Japan’s Soft Power Leader in China is a Fat Blue Cartoon Cat

On July 28, costumed in vibrant colors, throngs of fans flocked toward the early morning light of Victoria Harbor, queueing outside the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center for the last day of the 17th Ani-Com & Games Hong Kong. The five-day festival of animation and games attracted over 700,000 visitors, and for many, the main attraction was an exhibit featuring the Japanese manga character Doraemon, whose popularity has exploded since the television series first aired in Hong Kong in 1981 and was released in mainland China ten years later. Critics have called Doraemon a “state propaganda tool,” and though it may seem absurd to think a cartoon about a robotic cat from the future would have political import, it’s possible that Doraemon the cat has done more to improve Sino-Japanese relations than any recent Japanese politician.

Consider, for instance, the tens of thousands of Chinese who protested violently for weeks during the anti-Japanese demonstrations of 2005 and 2010. Each time, mobs smashed the windows of Ito-Yokado and other Japanese department stores in the Chinese city of Chengdu. Yet when crowds gathered at the nearby International Finance Square (IFS) on August 16, 2014, it was to welcome a Japanese cultural icon; (IFS) was opening its 100 Doraemon Secret Gadgets Expo. The crowd was jittery that morning, almost tense, and when the doors opened, children and adults alike gleefully burst in as if someone had fired a starting pistol.

The Doraemon series, created by Fujimoto Hiroshi and Abiko Motoo in 1969, follows the story of Nobi Nobita, a doltish fifth grader living in Tokyo whose incompetence will one day cause the ruin of his family. In order to straighten him out, Nobita’s great-great-grandson Sewashi travels back in time to present Nobita with Doraemon, a robotic cat equipped with a fourth-dimensional pouch from which he pulls fabulous gadgets to help Nobita when he’s in need. After moving to Japan in 2004, I soon learned the franchise was a howling success with Japanese children, and parents liked it too; for kids who resisted homework or chores, Doraemon sugared the pill. But it’s more than a case of Mickey Mouse meets Emily Post. Doraemon also helps Nobita confront the bully Gian, and win the heart of his best friend and future wife, Shizuka.

Doe-eyed goodwill notwithstanding, the hearts of some cannot be won. One month after the Doraemon expo in Chengdu, the local media sortie began. The Chengdu Evening News called “Blue Fatty” a threat, claiming Japan isn’t truly penitent for its war crimes, and imploring fans “at least don’t fanatically click the ‘like’ button.” The Chengdu Daily also mentioned Japan’s war crimes, arguing that because Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Komura Masahiko named Doraemon “Anime Ambassador” in March 2008, this makes Doraemon an instrument of Japanese foreign policy. At the same time, Global Times columnist Wang Dehua wrote, “we must never let the Japanese use a little animated character to take control of our minds,” while The Chengdu Economic Daily alleged Tokyo is turning “Japanese culture into political capital.” The author added, “it seems alarmist, but it is an indisputable fact,” noting Japanese Foreign Minister Aso Taro’s “cartoon diplomacy,” which uses popular culture to inure the world to “the Japanese way of thinking and values of ethnic identity.”

All this does indeed seem alarmist, if not xenophobic, though in the final analysis it appears to be true. In an April 2006 speech, Aso discussed classic Japanese anime series Astro Boy alongside Doraemon, saying “the more these kinds of positive images pop up in a person’s mind, the easier it becomes for Japan to get its views across over the long term,” also alluding to the way comics can provide a countermeasure to the effects of military aggression. And then there’s the International MANGA Award, hosted by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which celebrates manga artists who contribute to the global spread of Japanese culture, and which Aso modestly compared to the Nobel Prize. According to public diplomacy researcher Nakamura Toshiya, the objective here is to promote “an image of a peaceful Japan,” which goes back to the emphasis on Japanese contrition. Japanese leaders have “repeatedly gone out of their way to apologize,” he says, yet they lack “a powerful symbolic political gesture.” However, rather than a symbol of remorse, Tokyo is apparently promoting its peaceful image through the guise of a lovable cat.

So far, it seems to be a winning strategy. Speaking to a Japanese delegation in Beijing in May, President Xi Jinping expressed China’s readiness “to advance neighborly friendship.” Days later, Stand By Me Doraemon, which already had been out in Japan for the better part of a year, was authorized for release in China. No Japanese films have been shown in China since the 2012 release of Ultraman Saga, an innocuous film in which the girl band AKB48 saves Earth from an alien bat. Months after that film’s release, Tokyo purchased three disputed islands in the East China Sea, and no Japanese films were shown again in China until Stand By Me Doraemon arrived, making its screening a significant sign of Beijing’s desire to improve relations, and an indication that Japanese soft power could be having an impact.

Take, say, the popularity of bizarrely unrealistic anti-Japanese television dramas in China, which feature Chinese patriots ripping Japanese soldiers apart with their bare hands or bringing down jets with a single arrow. A programming staple, these shows have been used by officials to stoke the flames of ethnic hatred. Yet they have recently come under attack, even by state broadcaster CCTV, and the shows are now widely mocked by Chinese audiences.

Not only is anti-Japanese entertainment losing its support in China, Japanese manga often enjoy greater success in China than in Japan. The 2008 film Speed Racer, for example, and the 2009 films Dragonball Evolution and Astro Boy, all based on classic Japanese manga characters, each did better in China than in Japan. Astro Boy in particular was a record-breaking success in China, but a flop in Japan, grossing only U.S.$328,457.

Then we have Stand By Me Doraemon, an instant hit in China, grossing U.S.$86.92 million, compared with U.S.$79 million in Japan. Doraemon is now China’s third most successful animated film ever, after Kung Fu Panda 2, which grossed U.S.$92.17 million, and the brand new blockbuster Monster Hunt, now the second-highest-grossing film in Chinese box office history at U.S.$330 million. To make Monster Hunt such a big hit, the director, Hong Konger Raman Hui, brought his Hollywood animation experience on Shrek the Third to bear. (In January 2016, global audiences will see the results of the first true fully Sino-U.S. animation co-production, Kung Fu Panda 3.)

It’s been an exceptionally good year for Doraemon in China. In fact, Doraemon’s creators in July announced partnerships with Guangzhou-based Forgame Holdings, which develops web and mobile games, and the Chinese online shopping company Alibaba.

Such successes ensure new generations of Chinese will grow up adoring the Doraemon character and brand and, perhaps, Japanese culture too. Indeed, one reason for his mass appeal might actually be his Japanese-ness; despite anti-Japanese sentiment, the film’s East Asian cultural references are still closer to home than what’s on offer from most Western entertainment products. (It’s no mistake that China’s other great imported animated success was about a clumsy panda bear, a Chinese national symbol, who masters a decidedly Chinese martial art.) Other reasons for Doreamon’s fame are simpler still.

“I have watched nearly all the stories on T.V. before I saw the movie,” says Zhang Jing, a student from Chengdu who attends the University of Western Ontario. “I still feel moved when I hear the music. It reminds me of my childhood.”