The Transgenerational Manga Sazae-san and Its Meaning

Translators’ Introduction

For readers of Japanese manga and longtime viewers of Japanese anime, Sazae-san probably needs no introduction. However, for the uninitiated, what Natsume Fusanosuke does here is fill in a half-century gap in knowledge for non-Japanophiles. He also explains why Japanese (and we) should still care about Sazae-san.

Any traveler, who has spent just a week in Japan and intermittently watched television, probably has come across Sazae-san, the everywoman housewife who has been taking care of her husband, kids, and extended family in the same way, day-in and day-out, since cartoonist Hasegawa Machiko (1920-1992) created her in 1946. It was originally a newspaper gag strip, but its enduring popularity stems from an anime adaptation, which began airing in 1969. Like The Simpsons, the animated Sazae-san has been a fixture of Japanese television for decades, but unlike Matt Groening’s creation, Sazae-san has been a wholesome staple of family life, still operating by the terms of 1950s and 1960s culture in new episodes today. Therefore, although it lacks a Simpsons-level criticality, Sazae-san is still a mirror of society. As Natsume argues, the manga and anime create a kind of touchstone to what was good about Japan in the late 20th century. In this way, Sazae-san not only entertains, but also it curates a way of life that may be now remote or even alien to the lived experience of contemporary viewers in Japan.

In this 2014 essay, the Japanese term “natsukashisa” plays a central role. There is an important difference between “natsukashisa” and the English term “nostalgia”, which is usually how it appears in translation. More than the English notion, Japanese “natsukashisa” conveys a warm, positive sensibility of looking at the past that is not necessarily related to one's personal experience. Natsume discusses how the nationally and transgenerationally popular Sazae-san is representative of the group of creative manga (and their anime) that evoke “natsukashisa” in the collective Japanese consciousness. We need to keep in mind that the Japanese language allows for a kind of warm nostalgic feeling even when it is not your past which you are remembering.

A dozen collected volumes of Sazae-san were released as part of Kōdansha's bilinuigal (JP/ENG) manga line in the 1990s under the banner title The Wonderful World of Sazae-san; this remains the largest body of Hasegawa's work available in English translation.
Along with Sazae-san (which, in manga form, ran in Japanese newspapers until 1976), Natsume also introduces some other comics that have a similar “meaning” to Japanese people. All of them are widely-read by many Japanese, and thus have held onto their popularity as long-lived series, including: Akimoto Osamu's KochiKame: Tokyo Beat Cops (Kochira Katsushika-ku Kameari-kōen-mae hashutsujo, 1976-2016); Saigan Ryōhei's Sunset on Third Street (Sanchōme no yūhi, 1974-present); Sakura Momoko's Chibi Maruko-chan (1986-present); and Fujiko F. Fujio's Doraemon (1969-1996). All of them have been adapted into anime, and some of them have serial movies. (Natsume has discussed Doraemon’s appeal to Japanese elsewhere on this site: see “Charlie Brown and Me”.) Natsume argues that, like Sazae-san, these other works also immediately evoke “natsukashisa” in Japanese people's minds. To put it another way, what Natsume does here is to explain a particular trend in Japanese consumer culture, specifically in the manga/anime/film world, related to this kind of warm and positive nostalgic sensibility.

The difference between “natsukashisa” and “nostalgia” has also been discussed in the academic sense. In their article “Do Japanese People Experience Nostalgia?: Focus on the Side of ‘Bitter Sweetness’ of Nostalgia” (published in the Japanese Journal of Research on Emotions), Nagamine Masato & Toyama Miki explain that nostalgia is often defined as “a sentimental longing for one's past,” and it is often translated from English into Japanese as the word “kyōshū”. They explain that nostalgia derives from “nostos”, which means “to go home”, and “-algia”, which means “to suffer”. The word initially meant the desperate sense of longing for one’s home and the pain from that strong emotion. In other words, it was a description of a negative psychological phenomenon. On the other hand, in Japanese, the word “natsukashisa” has long had a positive connotation. Its origin is “natsuku”, which is a verb that means “to become familiar with” or “to get used to”. It is often used to describe the establishment of an intimate relationship or a sense of familiarity.1 From this root, the word gained a positive, warm feeling, like an emotion you feel when you look at something familiar. Although people today use these two terms in a flexible manner, so that the English “nostalgia” can be a warm and positive emotion just as the Japanese “natsukashisa” can have a sentimental aspect, we can nonetheless see a difference in their etymologies, which illustrate their major usages in speech and writing. In other words, “natsukashisa” and “nostalgia” have overlapping areas of concept, but their centers are different, like two circles in a Venn diagram.

By the way, other Japanologists have considered how manga and their anime adaptations often thrive because of their potential to trigger nostalgia in people. Michael Dylan Foster, writing on the manga of Mizuki Shigeru, argues that the great monsterologist fostered nostalgia in his yōkai tales, like GeGeGe no Kitarō, but it was a kind that “can often be seductive,” making Japanese audiences remember “forgotten rural town[s]” and a “prelapsarian moment when, like the vision represented by Kitarō, the world was innocent, childish, and full of possibility.”2 The issue of nostalgia, especially in Japanese comics and animation, is quite complicated, and without delaying our presentation of Natsume’s essay, we simply wish to note the importance of understand the nuances of this key term both in the Japanese language and in Natsume’s assessment of Sazae-san’s importance in the culture.

The translators want to thank Natsume-sensei for letting us continue to translate and introduce his essays at TCJ.

-Jon Holt & Teppei Fukuda

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“Sedai o koeta Sazae-san no imi”
Afterword to A Life Walking with Sazae-san (Sazae-san to tomo ni ayunda jinsei; Chikuma Shobō, 2014)

Hasegawa Machiko apprenticed under Tagawa Suihō, who drew Norakuro (Black Stray), the greatest hit manga of the prewar period. She was also one of a very few female manga artists who were highly active before World War II. I cannot imagine a Japanese person alive today who does not recognize the title Sazae-san, which is the representative work of Hasegawa in the postwar period and was serialized for a long time in newspapers. Shortly after she passed away in 1992, she was posthumously given Japan’s National Achievement (Kokumin Eiyo) Award.

By the way, I wonder how many readers of this book3 have actually read the manga version of Sazae-san? True, there cannot be any Japanese who has not heard of Sazae-san, but people today probably know of it mainly through its weekly television anime program.

As a manga, Sazae-san had its start immediately after the war ended. Serialization began in 1946 in Evening Fuku Times (Yūkan Fuku-nichi), the local daily newspaper for residents of Fukuoka Prefecture. Later it moved to the Asahi Newspaper, which was a newspaper that was sold all over Japan. It continued to be serialized there until 1974. It was during these decades that Sazae-san would become a manga for all of the people of Japan. Because it was a newspaper serial, it came to be loved by readers of all age groups, men and women, young and old. It ran for 28 years. During its time, of course, it was certainly one of the longest-running manga, but you could even say that with today’s manga in mind too. It was a four-panel manga (yon-koma manga), but when you consider that Hasegawa produced it for daily serialization, its long life really is amazing.

On the other hand, its life as a television cartoon began when it was first broadcast in 1969, and in 2014 it enters its 46th year of being aired, so it truly is a television with a “longevity” to which we can add the prefix “super”. The shows run weekly, and there are 7,000 episodes broadcast so far. On top of that, since it has continued to hold to a 20% viewer rating (more or less), it is fair to say this show has held onto a popularity which is nothing short of an enigma.

I wonder just how old now are people from the generation of those who read Sazae-san in its newspaper serialized form? If we allow that those young people who were entering elementary school during the last year of its newspaper run were right on the cusp of the final generation, then they must have been six years old in 1974. In other words, these last readers were born in 1968. Then you must figure that in our year of 2014, they would be 46 years old. They are probably the parents of the people reading this book. Of course, we can assume there were some people who watched it on television and then read paperback editions of the manga, so we can include a bit of the older generation too. But at the same time, we can say that they are probably of the generation that really associate Sazae-san with its animated show. So that would then mean that those people who think of Sazae-san as [primarily] a printed manga are Japanese easily over the age of 50.

Graph 1. Population pyramid (2010). From the e-guide census found on the Ministry of the Interior’s homepage. [Left side, Males; right side, Females. Vertical axis: age from 0 to 100; Horizontal axis: numbers of people measured in the 10,000-person units.]

In short, anyone in Japan under 50 grew up getting Sazae-san through its television anime form. And, if that is true, then over half of Japan’s population belongs to the Sazae-san “anime” faction. According to a recent Japanese population pyramid (see Graph 1), the postwar baby boomer generation occupies a large demographic, and their children too are quite numerous, but the latter are in the age group of early- to late-40s. It seems like we can classify a range of manga readers of Sazae-san from the postwar baby boomers up to the anime viewers—their children—and so we can trace the shape of the manga/anime’s changing audience in a similar way.

I was born in 1950, and now I have passed the 60-year mark, but when I was child and living with parents, we already had the paperback books of Sazae-san in the house. I grew up being raised by parents who never read a manga, but I wonder why we had copies of Sazae-san around the house? Even if my house had not had Sazae-san, at that time whenever you went to the dentist or to the barber, their waiting rooms would have it lying about, so it is fair to say it was a manga that anyone might read. Manga was considered something bad for kids’ education, but even when mass media like the Asahi Newspaper attacked manga [for being deplorable], at least Sazae-san was commonly accepted by society as a manga safe for us all.

In my case, I loved manga. From the time I was a little boy, Tezuka Osamu’s manga greatly influenced me, and I often copied his pictures. Soon enough, I came into my own, drawing manga for myself. So, by the time I graduated college, I ended up becoming sort of a manga-ka artist. Then, after that, I started some works of manga criticism. In the household of my current family, which is made by this manga fan, of course we had nearly all the volumes of Sazae-san on our bookshelf, so my sons too read the manga as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Maybe it is for that reason-- well, I don’t really know, but my second son (now in his 30) tells me that even today he watches Sazae-san every week on TV.

What I am saying is that it is a kind of manga that can keep being passed down like this as a part of our culture, transcending any one generation. Even if we permit that to be true, when I think that Hasegawa Machiko received the National Recognition Award, and that Tezuka Osamu did not get it, something about that just does not sit well with me. I am not saying that I wish Tezuka had been given that award. The National Recognition Award is something probably decided on by officials and politicians who are far older than myself, but that’s just a cop-out and does not make me feel any better. Probably, the younger generation now wishes that somebody like Oda Eiichirō of One Piece would be nominated for it.

Whether it is manga or anime, in our society each has been greatly received by each successive generation, and tastes in both continue to change with each new age. So, when it comes to a national award, since this is something that will generally get decided by an older group of people, we just have to accept that the award, like other things in our society, happens the way they do.

Cover to a 2020 Asahi Shimbun-published collection of the original Sazae-san manga, released in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Hasegawa's birth.
However, when I try to reconsider the connection manga has to society and to each age, it seems quite interesting to me. For example, the family structure in Sazae-san is three generations living under the same roof: Sazae-san is married to Masuo-san; they have their boy Tara-chan; plus, you have Sazae-san’s parents, Namihei and Fune, plus her younger sister Wakame and younger brother Katsuo. Altogether, that’s seven people. If we had a family like this today, probably they would be called a “great family” (daikazoku), but I think at the time of the manga’s serialization, such a household would have been quite common.

As we think about the history of the makeup of [Japanese] families, when I was born in 1950, the average household was five persons,4 so it seemed to me like Sazae-san has a lot of family members; but for Hasegawa Machiko [born 1920], most likely that large number was in no way strange in the author’s time.

The shift to the “nuclear family” (kaku kazoku) of parents with 1-2 children radically progresses in Japan during the 1960s, when Sazae-san was being published and before its animated show was released. By 1970, the average household number was then 3.7 people. I suppose the common base for those three people probably means two parents and one child. Around that same time, there was another great national manga that got started. I’m talking about Fujiko F. Fujio’s Doraemon.

Doraemon began its serialization in the school-age magazines (gakunenshi) in 1969.5 By 1973, it was adapted for the first time into a television anime movie. Even after Fujiko passed away in 1996, Doraemon underwent its own process of longevity as a popular television show, and it quite resembles Sazae-san in terms of how both works depict Japanese daily life (nichijō seikatsu). But what about the family makeup of Doraemon? Everyone knows it consists of the two parents, plus their son Nobita, and also the robot cat Doraemon who came to live with them from the future. For the sake of determining him as a person, let’s go ahead and count him as a 0.5 addition to the family, since he is not a human; so, we end up with 3.5 persons. That number nearly matches the same average of household size for Japan at the same time it began its serialization. Interesting, isn’t it?

Doraemon depicts the daily life of young Nobita, but unlike Sazae-san, in each episode something crazy and wild always happens because of its science-fiction setting. Depending upon the circumstances, there might even be events that stir up the normal social fabric that regulates their daily life—and sometimes even the Earth itself is shaken up, but at the same time each episode neatly resolves any such conflict so the family can go back to the sweet home life they had in the beginning. Therefore, audiences will be thrilled while they also have a sense of relief, whether one is a reader of the manga or a viewer of the show. Sazae-san is not sci-fi, but like Doraemon, it also was an entertaining work that assured the people watching it of some kind of normal and stable life.

By the way, my son not only likes the anime version of Sazae-san, but also he’s quite fond of Akimoto Osamu’s KochiKame: Tokyo Beat Cops (Kochira Katsushika-ku Kameari-kōen-mae hashutsujo) and Saigan Ryōhei’s Sunset on Third Street (Sanchōme no yūhi). If we add Doraemon to this list, then all four actually share something else in common. On one hand, they all had a serialized format that had a structure that is very stable and by the end of each story returns the reader to normal life; on the other hand, they convey a positive and warm kind of nostalgia, called [in Japanese] “natsukashisa” even though that may vary from work to work. I sometimes wonder if they are appealing to my son for their qualities of “natsukashisa.”

In Sazae-san, when it was serialized, the artist portrayed the life and landscapes of what should be “present-day” morals and customs, but since it is an anime that ran from the 1970s, its “present-day” has gradually over time become “natsukashisa”: the black rotary telephone the family uses; their tatami-mat room; their garden veranda; Namihei always wearing his kimono. There is no end to this list. Doraemon has its family living in a somewhat modern basic house, but we often seen drawn the vacant lots the kids use for their playground, those giant clay drainage pipes, etc., which were already things of the past. In KochiKame,6 the protagonist Ryō-san often gives off the whiff of a Shitamachi [Tokyo Low Town] old-timer and sometimes he talks of the past so much he seems like someone obsessed. As for Sunset on Third Street, a big theme in the work is making people enjoy the fond memory of Tokyo in the mid-1950s and early 1960s.

This thing called “natsukashisa” is the tendency for any one generational group to remember the feelings they once had for society or the age at the time in which they lived through it. And yet, people indeed can embrace such “natsukashisa” even though they never lived through that time. That becomes the kick that makes these works broadly entertaining and allows them to transcend any one generational group. Of course, because there is this kind of solid, idealized image of Japan’s past, these works can always be comforting for readers. You have the strong, sure feeling that you can always go back to that time. When you consider things that way, what happened with Sazae-san is that, as it went from its manga to anime form, it also underwent a full transformation from a work from which you felt “present-day society” to its anime form where its audiences fondly recall “some vague past”.

That leads me to my final point about “The Sazae-san of the Heisei-Era [1989-2019]”: I’m talking about Sakura Momoko’s Chibi Maruko-chan, which originally began as the author’s essay-like manga that depicted her days as an elementary-school student. After it began—and even today—the anime show still airs on television, having become another “super-longevity” work. Of course, it too has become a “natsukashisa” series for Japanese. It occurs to me that, in Japan, from the 1980s this form of “natsukashisa” has become popular entertainment for the masses; what’s more, such emotions have taken on the vague image of the Shōwa Thirties [1955-1965].

The works of Hasegawa Machiko, who became active as a manga artist before the start of the war, symbolize one aspect of “natsukashisa” felt by even Japanese living now. If that is true, then this should be understood as a fairly unique form of manga/anime culture. And even more, Sazae-san, in a way, embodies a post-1970s "present day" of this country.

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  1. Nagamine Masato and Toyama Miki, "Do Japanese People Experience Nostalgia?," Japanese Journal of Research on Emotions 24.1 (2016): 22-32. Web.
  2. Michael Dylan Foster, “Haunted Travelogue: Hometowns, Ghost Towns, and Memories of War,” Mechademia 1.4 (2009): pp. 166 and 168.
  3. [Translators' Note] This essay appeared as an afterword to A Life Walking with Sazae-san (Sazae-san to tomo ni ayunda jinsei), a 'critical biography' of Hasegawa assembled by the editorial department of Chikuma Shobō, which publishes many such books. See pgs. 161-169.
  4. Yuzawa Yasuhiko and Miyamoto Michiko, Shinpan: Dēta de yomu kazoku mondai (New Edition: Understanding Family Issues by Reading the Data), NHK Books, 2008.
  5. [Translators' Note] These manga magazines are targeted toward a certain school grade, such as “first-graders” (shōgaku ichinensei), “second-graders” (shōgaku ninensei), etc. They are designed specifically for children in the targeted grade in terms of the difficulty of the language, content matter, and so on.
  6. [Editor's Note] For the record, KochiKame is the popular Japanese short form of the very long title Kochira Katsushika-ku Kameari-kōen-mae hashutsujo; this is to say, Japanese admirers of the series would generally refer to it as simply KochiKame. This has led its sparse English-language audience to adopt the short-form Japanese title to such an extent that it is presented even in places where an 'official' English-language title is provided, i.e. KochiKame: Tokyo Beat Cops.