Shinnosuke - :
Crayon Shinchan and Japanese Society

Nora Stevens

: An introduction

Crayon Shinchan, a created by Usui Yoshito, recounts the adventures of one very high-spirited five-year-old boy and his encounters with his friends, teachers, parents, and pet dog. Most of the stories told in its pages seem realistic enough, but exactly how true-to-life are the relationships contained within? Moreover, does this manga accurately reflect or possibly even influence Japanese society, and if so, how?
My observations are based on the first thirteen volumes of manga collections dating from 11 May 1992 to 26 November 1995. These books contain about 70 percent of all the Shinchan manga that have been published. There have been more developments in the story after that date, but this paper does not cover any of them.

: The Noharas

On first sight, the Nohara family appears fairly typical: a housewife mother, salaryman father, and their 1.5 children. (Their one son can be quite a handful.) Look a little closer and one can see what's really going on.

Nohara Shinnosuke, a.k.a. Shinchan, age 5
" " Shinchan's the star of the show, and boy, does he know it. His hobbies tend toward the indecent, and include such gems as the , , and one of the few that are actually shown in the strip, the (right). In fact, he seems to be able to concentrate best when his pants are half off (volume 9, page 111); maybe it's his version of a thinking cap.
When not performing his physical comedy, he's often found propositioning young women at least four or five times his age (" "). God knows why. It gets him into trouble with his mother, though, perhaps because she sees her husband in him. More about that later. He also has a propensity for looking up women's skirts and remarking upon the color and design of their underwear ("Oh! Polka dots!").
He's in the class at Action Kindergarten, where he makes absurd costumes during crafts hour and, given the option, would most likely choose to spend his recess time playing dead out on the playground (below).

He also tends to not act like a child when he sighs " " at a hot spring or complains about "kids these days" as though he weren't a kid himself. Often his friends have to remind him.
Apart from his quirks (and there are many), he actually is a fairly normal five-year-old: he's a fan of TV sci-fi heroes and Kantam Robo, popular among most boys his age. He has absolutely no interest in girls--at least, kindergarten girls; in fact, upon receiving a love letter from a fellow student, he whines, "But I'm not attracted to kids!" He balks at washing dishes and taking out the dog. What is most interesting, though not as far-out as the other differences, is that he rarely screams, rarely cries or throws tantrums, and is often punished--all of which is a far cry from the real Japanese youngsters I've seen.
Also typical is his misuse of the language. Shinchan calls out " " when he comes home from school and uses mixed-up greetings like . His written language is full of misspellings and strangely-written characters, and when he overhears someone older saying something that sounds pretty sophisticated, he'll try to repeat it, but fails miserably, switching around syllables and words to no end. He also uses (nonstandard even for adults) to refer to himself when most five-year-old boys use boku, and prefers to hai.

Nohara Misae, age 29
Shinchan's housewife mother, who has become very short-tempered after five years of dealing with her son. And who can blame her? A five-year-old calling his mother by her first name? In front of people? Harassing her about what was missing from her chest being applied liberally to her behind?
Misae is unlike the Japanese mothers I've seen in that she will not hesitate to verbally and physically reprimand her son in public as well as in private, almost to the point where a call to Child Services may be in order . . . but not quite. Then again, there are happy times, too, and the two have managed to get along so far without killing one another.
Misae tends to bring Shinchan just about everywhere, probably because leaving him home alone usually results in some sort of household catastrophe. However, excursions with Mom just mean ample opportunities to be embarrassed (and Shinchan usually requests compensation in the form of action figures or Chocobee snacks).
She takes care of her household; tends to her husband and child when they're sick; rides Shinchan to school when he misses the bus (which is most of the time); takes an umbrella out to her husband when it's raining; cleans, shops, and otherwise works like a dog. Like the typical Japanese housewife, she definitely earns her afternoon naps.
Occasionally, she tries playing pretend or acting in a fun-kid sort of way to get Shinchan to be a bit more enthusiastic--for example, when the Noharas went fishing, Misae started talking excitedly (for Shinchan's benefit) about the possibility of catching mermaids and being led to their secret castles. "Geez, mom," Shinchan replied with a snort, "act your age."

Nohara Hiroshi, age 35
The breadwinning salaryman father of the Nohara clan, Hiroshi is a for a medium-sized company and quite surprisingly still manages to have time to spend with his family. Shinchan probably has inherited some of his lecherous habits from Hiroshi, who ogles pretty young things just as often as his son (and is chastised by Misae just as often, too). However, he is faithful to his wife, but only when awake: his dreams often deal with an office romance (and are usually rudely interrupted by Shinchan's antics).
Where Misae is the stern disciplinarian, Hiroshi barely lays a hand on his son to reprimand him, but rather attempts to defuse Misae's temper with a few " "s now and again. When Misae asks him to properly scold Shinchan, Hiroshi tends to just sit down with the boy and tell him (tiredly) to shape up. He's also able to convince Shinchan to go places he would normally not want to go by telling him about the beautiful women who are bound to be there, although this tends to incur his wife's wrath.
His weak point, as far as being belittled by his son goes, is his smelly socks, which are often used to wake up, threaten, and/or punish any member of the family, including the dog.
He calls Misae by her first name, not " ". This, I believe, is a step in the right direction. Though we've been reading in Japanese class about dads these days being terrible role models for their children, Hiroshi generally sets a good example for Shinchan, rarely coming home drunk and hardly ever using violence.

A young puppy, found abandoned by Shinchan and friends and adopted as part of the Nohara family. As his name indicates, he's white (Shinchan's imagination apparently doesn't extend to pet names), and looks a lot like a cotton candy. (Quoth Shinchan, upon leaving Shiro in a stranger's care for a few moments, "He looks like cotton candy, but don't eat him.")
Shinchan promised to take care of Shiro, as all five-year-old prospective pet owners do, but doesn't seem to like it very much. He's gotten some laughs out of the poor puppy by putting cold masks on him, though, and has taught Shiro two tricks: , wherein Shiro scratches himself, and , when Shiro curls up like a big ball of cotton candy and rolls around.

: At school

John Singleton tells us that "underlying [the 'good child' reinforcement approach in kindergarten] is the assumption that a child is basically good" (14). This must be the reason why Shinchan's teachers merely grit their teeth and tell him nicely to please put his pants back on. Looking at this from an American standpoint, I can't say I expected corporal punishment, but I at least expected some sort of estrangement from the group as retribution for the more offensive things Shinchan does. Then again, perhaps being Shinchan and doing what he does is considered sufficient estrangement.
The Himawari class appears to be closely-knit. They have camping trips and field trips together, and the principal (who is, Shinchan is convinced, ) is even (mostly) willing to be a part of the children's game of playing house (left; volume 8, page 62). Group identity is reinforced when baseball games and marathons bring Himawari together to compete with the class--and through determination, effort, and, most of all, cooperation, Himawari just can't lose.
Out of the entire Himawari class, Shinchan has four close friends: Kazama-kun, the serious one; Nene-chan, the girl; Masao-kun, the crybaby, who's prone to being bullied; and Bô-chan, the runny-nosed kid who says very little but is always around. (Bô-chan always volunteers for the parts of pet dogs or cats when the group plays house. Perhaps he's a bit stranger than Shinchan.) They're always ready to lend one another a helping hand, defending Masao from bullies or helping Nene find her cat, although Kazama is equal to Misae in his complete lack of patience with Shinchan. (In volume 10, page 86, he watches Shinchan be his crazy self and admits, "Sometimes I really envy that kid . . . but I wouldn't want to be him.")
Iwama, though writing about secondary schools in Japan, points out that "students remain in the same classroom" all day (79) and eat their lunches together in that same classroom with their teachers. This is also true in Crayon Shinchan, where the teacher checks to see that everyone has the proper and the proper tools with which to eat before digging in (9:55).
Kindergarten is not too young for , though only one of Shinchan's friends attends a cram school (for English), and he's the annoyingly serious one with a (10:86) as described in The Learning Gap, page 82. Juku takes precedence over play for Kazama-kun, which is surely odd for a kindergartner--meaning he, too, is out-of-group in at least one way.
In thirteen volumes of manga, Shinchan's teachers have visited his home twice, not because he had specifically done anything wrong or because there was any sort of a problem (though there probably was, knowing him), but because it was that time of the school year, when teachers stop by to discuss their students' progress with the students' parents. This reinforces the closely-knit bond between the three parties and also helps to lend a homey atmosphere to school and a friendly air to one's instructors.

: Home life

The Nohara family plays together and stays together. Contrary to what was mentioned in The Learning Gap, which said American parents take their children on outings about seven times more often than Japanese parents do (75), Mr. and Mrs. Nohara have never gone anywhere without their son. When Misae won a trip to Guam, all three Noharas went; they go to zoos, spas, art museums, and baseball games as a family. Perhaps this is becoming more common in Japan nowadays, but certainly the stereotypical image is of the dad too busy with work or too tired of it to do anything with the family when he is home, which isn't often, due to extended overtime and group-building company activities. Then again, the story wouldn't be as fun if the main rabble-rousing character weren't in it.
Since Hiroshi rarely comes home late, the Noharas can usually eat dinner together, whether at home or at a restaurant. Even dining at fancier restaurants is a family affair, even though I think that's not quite the norm in real-life Japan--the children would be staying over the neighbors' or at Auntie's house.
Misae and Hiroshi do have their quarrels, but they always, always kiss and make up. When Hiroshi was asked to take a month-long business trip to Osaka, he wept at the thought of leaving his wife and son (11:40). Shinchan's home environment is healthy enough (which means that, at least, is out of the running as a reason for why he's so weird).

: A conclusion

If the average American were to read a translation of the strip (or even the original Japanese) without any knowledge of Japanese culture, it wouldn't be nearly as worthwhile. Shinchan is funny because what he chooses to do not just bends, but snaps in half all rules of conformity and group orientation that are such an inherent part of getting along in Japan.
Maggie Kinser Saiki, in her article "Japan's Answer to Beavis and Butt-head", says this is "what's most galling about Shinchan: He comes right out and says what he's thinking, regularly abandoning . . . for ". She goes on to say that the Japanese who have been raised on the traditional family values found in strips like Sazae-san are often appalled by the alternative Shinchan presents and the possibility that such an alternative may actually exist in their society. The fuss over Shinchan's behavior, she writes, "which mostly amounts to bad manners", reveals much about the Japanese psyche. (Incidentally, I think Shinchan is more akin to some of the characters on South Park than to Beavis and Butt-head.)
Perhaps the Japanese fans of Crayon Shinchan admire its hero not just because he has a child's innocence and societal immunity that allows him to be so wild, but also because they project themselves onto this ego incarnate and cheer him on because he does what they would, in their heart of hearts, like to try, but are not allowed to do as societal law-abiding adults.
Finally, to quote Shinchan:

Works Cited

  • Iwama, Hiroshi F. "Group Orientation in Secondary Schools".
  • Saiki, Maggie Kinser. "Japan's Answer to Beavis and Butt-head". Wall Street Journal 11 February 1994. 12 April 1998 <>.
  • Singleton, John. "Gambaru: A Japanese Cultural Theory of Learning".
  • Stevens Heathon, Harold W. The Learning Gap: Why Our Schools Are Failing and What We Can Learn from Japanese and Chinese Education. New York: Summit Books, 1992.
  • Usui Yoshito. Crayon Shinchan. 13 vols. Tokyo: Kabushikigaisha Futabasha, 1992-1995.

Copyright © 1998 Nora Stevens