Oshin: The gritty Japanese drama that gripped the world

By Waiyee Yip
BBC News

Published
image captionSingaporean fan Kit Ow believes Oshin helped to reverse anti-Japanese sentiments

A little Japanese girl trudges home through a snowy blizzard - an iconic television scene from the 1980s that many around the world would remember.

It's from the drama Oshin, which was a hit not just at home in Japan but also in more than 60 countries. Long before the age of Korean dramas and Crazy Rich Asians, it was that rare and unprecedented thing - an Asian global blockbuster.

Many loved the tale of Oshin, a girl who grows up in extreme poverty in the Japanese countryside in the early 1900s. Despite suffering numerous personal tragedies, she perseveres and eventually becomes a successful boss of a supermarket chain.

There's been renewed interest in the series after its screenwriter Sugako Hashida, one of Japan's most successful TV writers and an Order of Culture recipient, died in April of lymphoma at the age of 95.

Fans everywhere have paid nostalgic tribute on social media in recent weeks. One Sri Lankan viewer tweeted a warm memory of watching Oshin as a child curled up in his mother's lap.

In China, users on microblogging platform Weibo reminisced about how Oshin was the drama that introduced them to Japanese entertainment. One commented: "The show really touched me. I can still hum the theme song today."

In Taiwan, Ms Hashida's death was reported as breaking news, with the China Times newspaper describing her as a "national treasure".

'Bracing green salad'

Oshin debuted in April 1983 as a typical asadora, or "morning drama" - a female-led family drama series that aired in the morning and was targeted at housewives.

But it quickly became a massive hit in Japan, which at the time was in the grip of a materialistic "bubble economy".

Oshin's gritty tale of poverty was a much-welcomed "counterbalance" to that era's "glitz, excess and ostentatious consumption", wrote one Japanese journalist, "like a bracing green salad served to balance out the rich sauces of a heavy main course".

It became a successful global export thanks to its universal values of "love, sacrifice, endurance, and forgiveness", Dr Arvind Singhal, professor of communication at the University of Texas at El Paso, told the BBC.

Oshin appealed to people because of her strength and tenacity in the face of hardship. From being exchanged for a bag of rice as a child, to losing her son to World War Two and her husband to suicide, Oshin never despaired.

"Oshin's story taught us that no matter how difficult your life is, being brave can help us get through it," a Hong Kong fan in her 70s, known as Ms Wong, told the BBC.

Women in particular rooted for her. Themes such as "tensions between the daughter-in-law and the mother-in-law, as well as pressures to continue the family line, resonated broadly", said Dr Yuen Shu Min from the National University of Singapore's Japanese studies department .

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Much of that was down to Ms Hashida's skilled writing. She was known for her sharp observations about household life in the numerous family TV dramas she penned, especially when it came to female relationships.

In a 2018 interview, Ms Hashida said Oshin was partially inspired by her early encounters with her mother-in-law, with whom she had a tense relationship.

"When I cooked, my mother-in-law would complain it was too bland. If I explained the need to cut back on salt, she would complain to the family that the new bride talked back to her. I was shocked that trying to explain things would be taken as being insolent," Ms Hashida said.

Oshin's story arc as a working woman also echoed Ms Hashida's own journey. After WW2, she joined a major film studio as a scriptwriter, but quit when the company tried to turn her into a secretary. She eventually succeeded as a TV scriptwriter after years of rejections.

In a 2019 piece she wrote for the Nikkei Shimbun newspaper, she said that Oshin was modelled on the story of "all the women in Japan who survived years of hardship".

The 'Oshindrome'

From Vietnam to Peru, the global obsession with the show was such a novelty in the 1980s that it had a name: the "O Syndrome", or "Oshindrome".

"Oshin stirred audience emotions on a scale that no other television series had done previously… a kind of Oshin fever raged worldwide," said Dr Singhal, adding that the show's impact was "profound".

In Thailand, cabinet meetings were reportedly rescheduled so that they did not clash with the broadcast of episodes. A Bangkok newspaper also saw its circulation go up by 70% after publishing a weekly synopsis of the show.

In Hong Kong, its legacy is preserved in the form of Oshin House, a retail chain selling snacks from Japan. Its founder had said he operated his business with "the spirit of Oshin" - being tough and industrious.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionIn Hong Kong, Oshin House is a chain of snack stores selling Japanese snacks

To this day, lyrics from the Cantonese version of the theme song - "karma is your opponent, never give up" - is regularly used by the city's residents as an inspirational quote.

And in Iran, a word from the show - tanakura - has reportedly even made it into the Persian language.

Taking inspiration from Oshin's success at setting up a clothing stall, Iranians named their second-hand marketplaces "tanakura" bazaars in honour of her surname Tanokura. The name stuck, and second-hand clothing is now simply known as tanakura.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionIn Iran, Oshin's surname is used to refer to second-hand clothing

In Vietnam, some still use the show's title as a word for domestic helpers, in reference to the TV heroine's first job. In Hanoi, an entire neighbourhood where many cleaners and nannies live has come to be known as the "Oshin commune".

In Ghana, "to suffer like Oshin" has become a common phrase to describe those going through real hardship.

'Oshin made the Japanese seem less like enemies'

Some have even argued that Oshin helped to reverse anti-Japanese sentiments after its brutal occupation of some South East Asian countries during World War Two.

Viewers in Thailand and Indonesia, for example, "dramatically" changed their views of the "cold-blooded" Japanese after watching the series, Dr Singhal said.

Singaporean fan Kit Ow remembers watching the show religiously as a child with her mother - but not her grandmother.

"My grandparents refused to watch it - the war was too fresh in their minds," said Ms Ow, who is now in her late 40s.

"But for my generation, we did not have that kind of anti-Japan anger, and I believe Oshin positively contributed to that. The show made the Japanese seem less like enemies."

And while it has been almost four decades since Oshin premiered, fans like Ms Wong from Hong Kong believe the inspirational tale is timeless.

Her city for example, is now in a "difficult position" following street protests and Covid-19 challenges, she said, and could benefit from the show's lessons.

"I think people nowadays, especially young people, should remember and learn from Oshin. Face your problems head-on - there's nothing that cannot be resolved."

Additional reporting by Yuko Kato and Lam Cho Wai.

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