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." The Doraemon animated TV series, first broadcast in 1979 and based on the cartoon above introduced in manga form in 1969, celebrated its 35th anniversary in 2014. Since 1979 one fifteen-minute episode has been broadcast nightly at 6:45, just before the evening news. Thousands of comic books and over 1500 TV episodes have been created. Every summer a full length Doraemon film, now totaling more than fifty, is released to theaters. The full-length animated film Stand by Me Doraemon, released in 2014, pulls together in one continuous narrative for a new cohort of children the main story threads from its 1979 TV inception through the first seven years of the television anime series. A major commercial success in Japan, this film ranked number 1 on the box office charts for 5 consecutive weeks and the number two highest-grossing Japanese film for 2014 in Japan, with a box office total of ¥8.38 billion. In February, 2015, Stand by Me Doraemon won that year’s Japan Academy Prize for Animation.
Disciplining inference with method, structural analysis of contemporary Japan’s most recent endearing and enduring work of the imagination, the children’s anime Doraemon, in which a slightly defective blue robot cat 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 a sensei, not a father or grandfather, definitely not another child nor yet mythical hero or trickster, Doraemon is a Mother, a Japanese Mother (capitalized to indicate the symbol ‘Mother’, not the observable behavior of any particular mother), which makes all the difference in Japan. Doraemon’s relationship to his charge Nobita plays out the pattern of persevering care founded in affectionate indulgence (amae) 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. With true devotion Doraemon carries out his assignment to care for Nobita as his constant companion and helper in order 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 ultimate task.
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 1997:43). From Levi-Strauss 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
exhausted (1955: 105).
More than 1500 fifteen-minute “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 barber pole.
One Saturday evening in 2004 while living in Japan, I surfed into the beginning of the Doraemon25th Anniversary Special and ended up watching four continuous hours of Doraemon cartoons, 16 in all. By a fate mysterious and deep, Doraemon and I will share a common birth month and day, September 3, in the year 2112 for Doraemon, the suitably palindromic date of his manufacture. Of the 50+ full length movies, thousands of comic books and 1500-plus TV episodes created since Doraemon first popped from Nobita’s desk drawer in 1969, this analysis draws primarily on Doraemon Television Collection, Part 1, Vol. 1-3 (2001).
Episode plots are formulaic. Nobita, a ten-year-old boy and only child who lives in Tokyo and the central character of the cartoon, 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!".” Nobita tries to get Doraemon to fish a gadget from the future out of his pouch to solve the problem. “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 2000:296). Doraemon resists but finally 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.
Nobita is an utter mediocrity or less in everything he does. The children in his neighborhood – the big bully Gian, the sneaky nerd Sunneo and the cute girl Shizuka -- are his friends and figure prominently in his adventures with Doraemon. Below follow the plot lines of two episodes, one longer and one shorter, from the reference source collection.
“Let’s build a subway”
Nobita, Doraemon and Mama are downtown walking and Nobita is complaining about it. They near Papa’s office. Papa comes out and is surprised to see them. The family takes a crowded bus home. Papa is used to it but Nobita and Doraemon find it exhausting and complain.
Papa’s birthday is coming up soon and Nobita wants to think of some way Papa won’t have to ride the crowded bus. He tells Doraemon he will give Papa his own private subway for a birthday present. Doraemon is overwhelmed, but Nobita really wants him to do it. Doraemon is flattered that Nobita has so much confidence in him and his tools, and so produces a digging machine that is like a small submarine with treads and a big screw tip on its front end. The two of them get in it and immediately start digging into the back yard. They get lost and come out in the ocean.
They keep trying. The digging machine is evidently hard to direct: it wanders around under the earth like a drunken mole as the calendar pages flutter down across the screen. They come out in a women’s public bath, in the lion cage at the zoo, in a prison exercise yard. More days pass and Papa’s birthday gets closer, but still no personal subway for him. Now the earth below their house looks like an ant farm or Swiss cheese.
At last Doraemon believes he has the right map. And away they go once again. But then they strike a really hard area. They get out and think they hear digging nearby, but conclude that that it’s only their imagination. Act 2 finishes with Nobita telling Papa just as they are all turning in for the night, “You’ll really like your birthday tomorrow, Papa. So good night.” It seems they must have pulled it off in time.
Act 3 begins with Papa waking to a present beside his futon. In the box is a subway commuter pass for the “Nobita Private Subway,” good for the “home to office” ride. After breakfast Nobita and Doraemon take Papa into a hole in the back yard and Mama comes too. Sure enough, there is one subway car there; Doraemon is the driver and Nobita is the conductor. “Itte kimasu” from Papa, “itte ‘rasshai” from Mama and off they go, Papa sprawled out on the seat, dozing. As they ride along Nobita and Doraemon cheer for how fine their subway is.
But then they see a light up ahead in their tunnel and slam on the emergency brakes. They stop just in time to avoid colliding with a real construction crew putting in a real subway. Nobita claims that the tunnel is his, and the crew chief accuses him of selfishness, when there are lots and lots of people who need to ride a public subway. Doraemon agrees with the crew chief.
So they try another route with their digger, but it stalls and Papa has to start digging with a pick. Papa realizes this is impossible and Nobita weeps bitter tears of apology. Doraemon too cries and apologies to Papa. Papa forgives them, recognizing that they meant well. Doraemon then spots a thin crack of light, thru which they break into the sewer directly below Papa’s office and he arrives at work on time, not much the worse for wear. The end.
“For once in my life I’d like to get a hundred”
Nobita is a terrible student but wants good grades without studying. Doraemon says “You’re hopeless” and gives him a “computer pencil” that simply writes the correct answers automatically on the homework page. Nobita rushes over to Shizuka’s house with it, despite Doraemon’s misgivings. Along the way he does Gian’s and Suneo’s homework for them. Then at Shizuka’s house he blasts through the paperwork mountain her father had to bring home from the office.
Nobita wants to use the pencil on tomorrow’s test, but Doraemon says that’s cheating. Nobita is adamant and Doraemon pulls a long face filled with disappointment, but finally gives in. Nobita struggles with his conscience all night, and by the time of the test his good angel has won. He writes his test with his regular pencil, one that has always earned him Ds and Fs in the past.
When he returns the computer pencil to Doraemon, though, Doraemon instantly identifies it as a fake. What happened to the authentic computer pencil?
Next day, teacher praises Gian as the only student who got a hundred, or who even did well on the test. But Gian’s dad realizes that Gian must have cheated, since he has never in his life gotten a good grade, let alone a hundred, and so gives him a good beating. Gian returns the computer pencil and is mad at Nobita and Doraemon for getting him in trouble.
* * *
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, often 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 (2000: 293) approvingly quotes Shilling’s (1997: 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 2006: 158), “…the cat’s techno assistance causes more trouble than it is worth.” McVeigh offers an additional similar instance:
Supposedly, the views of robots in Japan differ from those in the “West”: in the latter, human-made automata are perceived as potentially dangerous entities that might take over and kill their masters, while in the former, they are more benign and less negative. 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…. (McVeigh 2014:220).
Possibly Doraemon and Nobita can be viewed as “blank slates,” but would anything in Doraemon impel us to do so? Would doing so help us understand why Doraemon has been so phenomenally popular for so very long? Do we have any evidence inside or outside the narrative that either Japan or the West does view either children or robots as “blank slates?” That is, in the best bricolage tradition, anyone might take up as much of Doraemon as they care to and use what they’ve taken for their own purposes, e.g., to illustrate Japanese and Western intuitions regarding imaginary automata called robots. And barring the customary accusations of cultural appropriation, why not do so? But this effort, involving a creative process akin to art, is a very different project than usual.
As more typically undertaken, interpreting an object of popular culture by analogy to the linguistic act of paraphrase is intended to lead one to understand that object’s meaning within that culture by saying the same thing in different ways, in different modalities. Indeed, anthropologists remain deeply sensitive to this process and highly skeptical of analyses based on concepts brought in from outside the culture of interest, and especially suspicious of comparisons across cultures based on speciously similar categories. Coming at the matter of understanding cultural artifacts from the perspective of cognition rather than semiotics, what we know rather than what we mean, gives a much different result. 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, structural analysis generates hypotheses that further experience may yet prove false, concerning the properties of such symbolic structures or cultural constructs as they are also often called. Structural analysis, by demonstrating the underlying relationship of those elements of cultural knowledge in contradiction which the myth models, reveals the 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 of relations among categories of thought represented by words and objects as specific instances or members of several categories in a specific cultural relationship. 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.
The present analysis of the symbolic structure of the popular Japanese anime Doraemon takes a cognitive approach to understand symbols as public patterns for action based on structured and 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. How symbols work is 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 (1955:105) 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 1988:69), 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 support to cognitive rather than semiotic theories of symbolism (Lakoff 1987).
At the same time Levi-Strauss’s was developing his semiotic approach to the structural analysis of symbols, Goodenough (1957) was urging consideration of culture as the knowledge one requires to participate in society. In one wing of post-structuralist anthropology, Sperber made the compelling case that, as is true of words and sentences, “if symbols had a meaning, it would be obvious enough” (1975:84), concluding that the Saussurian semiology project “established, all unknowing, that symbols work without meaning” (1975:52). As Dreyfus and Rabinow (1983:44) 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. 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 as instances of that category in ways that may help people find associations that will allow them to act where they could not before. 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 (1999:173) 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, the cultural creation covering it and making certain actions but not others possible is both deeply attractive and compels attention.
Even all these years after the dissolution of the cultural category ‘author’ 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 he does not share the values, ideas, motivations and materials of the collectivity from which he 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, the creative artist, too 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?
Cultural continuity, drawing from a still lively folk tradition, can serve at least as the foundation of a method that will allow us to raise the question. Ouwehand’s (1964) 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 1964: 237). These woodblock prints were produced and consumed then 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 (1964:238-39).
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 2013). Doraemon’s creator died in 1996 but the franchise continues. 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 that knows them both, which in Japan is everyone. What they see, of course, is that Nobita is no Momotarō in so many ways. But in Doraemon, they are confronted with ambiguity, at once a very un-catlike earless blue robot cat from the future that talks like a boy and acts like a Mother.
* * *
At a first pass, the present analysis generated a moderate syntagmatic structure, well within the range of available interpretations such as those discussed above, that could permit an interpretation that the futuristic gadgets Doraemon produces from his pouch offer a constant temptation which, once viewers are exposed to their unintended if amusing consequences, help us see once again that only ningen kankei (human relations) can be ultimately satisfying. The lingering question must be answered, 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. That was his view, at least, at that moment.
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 assumption 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. A second pass precipitated a more intractable and sobering question from the paradigmatic structure
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. The major contradiction on the right side, however, 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 could be reciprocally strategic, that a robot could or should have agency rather than an assignment? 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 success by altering Nobita’s character rather than any specific event, against which time travelers are of course always warned.
The major contradiction of the story recognizes how Doraemon does and does not help Nobita build a capable, self-reliant character. 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. What role relation models this interaction in real Japanese life? What role here dare not speak its name 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 actually 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 Nobita’s distant descendant actually sent Doraemon back to the past “to whip the disappointing boy into shape” (Orbaugh 2002: 113). This never happens. Technology appears to give Nobita’s great-great-great grandson 10-year-old Sewashi the capacity to (re)form the child Nobita’s character, as an adult might, by steady correction and guidance through Doraemon’s presence. This appearance is illusory. In the United States our parents are the most important choice we make in our lives, but in Japan the perpetuity of the ie (corporate stem family) evidently requires people to go back much farther to fix fundamental family flaws.
Shilling (1997), whose original article appeared in The Japan Quarterly, and Shiraishi (2000) (also a revision of an earlier essay (Shiraishi 1997)), 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 (2000: 295).
As Craig (2000:296-97) 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. The present analysis arrives at a quite different result. Doraemon is the negation of the technological part of present reality, 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 a lesson 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, but Doraemon is not selling atomic reactors. 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. Doraemon does not have to refer explicitly to Fukushima in those episodes that explore environmentalism to lead to the inescapable conclusion that even the best, not just the flawed, technology can and will lead to disaster. But in Doraemon, disaster is funny, and that is just how humor works. In a cartoon for children, this is a gentle lesson: the problems technology creates finally evaporate, leaving no trace, no effects, no consequences, all suitable for a cartoon world. The problems Doraemon’s gadgets attack and the problems they create in their solutions can be sorted out and life can return to the status quo ante without the technology. 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.
Doraemon is Japanese, after all, a Japanese robot cat from the future, and so the cartoon is about the paramount importance of ningen-kankei, human social relations. Social relations are what matter and what must be preserved in the face of the ever-appealing temptations of technological fixes, which the cartoon demonstrates relentlessly through its humor to be actually the road to disaster if allowed to take effect in the world. Nobita wants Doraemon’s technology to save him from himself and others, and which technology, while seeming to do so at first, finally just makes things worse. All gets sorted out, though, and before the start of each next episode life has returned to the status quo ante.
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. Doraemon’s technology does not make the world better and might make it worse; and Doraemon 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, but this act is outside the narrative frame, after all. 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 if not actively Luddite in its sentiments: there’s no place like home, whatever home is like, and gadgets will not improve it, but only make it worse if they do anything at all. Now, 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. This paradox of self-reference, however, encapsulates the audience with its protagonists, and so is made unavailable for inspection or reflection by Doraemon’s young and no-longer-young viewers. But having heard this amusing story of why 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 (1973) path breaking work on neurosis and amae, which he identifies as the “need for human affection” (Johnson 1993: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 each other 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 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.
Doraemon is 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? 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 and Doraemon’s gadgets create 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 1990: 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, in his limited childhood situation, could manage. 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. His defect is that he is afraid of mice because long ago mice chewed his ears off. But Mothers indulge their children. This is how they mother.
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 literature on motherhood in Japan. Peak (1991) contrasts mothers with pre-school teachers; Kondo (1990) describes women of a certain age who work part-time in a confectionary; and Iwao (1993) observes mothers also as wives.
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 1994). 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 1991: 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 1991: 16). Americans are routinely stunned to find that Japanese preschool teachers, far from considering hitting a matter requiring their intervention, see a child routinely playing alone quietly as an extremely serious behavioral problem (Peak 1991: 165).
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 1990: 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 1990: 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 1990: 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 to that as 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 1993: 88-89). North (2009: 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, regardless of their wives’ earning power or occupational prestige,” namely housework or domestic chores of any sort. 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 2014: 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 characterized as the illusion of technology, Nobita can never grow up in this popular and enduring anime where “grow up” and “grow older” are synonymous. I believe the irony will elude no one in the observation that in the country in which this anime has been so popular for so long, Prime Minister Abe has declared 2015 to be “year one (gannen) of moving towards a “robot society”” (DeWit 2015).
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 have to deal and which could be worse than the original problem. And Japanese mothers will 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 recognize what we are seeing.
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