It remains one of the strongest weapons in the arsenal of Fuji Television, one of Japan’s biggest private networks –and this is saying something considering that Fuji also has “One Piece”, arguably the most popular anime of the last fifteen years. It has at least ten sponsors, Toshiba being the most prominent and a few weeks back it made it to the Guinness Book of Records as the longest running animated series: it has been going on for 45 years non-stop, i.e. it has nurtured at least two generations of Japanese. And if you add the 28 years it was been published as a manga-strip in the “Asahi Shinbun” newspaper, you realize that Sazae-san (サザエさん) is one of the few constants of contemporary Japanese culture for almost seventy years; in other words, for all post-war generations.
Anyone who hasn’t lived in Japan –and hasn’t read the strips or hasn’t watched the anime- will have a hard time understanding why a series recounting the story of a typical family of the 1960s manages to earn shares in the 12% range in the dawn of the 21st century. Sazae-san’s Japan (and especially Tokyo) where extended families (parents, children and grandparents) live together in the suburbs, where women wear kimono even at home, men work until late in the evening but never burn from over-exhaustion and where they all get together to enjoy the change of seasons, either in their summer yukata robes, in the onsen hot springs or tucked in their fluffy futon spreads laid on the tatami mats is as distant as the Japan of the samurai and the Edo townspeople.
Sazae-san’s world wasn’t always the carefree, pink utopia it seems today. The initial manga, created by Machiko Hasegawa (1920-1992) during the American occupation years of 1945-1952 (it started being published in 1946) was often blatantly leftist with many (and occasionally biting) commentary on the problems pestering post-war life. But the years passed, Japan changed and Sazae-san changed with it until it found its balancing point in the end of the 1960s: the manga stopped with its creator’s retirement and the TV show started, a TV show that was to become an institution not only respected by truly loved by everyone.
What makes people making unfailingly the Sunday afternoon appointment with charmingly flaky Sazae-san and her family? I would say it is because the series presents Japan the way the Japanese feel it should be: the language everyone speaks is proper (though not necessarily very polite) Japanese, relationships between family, neighborhood and society members are harmonious but not without the normal everyday frictions, customs are upheld, traditions pass from one generation to the next and people enjoy their small everyday joys of life. Is it wishful thinking? Probably –but this is pop culture and I would take the smiles of the Isono family to the cynicism and disfunctionality of the Simpsons any day.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.