Yo-kai Watch follows the adventures of a young boy, a magical watch, and a whole lot of yokai. Magical items are not new. Yokai are Japan's traditional ghouls and goblins. So what makes Yo-Kai so different? Its hero.
In the original Japanese version, the 5th grade boy protagonist is called Keita, while in the localised version he is Nathan Adams. To keep this in its proper context, I'll be referring to the character by his original name, Keita.
The kid is a regular fifth grader. The character's official profile describes him as "futsuu" (普通) or "normal" kid who lives in a "normal" town.
When the Yo-Kai Watch anime debuted in Japan, I remember reading how some publications, such as Toyo Keizai, pointed out that this is highly unusual, because typically young heroes are either exceptionally good or exceptionally terrible at something.
[Image: TV Asahi]
For example, the best example of this is Nobita from Doraemon. Nobita is a terrible student (like, really terrible) and can be annoying and selfish.
[Photo: TV Asahi via Corobuzz]
He's also sensitive and has a good heart, but without Doraemon, Nobita would be a complete mess! It gives a raison d'etre for Doraemon and makes Nobita a more appealing character. He's flawed.
Keita, however, isn't getting zeroes on tests. He's not the class ace, either. This is a big difference.
There are similarities. Both boys are in the fifth grade. Keita's Japanese voice actor sounds so similar to Nobita from Doraemon's Japanese voice actor that some people actually thought they were the same person! These similarities between the Yokai Watch and Doraemon are no accident. Toyo Keizai quotes Hino as saying he "wanted to make a modern day Doraemon." Smart move because Doraemon is a cultural institution in Japan.
Another example, to a lesser extent, is Ash from Pokémon. He's not exactly the best Pokémon trainer (more here and here), and because of that kids cannot help but cheer for him. He's the underdog and this is part of the appeal.
The idea I've heard in Japan is that since Keita is so "normal" and ok at whatever he does, he has even a wider appeal among the current generation of Japanese children. He's not exceptional. He's not bad. He's good enough. That kind of makes him somewhat of a blank slate, and even non-threatening. Interestingly, Level-5 founder and Yokai Watch creator Akihiro Hino told Toyo Keizai that this normalness is Keita's "fault" or "weak point." He explained that being normal — and not particularily great or bad at anything — makes Keita relatable to the vast majority of kids who are "normal" themselves.
Interesting, sure, but if anything, I'd also say that Keita is somewhat of a tragic or sad character. Here's why:
This is how Keita sees the world. Us, as Yo-Kai Watch players and viewers, see it the same way.
But here's how the world around Keita sees him:
So, he's a kid that hangs out with yokai friends that regular people cannot see.
Yo-Kai Watch itself seems rather innocuous, but when you look at, say, the backstory for how Jibanyan became a yokai, it's evident that there is more going on here — some of which is pretty dark! I mean, his best friend is a ghost cat who was run over by a car.
Keita is normal because the things that he can see are anything but. His "normalness" isn't only designed to make him non-threatening and safe to kids, but rather, to ground the show and the games in reality.
If he were a loser like Doraemon's Nobita, the show would take on a vastly different angle: most likely, that instead of Keita battling and befriending them, the yokai would be helping him. It might be fun and interesting. It just wouldn't be Yo-Kai Watch anymore.