Unseen Japan

The Japan You Don't Learn About in Anime.

The life of the legendary cartoonist and essayist Sakura Momoko was one of juxtaposition between traditional and modern Japan. A look back at the creator of Chibi Maruko-chan.

Remembering Sakura Momoko: The Very Japanese Life of the Creator of "Chibi Maruko-chan"

News   Posted on September 12, 2018 in news, people, manga, entertainment • By Emma Ford • Read Related Articles

Sakura Momoko is a household name in Japan. She is a cartoonist and essayist who shot to fame when her semi-autobiographical cartoon Chibi Maruko-chan (meaning little round girl) began airing in 1990. As reported earlier on JM, she died from breast cancer at the age of 53 on August 15th, 2018.

Manga Artist Sakura Momoko, Creator of Japan's Iconic "Chibi Maruko-chan", Dead at Age 53
The author of the manga behind one of Japan's most long-running animes is dead of breast cancer at the young age of 53.

She combined her love of drawing cartoons with her great skills as an essayist in the production of Chibi Maruko-chan, which was an epoch-making TV program of the 90s and one that made everyone watching it nod in agreement and melt in nostalgia. I myself have been a great fan of the character since its start as a manga in Ribon (りぼん), a famous girly cartoon collection from the 80s. Sakura was also a fantastic writer; she would pick up very regular, every-day events or observations from her day-to-day life and develop them into hilarious essays.

Sakura was born in Shizuoka, home to delicious Japanese tea and Mount Fuji, and grew up in a very traditional Japanese household with her parents, older sister, and her grandparents. Even by Japanese standards, her upbringing was very Japanese. Her manga and cartoon depict a Japanese house of tatami mats and kotatsu (see the photo below), without any western-style rooms, events, or food included at all. She appeared to live an archetypal Japanese life - which was part of her charm. She conveyed herself as distinctly average in every way, not particularly ambitious, and just quite an ordinary Japanese girl from a standard Japanese family.

A kotatsu - a low table, usually with a blanket over it and a heating element underneath. Why every house throughout the world doesn't have one of these is beyond me. (Picture: プラナ / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

An added fascination about Sakura is that her private life was anything but classically Japanese. She married her editor, had a baby, and then became a single parent to a four-year old boy by 1997, whilst still carrying on with work as an author and cartoonist. A single working mother in Tokyo, notoriously private, she rarely gave interviews or showed her face in public. Almost everyone in Japan could tell you what Chibi Maruko-chan looks like, but I daresay less than 1 in 10 would be able to describe what Ms. Sakura looked like, I certainly could not. She explained her determination to remain private: "I want to be able to go shopping and travelling normally." She didn’t even tell her own son about her identity until he started school.

She has always appeared to be very paranoid about her health, as it's a topic she often discussed in her essay collections. She famously tried urine-drinking therapy in her late twenties as well as numerous fad health trends, much to the amusement of her devoted readers.

As she started her quiet battle with breast cancer in her late forties, she apparently started to feel even more fondly about her home town of Shizuoka city. She worked on illustrations to promote the city and donated two designs for manhole covers to the city in early August. Sadly, they were to be her final work before her death. But, in a way, that's lovely and apt. They were put in place on the 6th September in front of many people that turned up to pay their respects.

(JP) Link: Video of the Chibi Maruko-chan manhole cover being placed at JR Shimizu in Shizuoka

I grew up reading both Chibimaruko-chan and other essays by Sakura – they still make me cry and laugh in much the same way as they did back thirty years ago, when I was eight. The understated and unbeatably clever observational writing of this mysterious, homely and yet fiercely independent woman will no doubt continue to be read and passed down through generations.

(JP) Link: Guide to Chibi Maruko-chan land in Shizuoka

しずおか観光情報 駿府静岡市

Emma holds an MA in Advanced Japanese Studies from Sheffield University. The child of a Japanese mother, Emma grew up in Japan as well as England, and is fully fluent in both Japanese and English. Emma contributes essays based on her experiences growing up as a child of two cultures.


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