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Exporting Doraemon

The tricky art of translating Japan’s biggest anime series

By Roland Kelts
Photos courtesy of Tokyo Otaku Mode

In 2008, Japan’s consul general appeared on stage at Sakura-Con, the largest anime festival in the Pacific Northwest, grinning mischievously with his hands behind his back. “Ohayo gozaimasu,” he said to the crowd of 10,000-plus, many of whom roared the greeting back.

He turned around, slipped a mask over his head and faced the audience bearing the plastic countenance of a wide-eyed bright blue cat.

A few murmurs arose. Someone at the back shouted, “Doraemon!”

A week earlier, the robotic cat manga and anime character, Doraemon—a cultural icon in Japan akin to Mickey Mouse in the United States—had been dubbed Japan’s first “anime ambassador” by the foreign minister.

But at the time of the consul general’s performance, Doraemon had neither aired nor been published in the United States. Only the most diehard American otaku (geeks) knew the character even existed.

“Doraemon is the biggest manga and anime series in Japanese history,” said Tokyo-based American writer and translator Matt Alt, citing the title’s 45-year domination of Japanese popular culture. “His face is almost everywhere in Japan. If you’re here, chances are, you’ll see it.”

Over the past year, the gap between the character’s ubiquitous presence in Japan and his lack of recognition in America has finally been narrowed. The anime series, translated into English and localized by Los Angeles studio Bang Zoom! Entertainment, launched on Disney XD on July 7. The English-language manga debuted in digital formats in November 2013 and is currently being released, volume by volume, online.

Alt and his wife Hiroko are translating the manga via their decade-old two-person company, AltJapan. Alt says it’s a joy to spend every day with an atomic-powered blue cat, whose wacky misadventures with his boy charge, Nobita (Noby in English), remain quirkily entertaining—at least in Japanese.

“The toughest part is translating the puns, many of which come in the form of the gadgets.” Doraemon has a 4-D pocket from which he can extract any object imaginable, most of which have unintended consequences.

Part of the challenge is to convey culture-specific references without the aid of footnotes.

“If they’re playing the Japanese version of badminton,” Alt said, “we have to try to work little explanations into the dialogue. What’s most important is not to translate directly, but to localize, to make it as entertaining in English as it is in Japanese.”

Aging feline
Alt’s reference to Japanese badminton points to another obstacle when selling Doraemon to Americans: the series is old.

Its longevity is reflective of its mammoth success, of course, but that doesn’t guarantee relevance. The original manga premiered in 1969; the anime series in 1973. In 1979, a revamped version of the anime exploded into a mega-hit.

The story is a time-travel conceit: the eponymous magical cat is sent back to the past from the 22nd century to save a proverbial male slacker, Noby, from indolent behavior that will ruin the fate of his family’s future generations.

Its faith in atomic energy, science, technological wizardry, and the inherent value of diligence are all vestiges of a bygone era. Five years after hosting the 1964 Olympic and Paralympic Games, Japan was rising fast, about to become the economic and technological juggernaut that would awe the world.

True to its time, the series depicts a decidedly male-centered universe.The one female character is the smartest of the bunch, but is reduced to the supporting roles of reliable guide and romantic love interest.

“The original manga series is so old that even in Japan, young people probably find the world depicted to be a slightly different, even alien place,” said Frederik L. Schodt, veteran manga translator and author of Manga, Manga and Dreamland Japan, among other works.

“The original series was very much Showa-era, when young people did not yet have everything—or more than—they really needed, and when the idea of getting something as simple as a new food treat had a lot of appeal. The physical environment has also changed a great deal.”

Global appeal
Even so, those in the know have been clamoring for years to get a US release, generating campaigns online and off to bring Doraemon to America. And the consul general was not wrong in assuming that overseas fans might identify with a Japanese diplomat in a Doraemon mask.

The series has enjoyed decades of success across Asia, in both official and heavily pirated versions (an unlicensed Chinese Doraemon rip-off is a notoriously brazen imitation). In India, the Hindi translation of the anime was the highest-rated kids show in the country.

Author Pico Iyer in Time magazine dubbed Doraemon “the cuddliest hero in Asia,” noting the character’s relentless optimism and faith in the future amid a challenging present.

Still, does the 45-year-old robotic cat have a chance in the overcrowded children’s media landscape of the United States, 2014?

Translator and associate professor of manga at Kyoto Sekai University, Matt Thorn, believes that children’s programming can be especially tough to market overseas. “It’s always challenging to sell something foreign to children,” Thorn said.

“[It’s] not so much because they’ll be confused by people eating with chopsticks and taking their shoes off in the house, but because it will have to ‘click,’ and there’s simply no way of predicting what will and won’t click with a whole population of children.

“It’s complicated by the fact that, today, it is hard to get away with the kind of massive changes that were made in adaptations like Robotech, Warriors of the Wind, and Power Rangers. The Internet has made the world too small for that, I think.”

It’s still early days for Doraemon in America. The series’s strength at home and in other parts of Asia and the Middle East was bolstered by this summer’s blockbuster 3-D Doraemon movie, Stand by Me, which opened in 57 countries and earned an estimated $65.5 million after only six weeks in cinemas.

Thorn is not willing to prognosticate on Doraemon’s future in the United States, recalling another children’s anime series that he second-guessed in the past, much to his regret.

“I’m sure there are any number of people out there betting that Doraemon will fall flat in the North American market. I will not jump on that bandwagon. In 1998 or thereabouts, Shogakukan Productions called me to tell me that they were planning to promote Pokemon in the US and to ask me if I could help them.

“I told them I was too busy and that, to be honest, I did not think Pokemon would sell in the US. It’s too violent for girls and too cute for boys, I told them. Of course, Pokemon was a runaway hit, and Shogakukan Productions never called me for advice again.”


Roland Kelts is a half-Japanese American writer, editor, and lecturer who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of the acclaimed bestseller Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the US and the forthcoming novel Access. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The New Yorker, Time, Psychology Today, Playboy, and The Wall Street Journal. Kelts authors a monthly column for The Japan Times, and is also a frequent contributor to CNN and NPR.

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