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Thankful for Big Bird and Doraemon

I come from a fifth-generation immigrant family, meaning my great-great-great grandparents immigrated from Japan to America. Putting it that way, I sound fairly detached from my Japanese roots, but I am still half-Japanese. Despite growing up in the United States, my parents, especially my mom, always made a point to help me learn about my cultural heritage and traditions. 

A memorable way I learned about my Japanese heritage was a program called Hikari No Gakko, which translates to the “Sunshine School.” This was a two-week summer camp that I participated in from the ages of four to 16. My mom helped run the camp as co-director even way before I was born, so Hikari No Gakko holds a special place in our hearts. There is so much to love about the camp. There we learned Japanese songs, how to prepare meals and snacks (all these years later, learning how to make mochi is still one of my favorite childhood memories) and watched movies from and about Japan. Even though we watched a lot of films, one movie, in particular, left a long-lasting impression on me. It is so ingrained in my soul that it will never be forgotten: “Big Bird in Japan.” No, I am not kidding. 

I may have watched this movie before the camp, but I have a vivid memory of being a little kid watching “Big Bird in Japan” on an old CRT television during camp one day, and seeing Sesame Street’s very own Big Bird learn about Japanese culture. What was lost on me at the time (but have come to appreciate with age) is that the movie tells the Japanese folk story of Princess Kaguya, or as I know it, the Bamboo Princess. In the story, Big Bird meets the central character of the folk tale and as the movie goes on she tells him about her past and we see her go live on the moon, as the original tale goes.

This was the first movie I remember touching on Japanese tradition, but it was far from the last. Growing up, I was a huge fan of Studio Ghibli, a Japanese animation company. Some of their most notable productions are “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle.” I remember seeing “Ponyo” in a movie theater. It was a retelling of “The Little Mermaid,” and, to this day, “My Neighbor Totoro” remains one of my favorite movies of all time.

While movies had a large impact on learning more about my cultural heritage, television was also greatly influential. For many children their first exposure to Japanese television was most likely “Pokemon.” Personally, I never got into “Pokemon.” I didn’t play the games, watch the show or collect the cards. Instead, I watched “Doraemon,” a wacky comedy about a robot cat from the future sent to help his owner’s ancestor. If this premise sounds a little familiar, please note that “Doraemon” debuted in 1979, while “The Terminator” came out five years later. I’m not alleging anything, but it’s something to consider … Nevertheless, I loved this show, and all the wacky antics the cast would get into with Doraemon’s robotics. Anime, animation from Japan, is a huge industry worldwide and many, such as “DragonBall,” “Naruto” and “One Piece” (with all 1,000 chapters and counting) are beloved by fans across the globe. While these ones may be the most popular, my favorite remains “Doraemon.”

Connecting through movies and television shows may not be the most traditional way to get in touch with one’s culture, but it worked for me. My entire life I’ve loved movies and television, and I’m really grateful I have this way to connect with my Japanese heritage.

Contact Andy Ottone at aottone@nd.edu