Sazae-san and the Grandmother of Manga

By: Anne Lee October 18, 20173 Comments
A simple drawing of a smiling woman with pink cheeks and black messy hair on a light yellow background

Ahh, Osamu Tezuka, the Godfather of Manga. Creator of Astro Boy, Black Jack, and Princess Knight. His name is synonymous with anime and manga. Even if you haven’t read his work, you know he’s had a lasting impact on Japanese animation and comics.

But Tezuka isn’t the only person who’s influenced the creation and development of these art forms. If there’s a Godfather of Manga, does that mean there’s a Godmother of Manga, too? There is, in fact—although she’s usually referred to as the “Grandmother of Manga” instead. Her name is Machiko Hasegawa, and she’s profoundly influenced animation and manga with her most popular work, The Wonderful World of Sazae-san.

A black-and-white photo of a young Japanese woman in a cardigan with her hair pinned up
Machiko Hasegawa. Photo Credit:

Not many Western fans of anime and manga know about Sazae-san, but you should. The series follows a young woman named Sazae-san, her family, and the comical hijinks of daily life as they cope with the aftermath of World War II. The four-panel comic hit newsstands in 1946 and ran every day until 1974. The collected volumes have sold over 62 million copies and the anime—which began in 1969—is still on air. It holds the Guinness World Record for the longest-running animated series in the world, even surpassing The Simpsons. Sazae-san also has multiple live-action movies, with the most recent one coming out in 2009. And this massive franchise all began with a young female manga artist and her sisters.

Machiko Hasegawa was born in 1920 in Kyushu and grew up there with her parents, her older sister, and her younger sister. After her father died when she was fourteen, her family moved to Tokyo, where she graduated from an all-girls high school. She began drawing cartoons as a teenager and, at sixteen, began an apprenticeship under the famous manga artist Suiho Tagawa. At eighteen, her first cartoon, Badger Mask (Tanuki no Omen) was published in 1938 in the magazine Shojo Club (少女クラブ).

A black-and-white photo of a Japanese woman with bobbed hair wearing a dress with poofy sleeves. She has an ink pen in one hand and is sitting at a desk covered in papers.
Hasegawa in 1935. Photo Credit: The Wonderful World of Sazae-san, Vol 12

In 1944, during World War II, Hasegawa and her family were evacuated to Fukuoka prefecture in Kyushu. It was there, living by the seaside, that Hasegawa came up with Sazae-san and her colorful marine life-inspired family (“sazae” 栄螺 is also the word for shellfish). She jotted ideas down in her notebook while she worked in her vegetable garden; her younger sister helped, functioning as a sounding board for her ideas.

Sazae-san was first published in a local newspaper in April 1946. By the end of the same year, Hasegawa and her family had moved back to Tokyo. At her older sister’s insistence, Hasegawa set up a company with her sisters that immediately began publishing collected volumes of Sazae-san. In December of 1949, the evening edition of the Asahi Shimbun began publishing the series, making her Japan’s first successful female manga artist.

A black-and-white photo of a young Japanese woman sitting on a Japanese-style porch, a sketchbook in hand, looking at a cat sitting on the other side of the porch. There are trees and plants in the background.
Hasegawa sketching her cat. Photo Credit: The Wonderful World of Sazae-san, Vol 12

Sazae-san first caught my attention a few years ago when I was telling a Japanese friend about my interest in feminism in Japan. “Feminism?” my friend said. “Then you’ve got to read Sazae-san!” I promptly bought the first volume of the bilingual edition.

At first glance, Sazae-san is not like the manga you’re likely familiar with today. There are no big eyes, pretty bishounen, or super-cute chibis. But from its very first strip, Sazae-san hit me in the feels when it directly addressed an issue I’ve dealt with in my own life: the eternal struggle to be “lady-like.”

In this strip, Sazae-san’s mother introduces herself and her two youngest children, Katsuo and Wakame. Her eldest, Sazae, is late to this introduction and strolls into the room with food in her mouth. Sazae-san is embarrassed while her mother explains “that’s just how she is.” A running theme throughout the strips is how Sazae-san’s behavior doesn’t conform to what’s expected of a young Japanese woman.

A four-panel comic. A woman in kimono kneels between two young children, one in a polo and pants and the other in a dress. The girl says "Hello! I'm Wakame." The boy says "ANd my name's Katsuo." The woman calls into another room "Sazae! Come here!" and someone off-screen says "Coming!" A young woman with messy hair enters, hand on hip and food in her mouth. The older woman says "My goodness! Try to be a little more ladylike!" The boy says "We're introducing ourselves to everyone!" The younger woman runs out, blushing with her head tucked into her hands while the older woman smiles and says "Sorry, but that's just the sort of person she is!"

Overall, though, Sazae-san’s family is loving and supportive. They get into fights as family members do and play silly pranks on each other. The comics don’t just follow Sazae-san, but also depict a variety of situations and perspectives: kids, parents, dads, moms, wives, husbands, and the elderly. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of Sazae-san comics don’t overtly address gender roles or expectations. Clocking in at a total of 6,477 strips, there are many other mundane and daily topics to be considered—such as poop jokes.

While most Sazae-san strips focus on the humor of daily life, it’s very much cognizant of the changing expectations and gender roles for women and men that happened after World War II. In 1945, after decades of activism, Japanese women finally earned the right to vote, and women’s rights were clearly on Hasegawa’s mind.

In one strip, a young man serves an older woman tea—typically a role a young woman would perform. The older woman chides the young man for such “scandalous” behavior. An older man sees this interaction and bops the older woman on the head with his cane and calls her behavior “undemocratic.” Sazae-san, not realizing what happened earlier, bops the older man on the head with her umbrella for mistreating the older woman. She exclaims: “What about equal rights?”

A four-panel comic. A woman in a dress scolds a boy holding a tea tray and teakettle: "What a way for an office boy to act! Scandalous!" A man who is passing by bops the woman on the head with his cane and says "You're not being democratic!" Someone from off-screen hits the man with an umbrella, and in the final shot a woman holding an umbrella appears and says "Mistreating women! What about equal rights?"

As this comic demonstrates, Sazae-san tried to keep up with the changing times; and, since the series was published every day for nearly 30 years, this makes it something of a comical historical record, letting the reader see the changes in Japanese life over the course of the series. For example, in the early comics published in the 1940s and ‘50s, Sazae-san wears a knee-length skirt. By the time we reach the ‘60s and ‘70s, she wears pants or a mini-skirt. There are also more overtly political changes, such as Sazae-san joining a women’s group when the women’s movement gains traction in Japan during the 1960s. Her mom even gets on board with feminism.

In one comic, Sazae-san’s father and husband jokingly claim that “women are behind men.” Sazae-san and her mom disagree and point out the men’s claim is just “male chauvinism.” The last panel shows the family eating a bare-bones dinner without Sazae-san and her mom, while Katsuo complains that the men should have had this argument after Sazae-san and their mom prepared dinner. It’s a light touch, granted, but it still doesn’t let the men get away with sexist behavior.

A four-panel comic. Panel 1: An elderly woman in an apron takes off a man in a suit's jacket. The woman says "Women's brain power doesn't go down after 50." The man says "You're wrong. They're way behind men." Panel 2: Another man in glasses and a suit arrives, as does another woman in a dress with her hair pulled back in a handkerchief. The new man says "What's going on?" Both women say "There's NO difference." Panel 3: The two women say: "It's just male chauvenism." The two men say "We agree!" Panel 4: The two men and two boys, one with a shaved head and the other with a bowl cut, sit at a table with very little food on it. Through the screen behind them you can see two women steaming angrily. The boy with the shaved head says "You've got no brains! You should argue about those things AFTER dinner!"

While Sazae-san is seen as progressive for its time, I think it’s important to note that it sometimes falls short of present-day feminist ideals. For one, the feisty Sazae-san does not work outside the home. She functions as an endearing but imperfect caretaker for her parents, younger brother, and sister, as well her husband and son. As such, sexism in the workplace is explored through the men in Sazae-san’s life like her husband and father, but not through an actual woman’s viewpoint. There are also quite a few comics whose jokes rely on characters being ugly—all of whom are drawn with large lips, freckles, and pig noses.

There are two comics in the bilingual edition that went beyond mere disappointment for me. The first relies on transphobic attitudes, while the second features gleeful objectification of women. In the first one, Sazae-san’s husband, Masuo, spies the long, sexy legs of a woman eating at a yakitori stand. After pushing back the curtain, he realizes the woman is actually the man who owns the yakitori stand, and the owner calls it “false advertising.” The belief that trans people are lying about their gender identity is a common feature of transphobia. While perpetuating this belief may not have been Hasegawa’s intention, it left a sour taste in my mouth nonetheless.

A four-panel comic. A man sees legs in stockings and heels standing at a Yakitori stand. The peron's upper-half is covered by a curtain. The man is excited about the legs and walks into the Yakitori stand. The curtain reveals that the person in heels is an older, balding man, who says "It's just false advertising! Please don't complain."

In the second comic, only a few pages later, Masuo watches a man who’s having a bad day trip on the sidewalk–until he happily discovers that he can now see up the skirts of the women walking down the stairs. This reflects a common attitude that men are entitled to women’s bodies without their consent, and implicitly excuses sexual assault.

A four-panel comic. A man is walking along a path near a sharp incline with a set of stairs built into it. The man trips and says "Bad start to the new year!" In the next panel, two women walk down the stairs and the man, still laying on the ground and looking up at them, says "Maybe not so bad..."

These comics are a stark reminder that transphobia and sexual assault are normalized in popular culture. Thankfully, there are only two comics like these in the volumes I reviewed. For some, it may be two comics too many, in which case I’d recommend avoiding Volume 11 of the bilingual edition.

Despite these imperfections, I’m still inclined to recommend Sazae-san to readers. Since Sazae-san focuses on the minutiae of everyday life, I found myself learning much more about Japanese life and history than I do from my usual anime and manga consumption. I found myself laughing a bit more than usual, too.

A photo of a sequence of cartoonish cardboard cutouts standing against a brick wall. The cutouts are (left to right) a boy in a baseball cap and red polo, an older man with a short mustache, olive bowler hat, and brown shirt and slacks; a toddler in a white sailor cap and white apron; a young girl in a pink shirt and rounded yellow hat; an older woman with her hair pinned up wearing a purple coat and holding a red purse; a younger woman with messy hair wearing a green turtleneck, pink slacks, and carrying a purple handbag; and a man in glasses wearing a red-checked shirt and holding a camera
Sazae-san with her family outside the Hasegawa Machiko Art Musuem. Photo Credit: Trip Advisor

Sazae-san ended on February 21, 1974, but Hasegawa and her plucky heroine have had a lasting impact on manga and Japanese life. In fact, research has shown that an increase in viewership of the anime is a pretty good indicator of the Japanese stock market. When the economy is in a down turn, instead of going out, people stay home and watch Sazae-san.

In terms of manga, Sazae-san inspired a whole generation of both male and female mangaka. You can see Hasegawa’s influence on series such as Crayon Shin-chan. She also popularized the yonma or four-panel format, which is utilized by well-known manga like Azumanga Daioh and Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun. You can even visit a museum dedicated to Hasegawa—the Hasegawa Machiko Art Museum (長谷川町子美術館)—located in Tokyo.

Today, many anime and manga fans in the West recognize Osamu Tezuka as the Godfather of anime and manga. While he certainly deserves the accolades he’s received, it speaks to our tendency to erase women from history that he’s the only person many acknowledge when talking about the great early voices of these mediums. I hope more and more fans around the world will come to recognize Machiko Hasegawa as the Grandmother of Manga, too.

Biographical details pulled from multiple sources, most notably She Changed Comics and The Independent.

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