Is a Time-Traveling Robot Cat Inspiring China and Japan to Bury the Hatchet?
After years of enmity, the smash success of a Japanese anime film could actually be helping to thaw relations between the two nations.
A film featuring Japan's iconic robotic feline Doraemon has taken Chinese box offices by storm. It's been so successful that it's even led some to credit the movie with helping to speed the thawing of recent Sino-Japanese diplomatic animosities.
"The popularity of Stand By Me Doraemon reflects an easing in tensions between Japan and China over ownership of the Senkaku islands and interpretations of wartime history," the Guardian recently reported. "China's leader, Xi Jinping, and his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, have met twice in the past six months, raising hopes of friendlier ties between the world's second and third-biggest economies."
That's a lot to pin on an animé cat. The 3D-animated film is called Stand By Me Doraemon, and was released May 28.It's the first Japanese film to be shown in China in nearly three years. It's playing in 5,500 cinemas across China, has topped the Chinese movie charts, and racked up $38.29 million at the box office in its first four days.
For the uninitiated, Doraemon is a time-travelling, blue robotic cat from the 22nd century, who was dreamt up by the manga writing team Fujiko Fujio in the late 1960s. Doraemon is sent back in time to be a guardian angel to dorky pre-teen schoolboy Nobita Noi.
What makes Doraemon stand out from the rest of the animated cat crowd is the fact that he actually has no ears, but a takekoputa (helicopter hat) that lets him whizz through the sky. He can also whip out radical-looking gadgets and a doko demo (an "anywhere door") that gives him teleportation powers from inside a "fourth-dimensional pocket" on his tummy. Think Garfield the cat, but on LSD.
As a kid, I grew up watching Doraemon. Back then, it never struck me as odd that he and his pals could perform physics-defying stunts with their wearable propellor hats, or travel everywhere with a gigantic door frame pulled out of the robo-cat's small stomach pouch. While Western kids grew up with lasagna-loving Garfield; I had red bean cake-loving (dorayaki) Doraemon.
To give you a taste of the kind of cult of personality that's developed around Doraemon, in 2002, Time magazine included him in a list of 22 "Asian Heros." And in March 2008, he was named the country's first "anime ambassador" by Japan's Foreign Ministry. To date, he's been translated into dozens of different languages and broadcast all around the world.
Griseldis Kirsch, a lecturer in contemporary Japanese at London's SOAS University, told me that Doraemon and Hello Kitty were exported over to China before the current ice age in Sino-Japanese relations. Recent disputes over the uninhabited Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu, in Chinese) in the East China Sea, have soured ties between the two countries. A major anti-Japanese protests staged in China in September 2012, leading some major Japanese firms such as Honda and Toyota to temporarily shutter their offices across China.
However, Noriyuki Kawamura, a professor of Foreign Studies and bilateral relations expert at Nagoya University, thinks this Doraemon film could potentially improve how the Chinese public feel about Japan.
Kawamura explained how Doraemon was an example of "soft power"—where governments export friendly and non-invasive cultural entities to improve cultural and diplomatic ties between nations. He told the Japan Times: "So many people went to the theatre to watch the Doraemon film and so many people said they were moved by the movie."
Things haven't always been this chill for Doraemon. Last year, a major Doraemon exhibit opened in Chengdu, China. State-run news outlets accused Japan of "exporting its national values and achieving its cultural strategy." A stark warning was even issued against the "chubby blue guy" or "blue fatty." But Chinese fans hit back on social media, and stood up for many still saw as a beloved icon from their childhood.
Doraemon is a popular icon all over East Asia. But at the end of the day, might this simply be a success story about how a radical, time-traveling cat has enough world appeal to transcend petty politics? Does Doraemon really have what it takes to save the day, and actually inspire a shift in political relations? According to both Kawamura and Kirsch, it's pretty unlikely.
"[Showing the film over in China] just shows that Doraemon is popular enough to overcome potential political considerations about watching a Japanese anime," Kirsch told me over email. "Soft power can help, but the relationship [between China and Japan] is past the point where soft power alone can do this [...] Politicians and senior diplomats in both countries can, or perhaps even should take it as an impetus, but they need more than just Doraemon to really bring Japan and China together," she added.
It's obviously going to take more than just a Doraemon movie to properly ease long-simmering diplomatic tensions. But for the moment, it's hard not to help being pro a time-travelling robo-cat from the 22nd century.
Cool Japan is a column about the quirky and serious happenings in the Japanese scientific, technological and cultural realms. It covers the unknown, the mainstream, and the otherwise interesting developments in Japan.