The face that launched a thousand robots

by Tim Hornyak

KYOTO — Eighty years ago, an exhibition was held in Kyoto to celebrate Emperor Hirohito’s ascension to the Chrysanthemum Throne.

It was a grand affair in the style of a world expo, with lavish pavilions showcasing Japan’s might as an industrial and colonial power. Over 3 million attendees turned out for this Imperial bash. One of them, though, was not human.

A short walk from the Imperial Palace where the Emperor’s coronation ceremony was held, a towering golden figure presided over a shadowy pavilion done up like a Greek temple.

Visitors would first see on an overhead canopy an artificial bird, which began to sing. Then solemn music played, a screen parted and a massive torso came into view. Over 3 meters tall and seated at an ornate altar, the bronze giant slowly began to move. Its godlike appearance — a regal head crowned with laurel leaves and enormous arms wielding a mace and arrow — struck awe into the spectators.

Slowly the golden man held his mace aloft, and the weapon lit up. He raised his face to the heavens, as if filled with inspiration, and smiled. Some visitors took it for a Buddha of sorts and offered prayers.

His name was Gakutensoku, and he was Japan’s first attempt to realize a newfangled European concept called “robot.” The word was coined only seven years earlier in Czech playwright Karel Capek’s hit drama “R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots).” The play is about artificial factory workers — named after the old Czech word robota, for serf labor — who revolt against and kill their human creators. But just like the amazing humanoid machines in Japan today, Gakutensoku was a different kind of robot.

Instead of being a science-fiction nightmare, Gakutensoku was conceived as an ideal. His name means “learning from natural law” and his creator was a biologist called Makoto Nishimura.

Born in 1883 in Matsumoto, Nishimura led a remarkable career, teaching in Kyoto, Manchuria and at Hokkaido Imperial University, studying Ainu communities on the frontier island and botany at Columbia University in New York.

An early environmentalist, he refused to cut down a tree on his plot of land, instead building his house around it so that the trunk stood in his living room. A visionary essay Nishimura wrote for the Osaka Mainichi Shimbun newspaper entitled “The Pacific 50 Years From Now” so impressed its publisher that he was given a position as an editorial columnist.

“R.U.R.” was staged in Tokyo in 1924; in 1927, Fritz Lang’s film “Metropolis” with its evil robot Maria opened overseas; and in Britain and the U.S. respectively, two early mechanical men were unveiled as curiosities. The former was called Eric and resembled a suit of armor; it could stand up from its seat and relay the voice of a remote operator to “speak” to audiences. Westinghouse Electric Corp.’s Mr. Televox consisted of telephone-switching equipment and a crude cardboard anthropomorphic frame. It was able to activate electrical equipment upon receiving commands made on a whistle.

These early robots in science fiction and reality prompted discussion among Japanese intellectuals. When Nishimura learned that the Mainichi Shimbun would mount an exhibit at the 1928 Kyoto Fair, he suggested building a jinzo ningen (artificial human), as robots were first called in Japan. But instead of being a synthetic slave worker like Capek’s robots, it would be an artistic statement.

Gakutensoku was designed to look more like a living creature than a machine. His elfin features were meant to reflect the facial characteristics of several races in a tribute to universal solidarity. He sported a small cosmos flower on his togalike robes and his desk was adorned with carvings of birds and other animals.

Nishimura believed in the Buddhist doctrine of banbutsu dokon, that all things in creation emanate from the same source, and wanted to show that a mechanical man was also part of nature.

In an Osaka Mainichi Shimbun article introducing his creation, Nishimura wrote: “If one considers humans as the children of nature, artificial humans created by the hand of man are thus nature’s grandchildren.”

The apparatus was similar to the animatronics of today. Through the use of rubber tubes and compressed air, Gakutensoku’s cheeks puffed out as though breathing, while springs and gears in his head created smooth, lifelike facial expressions.

The automaton apparently could also write Chinese characters. Writing in 1991, novelist Hiroshi Aramata described the Gakutensoku show thus: “It started to write characters smoothly in a flowing hand. As if to express the agony of creation, it slowly shook its head from left to right. The movement was so natural it didn’t look like it was a machine. Unconsciously, the spectators began naturally imitating this movement, shaking their heads from left to right. This was funny because the humans looked like the were being controlled by the robot, like marionettes.”

Nishimura’s robot was a smashing success and went on to tour Hiroshima, Seoul and Tokyo before being sent to Germany, where it disappeared without a trace. It has never been found since, and only a few photographs and anecdotal accounts of it remain. A fter World War II, Japanese engineers focused on factory automation, importing and making widespread use of an American invention, the industrial robot. Scientists who were breast-fed on anime and manga robots began building bipedal humanoid machines. Car-welding robots and Astro Boy displaced the legacy of Gakutensoku, which was largely forgotten.

Last month, the Osaka Science Museum resurrected Nishimura’s golden man. It reopened to the public with new displays, foremost of which is a full-scale reproduction of the lost robot. When schoolchildren arrive at the museum today, the first exhibit they see is its new star attraction, a painstakingly re-created Gakutensoku that took over a year to build and cost over ¥20 million.

“We wanted to reconstruct this historic robot because it’s a symbol of Osaka, since an Osaka company sponsored it,” says museum official Yoshimitsu Hasegawa, who supervised the project. “We achieved this despite a scarcity of original documentation to work with.”

The 3.2-meter-tall robot can move its eyes, cheeks, arms, neck and chest and is powered by compressed air like Nishimura’s invention. The way it looks around the room slowly, smoothly rotating its head, is striking. The biologist used a revolving cylinder and pins, similar to the studded drums inside musical boxes, as a control mechanism to direct the compressed air into the appropriate rubber tubes at the right time. Though the reproduction is operated by computer, a working model of the 1920s cylinder apparatus sits beside Gakutensoku.

Every hour, the bronze colossus goes through an automated routine in which he moves his head and arms, and blinks as though waking from a dream. A more industrial, sophisticated humanoid robot from Kawasaki Heavy Industries that solves the Rubik’s Cube shows off its skills nearby, but most museum visitors linger around the figure crowned with laurel.

“Nishimura was a botanist, so he believed the world should be governed according to the rules of nature. That’s the meaning of Gakutensoku,” says chief curator Kenichi Kato. “He borrowed the robot idea from Capek, but revised it. He thought robots should be ideal humans.”

Tim Hornyak is author of “Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots.” The Osaka Science Museum, a short walk from Higobashi Station, is open 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily except Mondays. Tel. (06) 6444-5656; www.sci-museum.jp