There are countless iconic characters, scenes, and story arcs in Dragon Ball, but ask fans what they remember most fondly, and a significant portion would surely say the Piccolo and Gohan training arc! Despite being Goku's mortal enemy, Piccolo winds up teaching his son, Gohan, in the ways of the warrior! The manner in which the pair's relationship transforms from one of fear and distain to being one of the most touching in the entire canon makes this arc an absolute tear-jerking masterpiece whose popularity lives on to this day.
But with all that said, it's worth pointing out that with the looming threat of Vegeta and Nappa's assault on Earth, Gohan endured the brutal training thrust upon him by Piccolo at the age of just four! After surviving for 6 months alone in the wilderness with hungry beasts lurking around every corner, Gohan was forced to fight against Piccolo for days on end! No matter how much of a child prodigy Gohan was, that training period must have been one terrible experience for the young warrior! So how did he make it through? And what led to Piccolo and Gohan's relationship blossoming as it did? I couldn't help but wonder about everything that took place that wasn't revealed to us in the pages of the manga.
To that end, I decided to enlist the help of Professor Toshihiko Endou, an expert in developmental psychology from Tokyo University, to help me understand Piccolo and Gohan's master-student relationship in a bit more detail. Reading through Professor Endou's analysis might just change the way you view the beloved duo and that unforgettable training arc!
Being interviewed: Professor Toshihiko Endou
Professor at Tokyo University's Graduate School of Education.
Director at the Center for Early Childhood Development, Education, and Policy Research (Cedep).
Graduated from Tokyo University's Education department.
Withdrew from his PhD at Tokyo University's Graduate School of Education after acquiring the necessary points to earn a doctorate.
Has held many positions in his career, including Doctor of Psychology at Kyushu University; lecturer at the University of Sacred Heart, Tokyo; assistant professor at Kyushu University's Graduate School; and associate professor at Kyoto University's Graduate School of Education. Author of several books, including "'Jō no Ri' Ron: Jōdō no Gōrisei wo Meguru Shinrigaku-teki Kōkyū" (Reason in Emotion: A Psychological Analysis of the Logic of Emotions).
Entertainment analyst. Author of many articles based on serious research (including data analysis and interviews) into non-serious subjects. Articles often featured on Yahoo's freelance page and the Daily Portal Z website. Especially loves music, films, and manga!
*Interview was conducted remotely.
—First off, I'd love to hear your general impressions regarding the way Piccolo went about teaching Gohan.
[Gohan scared for his life as his training with Piccolo suddenly gets underway]
Prof. Endou: I personally feel as if you can't really describe what transpired between Piccolo and Gohan as 'teaching'.
When it comes to Piccolo and Gohan's relationship, it wasn't so much that Piccolo provided Gohan with a set of principles and instructed him to follow them, it was more that Piccolo supported Gohan in his own study.
—You're right in that Piccolo didn't teach anything to Gohan in simple steps. With training methods like leaving him to fend for himself for an extended period of time, it definitely seems like Piccolo was just there to support Gohan's individual growth.
Prof. Endou: One thing to understand about children is that from the time they're born, they're constantly seeking to study and learn. In the field of education, we've recently been veering away from the traditional notion of a teacher cramming a predetermined syllabus into the heads of the students and are now focusing more on embracing each child's innate curiosity and desire to learn.
Looking back on Piccolo's training methods through that lens, the way he abandoned Gohan in the wilderness without teaching him how to fight was perhaps crucial to Gohan's growth.
—I would've never have thought that such a brutal form of training would be backed up by science!
Prof. Endou: Although to clarify, even though Piccolo did technically abandon Gohan, he was there to support Gohan in spirit. The way I see it, Piccolo acted as what we refer to in developmental psychology as a "safe haven and secure base". Put simply, Gohan knew deep down that if something went truly wrong, Piccolo would come to his aid.
This is a crucial aspect of all adult-child relationships. Having someone who a child knows is there to acknowledge their efforts and is rooting for them even when they aren't physically close by has a huge positive influence on their development. If a child feels they have the support of someone like that, then they're able to engage in what we call "exploration"—in other words, they're free to try new things, create, and push their boundaries.
[During Gohan's time in the wilderness, Piccolo provided food and clothing without showing himself]
—I'm not sure whether Piccolo was actively trying to become Gohan's "safe haven and secure base", but it definitely seems as though he provided him with emotional support.
Prof. Endou: Another concept we have in psychology is of the "Cognitive Apprenticeship", which is equivalent to how in the past, an apprentice would study an art form or technique under a master in that field.
The cognitive apprenticeship is said to be split into four stages, with the first being 'modeling'. This is where the apprentice observes the master and is taken aback by their skill while also feeling a sense of respect and idolization, culminating in the desire to one day be as good as the master.
Then the second stage is 'coaching', which results in the apprentice repeatedly attempting to emulate the master. This stage is also denoted by the apprentice's lack of skill and the master advising them as to how to improve, which in turn leads to the apprentice refining their technique.
As that process continues and the apprentice reaches a similar level to that of the master, the third stage, 'scaffolding', begins. Taking the meaning of scaffolding to be "creating a safe path", the third stage can be viewed as the master recognizing that the apprentice is not far from completing their journey and creating the footholds necessary for the apprentice to overcome the remaining obstacles by themselves.
Which brings us to the final stage, 'fading'. With the apprentice's technique nearing perfection, the master withdraws from the relationship and the apprentice becomes self-reliant.
*Writer's own graphic
Prof. Endou: Piccolo and Gohan's relationship appears to perfectly align with the model laid out by a cognitive apprenticeship. At first, Gohan is terrified of Piccolo, but he receives advice from him, is saved by him, and in the end becomes self-reliant. I'd say that many of the components necessary for the mastery of an art form or technique are represented on the pages of the Dragon Ball manga.
[Outside of mealtimes and sleep, Piccolo unrelentingly engaged Gohan in combat training]
—Even though we've established that Piccolo's methods have scientific evidence supporting them, I'm still left wondering whether Piccolo is simply too terrifying a teacher for a child of four.
Prof. Endou: From the time they're born, every child has their own unique behavioral tendencies and quirks, which in psychology we refer to as their "temperament". When it comes to education, it's vital to identify a child's temperament and create a learning environment that aligns with it.
And so, although it may not be shown directly in the manga, it seems likely Piccolo identified that even if Gohan is frightened of someone, he's capable of overcoming his fear and seeing things through.
—I think there was a fair chance that Gohan became so scared of Piccolo that he tried to run away or gave up entirely, but he didn't. What was it that allowed Gohan to succeed?
Prof. Endou: I think it's because Piccolo saw the strength of Gohan's self-control. At four years old, children start to begin demonstrating patience in the present while envisioning the future, as well as emotional control.
[Gohan politely giving his age to Bulma when they first met]
Prof. Endou: But it's worth noting that self-control differs quite drastically from child to child. I'd say that Piccolo only chose to interact with Gohan in such a strict and intimidating way after identifying his abnormally strong self-control.
Gohan being an extremely resilient child was most likely another important factor.
—What exactly do you mean by "resilient"?
Prof. Endou: The psychological meaning stems from the word's original meaning, which describes a material's ability to return to its original shape after receiving and absorbing an external force. In psychology, we use it to describe one's mental fortitude or sometimes their ability to adapt to stressors, but in either case, Gohan is undoubtedly an exceptionally resilient young boy.
Piccolo leaving Gohan in the wilderness and subjugating him to grueling training was a result of him seeing Gohan for the resilient child he was.
—So in addition to Piccolo's guidance, Gohan also had the natural ability to endure Piccolo's training.
[Having endured his training with Piccolo, Gohan became able to sense the Ki of the nearby Saiyans]
Prof. Endou: However, looking at how Gohan is represented in the manga, he's not drawn to appear more adult. In fact, he looks remarkably similar to a real-world four-year-old.
It's a sensitive age where children begin forming a sense of self-identity and picking up on how they are being viewed by those around them. I would say the way Gohan is shown in the manga is an authentic depiction of a child of four becoming aware of such notions.
—Striking a balance between portraying Gohan and Piccolo's talents as formidable fighters while simultaneously preserving the readers' image of Gohan as a child is certainly one of Dragon Ball's strengths.
—Piccolo is of course not Gohan's father, but they do have a master-student relationship. To me it seems quite rare to have that kind of relationship with someone who is neither a parent nor a relative from such a young age.
[Gohan sharing his feelings with Piccolo one night during their training]
Prof. Endou: It's a frequently touched-upon talking point these days, but compared to other animal species, human children take a long time to mature to adulthood, not to mention they require a lot more attention. That's one reason that children have always been raised with the support of non-relative adults.
This model of child-rearing, where the child regularly interacting with adults other than their parents allows them to learn a wider variety of things, is referred to as "group parenting" and is extremely commonplace.
—I see. So the relationship between Piccolo and Gohan, despite them being unrelated, is actually very legitimate. Following Gohan from the beginning of his training, it seems as though he gets more and more confident as it goes on. How did his relationship with Piccolo change from the time the training got started?
Prof. Endou: I feel as though their bond was strengthening in ways we weren't quite able to see on the manga page. As Gohan becomes aware of Piccolo's true power, he picks up on the fact that Piccolo has high expectations for him, and also begins to trust him.
Meanwhile, Piccolo is also changing. People often assume that 'development' is a term used exclusively to discuss children, but in reality, even after reaching adulthood, humans are constantly developing in various ways.
Piccolo demonstrates what we refer to as "generativity", which describes the phenomenon where an adult who's reached emotional maturity feels the desire to pass on what they've learned to the next generation, and even feels joy in doing so. In turn, that leads to the adult's own personal growth.
So it would be fair to say that Piccolo also benefited greatly from Gohan's training as it allowed him to further his own development.
—Thinking about the scene where Piccolo sacrifices himself to save Gohan, that act of selflessness really is unimaginable coming from the Piccolo we first met, so hearing you talk about how Piccolo grew through his relationship with Gohan really hits home. At the same time, I'm also curious as to the influence losing his master had on Gohan's development from that time onwards.
Prof. Endou: After losing someone close to you, being able to properly grieve has an effect on your subsequent development. This is what's known as 'mourning work', i.e., the process of fully experiencing the sadness of grief and then being able to emotionally recover and move forward.
Gohan undoubtedly lost Piccolo, but being able to hold on to all those thoughts and memories and use them as a source of courage is what allows Gohan to move on and continue his journey.
—After that incident in the manga, Gohan goes on to shock all the adults around him with his unbelievable growth. Thinking about how that may all be thanks to the psychological processes that you outlined today occurring in the background just gives me one more reason to go back and read through the original series!
Thank you so much for your time and for that enlightening conversation!
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