Goku is misunderstood. Memes and misinterpretations have greatly contributed to some inaccurate conclusions about the Dragon Ball Z character — with perhaps the most common misconstrual being that Goku is a bad dad. This perception of Goku’s fatherly abilities have been perpetuated by jokes and memes that have, over the years, buried or caused people to ignore evidence that suggests otherwise, when in fact the opposite is true. Goku is a great dad.
When I dove into why I love Dragon Ball couples so much, I concluded that Toriyama excels at putting relationships on display by showing, not telling, how they feel about each other through their dynamics, reactions to perilous situations and subtext. I think the same applies to analyzing Goku as a father. Throughout the original manga, we see Goku being a good dad in both traditional and nontraditional ways.
Goku has confidence in Gohan
To analyze Goku as a dad, we have to look at Goku as a character. Goku is passionate about martial arts, but more specifically, his core character value is always wanting to get better. Goku values working hard to get stronger and seeing those results paying off and this ties to him as a father. Though he doesn’t force them to be martial artists like himself, Goku is incredibly proud of and confident in the strength, skills and results of hard work that his sons display, which is the quality of a great dad.
When Goku shows up to save Gohan from Nappa, he points out his son’s progress, “You’ve changed so much! You trained well!” Even though Gohan admits he couldn’t do anything against Nappa, it’s still important to Goku that his son knows he’s come a long way, and he does just that. A similar scene plays out in the Frieza Saga when Goku once again shows up to save Gohan and Krillin, he comments that Gohan has been through a lot, complimenting his perseverance — he’s less scared and a little stronger than before, and Goku makes sure he knows it.
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The Cell Saga is perhaps the best source of moments like this. Throughout the entire arc, Goku shows immense confidence, belief and pride in Gohan’s potential, power, progress and perseverance, saying as much throughout. As the two train in the hyperbolic time chamber, Goku makes it clear that he believes Gohan is going to become stronger than him. He notes how quickly he progresses and compliments his growth, showing nothing but pride and belief in his son’s potential.
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In fact, Goku has the utmost confidence in Gohan’s abilities, so much so that he remains calm when learning that Cell’s power is still greater than his own. Why? Because he already recognized his son’s growth and power, he’s already confident that Cell’s defeat is at hand and that Gohan is going to be the one to do it. Goku approaches the Cell games with this matter-of-fact mindset that Gohan is going to save the world, it’s a sincere belief, not just a father trying to give his son confidence.
And Goku is right to have this confidence — Gohan believed his father to be holding back against Cell, since his dad’s best was far behind the level he had reached. Not only did Goku have great belief in his son — forfeiting his match because he knew he didn’t have to defeat Cell — he also showed great intuition in regards to Gohan’s power. Heck, he’s so confident and proud of Gohan’s strength, he straight up calls Cell an idiot for underestimating him, also quelling Piccolo’s doubts when Gohan appears defeated. These are the acts of a father who has confidence in his son, who is proud and recognizes his hard work and its results.
Of course, Goku does take this confidence a bit far, factoring into one of his weaker moments as a dad — giving Cell a Senzu bean and putting Gohan into the ring with him. This is often cited as one of the biggest examples of Goku being a bad dad and I can’t disagree. However, it comes from Goku’s sincere confidence and recognition of his son’s power, and more importantly, Goku realizes his mistake and was on his way to fix it, before Gohan proves that his dad was right to believe in him, unleashing the power of an ascended Super Saiyan. A mistake, certainly, but not a heartless one.
Later when Cell decides to self-destruct and take the whole planet with him, Goku teleports the sore loser away, but not before he tells Gohan he is proud of him. Then when Cell reforms, Goku urges his son from the afterlife to “show me the power that we made together,” to defeat the villain. Goku sees Gohan’s power as the result of their shared efforts, as something he is proud of and a reflection of their time spent together as father and son — it is a touching scene in the context of the power-centric world of Dragon Ball. In this world, power is everything, and they built this together. Finally, in the last moments of the Cell saga, Goku wishes to remain in the afterlife, giving Gohan one final vote of confidence by saying the Earth has him now, his power and his reliability are going to protect the planet.
The Buu Saga does have some key moments as well. While watching Goten fight Trunks in the kids’ division of the World Martial Arts Tournament, Goku shows great interest in observing Goten’s current level of skill and power. He notes that he can’t quite control energy blasts and is impressed that he can already turn Super Saiyan. It’s small, but worth noting Goku’s deep interest in Goten’s fight. Similarly, Goku stays to watch Gohan train in the land of the Kais, taking an interest in and noting his progress. Additionally, Goku is taken aback — literally, he is blown back — by Gohan’s ultimate form, and tells him as much, giving him one final vote of confidence with a thumbs up as he goes off to fight Buu.
Goku also put great faith in Goten and Trunks and their fusion during the Buu saga, literally saying that it’s their generation’s time to take over. This is a vote of confidence and pride from Goku to Goten (as well as Trunks) and though minimal, it’s worth noting.
Goku balances being a dad with being a teacher
Goku possesses what’s known as a positive flat character arc: he doesn’t change for the better over time, but rather his positive nature changes other characters and the world around him for the better. I think this especially applies to his sons and what he’s left them with as their father and mentor.
In the Cell Saga, Goku teaches Gohan how to turn Super Saiyan, how to perfect the form and how to maintain it. Here, we find that Goku is an excellent teacher, a difficult task especially when your student is also your son, and I think it speaks to Goku’s ability as a father that he can balance the two. Goku is patient, kind, encouraging and understanding — every time Gohan struggles or stumbles, Goku tells him that not even he or Vegeta were able to master the transformation in a day. Goku also reminds his son that he is much farther along strength-wise than he was as a kid, able to handle more time in the Hyperbolic time chamber and full of hidden potential that will outshine both himself and Vegeta. These are all qualities of a great teacher and a great dad.
Gohan reflects this when Videl asks him who taught him how to fight — he doesn’t say Piccolo, though that’s often who people joke is Gohan’s real father. Instead, Gohan says “My dad, mostly.” He reflects it further when he asks Kibito to give him a new gi, one based off of his dad’s, “I want to fight wearing my dad’s gi,” he says, and this is big. Previously, Gohan chose Piccolo’s clothes to wear in respect to his teachings, so it speaks volumes that he now wants to honor his father and wear the pride they have for each other in his gi. He wouldn’t do this if Goku wasn’t an excellent and impactful father and it’s an incredibly touching and important moment.
As for Goten, when Goku is teaching him and Trunks fusion, he swallows his pride in order for them to understand the importance of the technique. He tells them that he is weak, and that his weakness got Gohan and Vegeta killed, which Trunks and Goten blame him for. These kids barely know him and he understands that, he gets on their level to admit his weakness so they understand that fusion will help them surpass his own weakness. I see this as an excellent teacher move, one that finally gets them to listen. Additionally, Goten, who only just met his dad earlier this day, wishes for a final hug before he goes — only someone like Goku could get a son he just met to be that attached that quickly.
Goku as the selfless Saiyan
If you want more direct examples of Goku being a great dad, Dragon Ball is full of such moments.Throughout the Saiyan, Frieza and Cell Sagas, Goku shows immense concern for Gohan’s wellbeing.
Infamously known as a fight-loving freak, Goku pays little attention to Nappa or the Ginyu force when rescuing Gohan from them, ensuring he is safe, healed and away from the battle before even once looking at his future opponents. Also in the Frieza Saga, Goku makes sure that Gohan gets as far away as possible after he turns into a Super Saiyan for the first time — he knows he can’t control the rage-induced power yet and tells Gohan to get away before his control slips away entirely.
In the Cell Saga, Goku literally sacrifices his life for his son when he teleports a self-destructing Cell away — and this moment is important on two levels. First, Goku is being a good dad and giving his life to ensure his son lives, and second, Goku takes the brunt of Gohan’s mistake for him. Gohan got a bit cocky with his power, wanting to make Cell suffer before defeating him, which gives the villain the chance to self-destruct, something that Gohan (and the whole Earth) would have paid for if Goku didn’t step in. He takes the hit so Gohan can learn from his mistake without paying fatal consequences. That’s some grade-A dad s*** right there! He even keeps a positive attitude when telling him he’s going to remain dead! He doesn’t want his son to mourn and dwell on his death!
In the Buu saga, Goku shows a deep understanding and concern for Gohan’s rage, now knowing the full power, and urges him to calm down when Videl gets hurt in her tournament match. He also understands that Videl is important to Gohan and doesn’t hesitate to get her Senzu beans from Korrin. Later, when Goku finds out Gohan is alive and in the land of the Kais, he immediately teleports to him without hesitation, and is later sad that he can’t go back with him to Earth and see him grow up.
There are also two hugs in this saga, both between Goku and his sons. Signs of affection are very rare in Dragon Ball and I think it contributes a lot to the argument of Goku being a good dad that two of them are when Goku is saying goodbye to his sons. I dare you to tell me Goku is some kind of uncaring, distant father after all this!
Goku is a flawed character
To give a fair argument, we have to look at some of Goku’s flaws. In desperate situations, he can be a bit harsh and biting — Gohan experiences this in the Saiyan saga when Goku snaps at him for being too afraid to take over the fight against Vegeta, calling him a coward. This could have been delivered better, but I think it stems from Goku believing in his son, and trying to snap him out of the fear that makes him hesitate, something he takes a better approach with during the Cell games. Here, rather than calling Gohan a coward, he says, “Bring peace back to the world. You want to grow up and be a scientist don’t you?” to directly, but gently teach Gohan that you have to fight for the things that matter, even if you’re afraid. I think this not only makes up for how he yelled at Gohan in the Saiyan saga, but it also shows something that even the best dads struggle to do: grow, change and adapt how they teach and raise their kids.
Goku similarly yells at Goten later in the Buu saga, once again out of a desperate situation. When teaching Trunks and Goten about Fusion, he snaps that they don’t have time to cry and mourn Gohan and Vegeta, that they have to learn Fusion fast if they want revenge. It’s not gentle, that’s for sure, but it’s not out of malice, Goku has to cut through to make it clear that there is a ticking clock and they can save the world if they use time wisely. Again, it’s not a perfect dad moment, but Goku is, as established, a flawed character.
Perhaps the most cited reason for Goku being a “bad dad” in the eyes of some is that he’s absent twice from his son’s lives. But here’s the thing. Goku did not abandon his sons. Goku was gone after selfless acts of self-sacrifice done to protect his sons from current and future threats.
Well… of course, he does sort of abandon his family in the final pages of the series in order to train Uub to be the next protector of the Earth but Gohan is already a full-grown adult here. Goten is still a bit younger, but he’s training Uub to keep the Earth, and his sons, safe. Overall, the epilogue is not a great example of Goku as a dad, but it’s also never stated that he doesn’t visit them during Uub’s training, so I’m gonna choose to believe he does (just let me have this one!)
Super Saiyan, Super Dad
A lot of arguments of Goku being a bad dad come from Dragon Ball Super, which takes a more comedic tone that Flanderizes and pokes fun at Goku’s flaws as a dad. If you want to use those points to argue, go right ahead, but Toriyama’s original text, the original Dragon Ball manga does not, in my opinion, depict Goku as a bad father. Quite the opposite.
Goku being a dad is not the focus of Dragon Ball, and I think this is a big contributor to why people think he’s a bad dad. The series doesn’t put a spotlight on Goku having traditional father-son moments with his kids, but when you look closely, it’s not hard to find moments of Goku being a damn good dad — imparting wisdom, protecting his kids, caring deeply about them, showing affection for them and taking great pride in their hard work and progress. Is Goku a perfect dad? No, but what person, fictional or real is? Is Goku a good dad? Yes, y’all are just mean.
Sean is a writer/researcher who lives in LA and loves Sonic, Dragon Ball and his dog. You can follow him on Twitter and find his work on his website. He also co-hosts Sonic Podcast Adventure and streams frequently on Twitch.