Article Thumbnail

How ‘Dragon Ball’ Inspired a Religious Movement

In the name of Goku, Vegeta and the holy Piccolo

I’m not a religious person, but Gokuism (aka, the Church of Goku) may change that. According to The Dao of Dragon Ball, “Gokuism is the belief that the principles of Dragon Ball provide a moral compass for one’s life, and that Goku is an ideal role model and moralistic person.”

For the unbaptised, Dragon Ball is a wildly-successful manga and anime series that follows the adventures of Goku (the main protagonist). These adventures include training in martial arts and exploring the world in search of seven orbs called Dragon Balls, which can be used to summon a wish-granting dragon named Shenron. Along his journey, Goku meets many friends and battles foes who also seek the Dragon Balls (often with world-threatening intentions).

Now, back to Gokuism: As per the previously mentioned definition of Gokuism, Goku himself is essentially a Jesus figure. More devoted believers might even argue that Goku is greater than Jesus — internet forum user ramssuperbowl99 certainly appears to be under this impression:

“Jesus: Dies once to save humanity; guilt trips you about it forever.”
“Goku: Dies twice to save humanity; isn’t a little bitch about it.”
“I know who I’m worshiping.”

That’s right: Outdoing the resurrection of Jesus, Goku is revived twice in the series.

As such, Goku acts as a religious role model for practitioners of Gokuism. “Throughout the series, Goku faces incredible hardships, which he overcomes with determination, perseverance, and above all else, endurance — he experiences massive amounts of suffering to overcome himself, which in turn, allows him to overcome his opponents,” explains Dragon Ball scholar Derek Padula, author of the Dragon Ball Culture series and founder of The Dao of Dragon Ball. (Padula emphasizes that he’s not the founder of Gokuism — whoever is responsible for that remains unknown.)

“This inspires people around the world, especially those who have been picked on — because many Dragon Ball fans are into anime, they’re also into video games and other ‘nerdy’ hobbies. As a result, they were teased in school. I was one of those people, and I was depressed because of it,” says Padula. “But Dragon Ball and Goku inspired me to persevere through those difficult times.”

According to Padula, Gokuism arose from the inspirational quality of Dragon Ball. “I wrote a book called Dragon Soul: 30 Years of Dragon Ball Fandom — it’s filled with stories from fans claiming that Dragon Ball, Goku and the other characters (Vegeta, Gohan and Piccolo) inspired them to endure hardships, to become a better person and to strive toward ideals that others said were naive or unrealistic,” he says. “Because of Dragon Ball, they followed their dreams, and those dreams allowed them to become artists, composers, painters, philosophers and so on. People began using Dragon Ball as a model for their lives, and from there, that philosophy took on a life of its own to become what we now call Gokuism (or the Church of Goku).”

Interestingly enough, Dragon Ball itself has strong religious undertones (again, including the multiple resurrections of Goku). “Goku is based on the ancient Monkey King legend (Sun Wukong),” Padula explains. “That story goes back 5,000 years into Chinese culture, much of which is tied to spirituality. Buddhist enlightenment and Taoist immortality fuse together to create Goku — then, they added elements of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee to create this martial arts epic. When people watch Goku, they might not realize it, but they’re picking up on 5,000 years of spirituality. That’s the heart of Gokuism.”

While I wasn’t able to find a physical church where Gokuism is practiced — there’s a relatively small Facebook page devoted to the religion, with around 1,500 followers — Padula mentions that South Americans occasionally hold marches devoted to Goku. “People in South America have these marches for Goku as if he were a holy figure,” he says. Such marches appear to upset local Christian groups, which again, seems to point to some religious competition — referring to the marches, one religious commenter on a Brazilian gospel website had this to say: “Goku is a demon that inhabits the astral world… Dragon Ball is one of the most satanic animes.”

Demonic figure or not, practitioners of Gokuism turn to Goku for motivation. “People tell me that they think about Goku or Vegeta (Goku’s rival) when they’re at the gym — these characters encourage them to push harder and lift more,” Padula says. “On a personal level, I often think: Goku wouldn’t sleep in; he would start his day, and he’d be excited about it. He’d have a positive outlook on life, and he’d be optimistic about what lies ahead.”

But Padula stresses that Gokuism isn’t about becoming Goku. “He’s a cartoon character — that’s something I really have to emphasize,” Padula says. “Gokuism is about tapping into your full potential in the same way that Goku does.”

Whether or not Gokuism consists of large religious gatherings, Padula believes practitioners are widespread. “There are millions of people who have been influenced by Dragon Ball — not only as entertainment, but as a show that had a genuine impact on their lives,” he says. “That impact was positive enough that they brought it into their hearts and use it as a moral compass.”

As for the future of Gokuism, Padula remains unsure. “It’s hard to say,” he says. “But I will tell you that Dragon Ball is becoming increasingly popular, and many fans believe it’s going through a second renaissance right now. It was recently announced that Goku will be one of the mascots for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. He’s a cultural figure that the Japanese government believes in enough that they’re using him as their mascot for the entire world to see — that’s a pretty big deal.”

“Goku is going to be seen by billions of people, and he represents something,” Padula continues. “The Olympic committee is saying that he represents the Olympic spirit by using him as the mascot. They want people to look at Goku as somebody who is a role model. That might trigger more people to look into Gokuism and take on Goku as a role model in their own lives.”

To that, I have one thing to say: Praise Goku.