets Doraemon produces from his pouch offer a constant temptation which, once viewers are exposed to their unintended and disastrous if amusing consequences, help us see once again that only ningen kankei (human relations) can be ultimately satisfying. Even a children’s cartoon, when it draws such prolonged and profound praise and attention, deserves the most serious understanding and appreciation we can give it, justifying the methodological presumption that the narrative is important to its audience in ways that are not necessarily apparent in any single episode or even run of episodes in so far as any single or even several episodes are unlikely to provide the information needed to adequately understand what the narrative brings to the knowledge and interests the viewer already has in place.
The second pass precipitated a paradigmatic structure around a more intractable and sobering question:
Is the relationship between Doraemon and Nobita ningen kankei? I was told once by a Japanese robotics engineer that Japanese people do not think of Doraemon as a robot because he seems so human. Yet Doraemon is neither, he is a cartoon, a figure of the imagination. The minor contradiction on the left focuses and elaborates the way the gadgetry Doraemon pulls from his pouch both solves and fails to solve the endless minor problems of modern childhood Nobita suffers. “TV audiences must love these gadgets because there is now an encyclopedia dedicated to them which lists and explains over a thousand of Doraemon’s devices” (Craig 296). The role the gadgets play in the stories, however, makes them very close to classic McGuffins in so far as they really do nothing at all, leaving no effect behind at the end of the episode. Advanced technology holds a significant place in Japanese society. Doraemon does not repudiate technology so much as throw its shortcomings into relief against the enduring requirements of human social relations.
The major contradiction on the right side has been woven into the syntagmatic structure of the stories in a less obvious way. In the midst of Doraemon’s kaleidoscope of problems, gadgets, scenery, dramatis personae, how shall we characterize the enduring and unchanging relationship between Doraemon and Nobita? Can it make any sense to think that human-robot relations can be, could ever be, should somehow be reciprocally strategic, that a robot could or should have agency rather than an assignment, have a will rather than a program? Doraemon has been sent back to the present from the 22nd century by Nobita’s dissatisfied descendant Sewashi (like Nobita also a ten-year-old child, the future’s Nobita) to reform Nobita’s character, to turn him from an utter non-entity into a 20th century somebody by altering Nobita’s character (rather than any specific event, against which time travelers are invariably warned).
The discourse on the relationship of humanity to the complex increasingly computerized machines we’ve created continues everywhere. Some writers such as Shilling, whose original article appeared in The Japan Quarterly, and Shiraishi (“Abroad”) (also a revision of an earlier essay (Shiraishi “Soft Power”)), see largely eye-to-eye on Doraemon. Shiraishi quotes Shilling in agreement and writes further herself, that:
In Doraemon [italics added], science and technology are intimately associated with children. Nuclear-powered Doraemon is a symbol of the confidence and hope people place in technology as the trustee of the future of their children. Technology, which once caused total devastation, is purified by its association with and use by an innocent child, and children are conceptually empowered as those who are responsible for befriending and advancing science and technology (295).
As Craig (296-97) lays out the matter:
Doraemon [italics added] represents the optimistic view of the relationship between technology and humanity. Nobita exemplifies man as master of technology, secure in the view that technology brings benefits to man, not fear, enslavement, or harm…. Nobita cheerfully experiments with Doraemon’s latest high-tech toy to solve his latest problem, but these experiments generally result in mishaps.
We cannot expect freehand interpretations to be any freer of internal contradictions than myths themselves, but rather, to reproduce those same contradictions without identifying them. The present analysis arrives at a quite different result through its explicit method. Doraemon is the negation of the expectation that technological can solve any important problems of life, a sort of reducto ad absurdum through humor and repetition. Technological mishaps do not result in fear, enslavement or harm because Doraemon is a humorous cartoon for children designed to teach them lessons gently, not because anyone thinks the future will be free of such tragic disasters. Fukushima has happened, and Doraemon continues as or more popular than ever. Even the ideal hyper-technology of the future Doraemon fishes out of his pouch still only seems to work: it works mechanically, more or less, but not socially. It doesn’t finally add anything to the world and actually might cause a lot of problems if allowed to remain in use. But in Doraemon, disaster is funny. All gets sorted out, though, and before the start of each next episode life has returned to the status quo ante. But Nobita has not grown more capable of facing and solving the problems life throws at him. And as a children’s cartoon there is, of course, no reference to the invention of technologies of all sorts as a way for large companies to earn large profits, the entry point of technology into our world where invention is the mother of necessity.
The self-referential and paradoxical irony underlying the reset button is that Doraemon was sent by one of Nobita’s descendants from the 22nd century back to our time to save Nobita, and so the descendent himself, from his dismal destiny. But Doraemon fails to change Nobita at all. Even Doraemon’s hyper-technology of the future does not make today’s world better and might make it worse; and Doraemon, technology at its most vulnerably human, not only does not improve Nobita’s character, his presence in the narrative present moment prevents Nobita from growing up at all. The most he has done is make time stand still. Even though the settings of the cartoon’s action change over the decades, for example by bringing in the issue of ecology and environmental degradation, the structure of the cartoon does not. From the point of view of social relations vs. the inevitable changes brought on by technological innovations, Doraemon is utterly conservative while not actively Luddite in its sentiments: there’s no place like home, whatever home is like, but gadgets will not improve it, and will invariably make it worse if they do anything at all. The future will not experience the effects of Nobita’s adult life if time stands still in his childhood life, which it clearly has for the past 35 years. And it will stay stopped into a barber-pole-like or mobius strip-like atemporal movement into the indefinitely distant future as long as there is interest in the cartoon. But having heard this amusing story of why marvelous technology will not save the world 100 times, why would anyone, even a child of ten, be interested in hearing it a 101st, or a 1001st time?
Japanese Mothers, Burdens and Affection
One casual definition of neurosis is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results. Nobita’s character never improves because his descendant has sent a defective robot cat to help him. Takeo Doi’s path breaking work on neurosis and amae, which he identifies as the “need for human affection” (Johnson ix), offers us a means to further understanding of the major contradiction the myth models. While nothing of any real importance at all depends on Doraemon’s gadgetry, Nobita and Doraemon depend on and care for each other and deeply and constantly despite the failures of Doraemon’s technology to solve Nobita’s problems and Doraemon’s (and Nobita’s own) failure to improve Nobita’s character along any timeline. Although Doraemon is not able to improve Nobita’s character, either by lack of will or defective technology, they have a relationship which endures and is clearly deeply valuable to them both. We must look among life models available to children below the age of 10 for this relationship of interdependence based on enduring affection and support, and yet which fails to develop the dependent child’s character in a way that will help the child enter into and participate effectively in society as he grows up.
And we find deep inside Doraemon a Japanese Mother. That Mothers do and do not build their children’s character remains tacit in the narrative, but striking in the ethnographic record. How can Mothers, so utterly selfless, so self-sacrificing, be thought to have shortcomings precisely as Mothers, when they suffer so to indulge their dependents and thus add their effort to help the next generation prosper and succeed, which is their fundamental mission in life. Doraemon, the future relative’s defective technology sent back to build Nobita’s character, is a Japanese Mother, and all Japanese know that Mothers were never designed to reform or create character in a child in the first place. Sensei (teacher) does this; Father would if he was ever home; the gang of neighborhood children (nakama) relish the chance; public officials and police officers are Mother’s standby threat; and indeed the whole rest of the world (seken, soto) requires it.
This Japanese Mother disguised as an earless blue robot cat sent to (re)build Nobita’s character is deeply underdetermined in relation to Nobita’s equally overdetermined perpetually childish child. Why would, how could, anyone watching Doraemon and laughing at the messes Nobita makes with Doraemon’s gadgets see a Mother in a very un-cat-like earless blue robot cat from the future that talks like a boy? The character Mother in the Japanese domestic drama indulges (amayakasu), but does not build character directly or explicitly. As a superordinate, she is not authoritarian but an enabler. Only later in life, when they recall her long-ago sacrifices for them, can her grown children draw on these emotion-laden memories to help them persevere (ganbaru, a deeply revered Japanese value) through life’s hardships (Kondo 83-89). Memories of mother reduce the hardest Japanese heart to tears. So sending a mildly flawed Doraemon back to the eternal present is not exactly a mistake by Sewashi, but raises questions no one in Doraemon’s audience can have any interest in clarifying. The story asserts that Doraemon is the best impoverished Sewashi could manage with his limited childhood means. Structurally, making Doraemon a Mother in an earless blue cat costume (and when does a costume become a disguise?) is how Fujimoto keeps Nobita from growing up, how he keeps the barber pole turning by stimulating his audience’s affectionate attachment, rather than its critical awareness. Viewers do not see Doraemon’s affectionate indulgence of Nobita’s demands as Doraemon’s defect. One might hypothesize that Sewashi sent Doraemon back to sabotage the development of a strong, self-reliant character in Nobita by habituating him to techno-junk, but that would be a different story. His shortcoming as a cat is that he is afraid of mice because long ago mice chewed his ears off. But Mothers indulge their children in Japan. This is how they mother and all their children turn out to be Japanese.
While Mothers everywhere are caregivers, they care differently from culture to culture. Here I confine this discussion to three well-known accounts of Japanese mothering relationships from the extensive ethnographic literature on motherhood in Japan. Peak contrasts mothers with pre-school teachers; Kondo describes women of a certain age who work part-time in a confectionary; and Iwao observes mothers as wives as well.
Mothers and preschool teachers appear identical because, after all, they are; but their behavior is night and day to the children in their charge. In the popular wisdom of Japanese mothers and teachers, the home and the outside world are so different that the family cannot teach the fundamental rules of social interaction governing life in the outside world. The home is the home, preschool is the outside world, and the two settings require different styles of behavior and habits of self-presentation for success.
This discrepancy between the public and the private, soto and uchi, has frequently been described by observers of Japanese society. The Japanese language institutionalizes it and ritualizes it in indigenous discourse on the social world (Bachnik and Quinn). The home, or uchi, is the private, intimate arena in which one can relax, let all of one’s feelings show, and expect indulgence and sympathy from other members of the family. Within the uchi a healthy amount of self-indulgence, regressive behavior, and mild aggression are not only cheerfully tolerated, but also encouraged as the indication of intimacy and trust. However, in the soto, the outside world, one must learn to assume a genial and cooperative public persona, in which individual feelings and desires must be subjugated to the harmony and activities of the group (Peak 7).
The family (uchi) is not the group (shudan). Neither style of personal interaction trumps the other in the abstract; in a healthy personality each should be exhibited in the appropriate situation. Japanese mothers desire to maintain a certain degree of amae in their child’s behavior toward themselves and other family members while expecting that the child will learn to display enryo (self-restraint) from and toward peers, neighbors, and others outside the family. The first day of preschool presents this expectation to most Japanese children for the first time (Peak 16).
This pattern of mothering becomes a significant means of creating intimacy and trust in other settings such as work as well, making them feel “homey.” At the confectionary factory, women were instrumental in defining the tone of the work culture on the shop floor, the informal social relations on the job. “They did so primarily vis-à-vis the younger artisans, in their roles as surrogate mothers” (Kondo 294). Most of the younger male artisans were in their late teens or early twenties, while the part-timers tended to be women in their forties and fifties.
Kondo catalogues the ways these women provide the young men with a humanized work atmosphere, a source of support and care, fostering feelings of togetherness, of “company as family,” of work groups which, like the household, become the locus of emotional attachment. “This position is a contradictory one, for it replays on the shop floor the notion that women are emotional workers, care-givers and creators of an uchi (homey) feeling” (Kondo 295) and so continually set themselves apart from the central story of maturity through apprenticeship and masculine toughness and skill: while they are acting like mothers toward these young artisans, they are not improving these young men’s characters as disciplined workers.
At the same time, however, their position as Mothers puts them in a position of advantage over the male artisans and serves to make them important, though formally marginal, members of the company. In Japan, Kondo carefully records, the position of care-giver or the one who indulges the selfish whims of another (the amayakasu position) is actually a superordinate one, often associated with parents or bosses. By asking favors of the part-timer women or by acting childish, the young artisans are placing themselves in the amaeru position of a child or a subordinate seeking indulgence (Kondo 295-296).
Iwao describes how this pattern of indulgence based in the need for human affection, as something that can be at least wheedled if not demanded, carries over into married life and the relation between wives and husbands. The domestically helpless husband – and some women do call their husbands “my big baby” or “eldest son” – is a prime target for caring patterns shifted from the young. Japanese women give greater priority to their role as mother than wife, but in fact the two overlap considerably As well, this role tends to keep husbands acting like children at home, “as they shift adeptly from the indulged son to the indulged husband” (Iwao 88-89). North (40) observes how this practice is naturalized within the household: “Socialized for natural dominance and characterized as coddled and spoiled, first sons were defined by what they did not do at home [housework or domestic chores of any sort], regardless of their wives’ earning power or occupational prestige.” Nobi Nobita is an only child. As elders, men more easily amaeru than women, a Buddhist priest explained when discussing care and loss in late life: “Strength is easier for women to achieve. Men can cry ‘mommy’!” (Danely 177).
There seems to be no limit to the reluctant willingness of Doraemon to indulge Nobita, because of his affection for his charge, but as long as Doraemon cannot resist Nobita’s persistent demands for the easy way out, which is presented as the illusion of technology, Nobita can never grow up in this popular and enduring anime where “grow up” and “grow older” are synonymous. The irony in the observation that Prime Minister Abe declared 2015 to be “year one (gannen) of moving towards a “robot society”” (DeWit) in the country in which this anime has been so popular for so long, will elude no one. Turkle has now come to expect only disappointing simulacra of intimacy from intelligent personal technology. She (107) points out how the “caring” robots being developed in Japan can “take care of us,” but they would not “care about us” (italics in original) and asks, is the performance of care, care enough? And this comes close to the core contradiction Doreamon examines almost endlessly.
Myths model contradictions which social action cannot resolve, and yet, in the face of which, people must still act. Technology is not going to solve our problems except in minor ways which have unintended consequences with which we will eventually have to deal and which could be worse than the original problem. Doraemon lets its audience look at this reality and laugh now, so we don’t have to wait until “someday” to look back and laugh. Time stops in Doraemon and the future is now. And Japanese mothers will continue to raise their children by indulging their need for affection in ways that do not prepare them to face the outside world, as they inevitably must, and yet give them an emotional center to their personality to which they can later return for succor again and again throughout their later lives. It’s good we can laugh about these things when we see them in a fun-house mirror, even as we do not have to recognize and acknowledge what we are seeing.
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