It is an experience many in Japan now know: a visit to a SoftBank mobile phone vendor that ends in an attempt to converse with a small, white machine called Pepper.

Japanese Robot Culture: Performance, Imagination and Modernity, by Yuji Sone.
265 pages

The presence of such robots would seem to confirm the stereotype of Japan as a high-tech utopia full of strange technological experiences. The truth is rather more prosaic, as long-term residents discover. The fax, for example, remains alive and well in the nation’s offices.

Australian scholar Yuji Sone taps into this mix of old habits and new technology in his book, “Japanese Robot Culture: Performance, Imagination and Modernity.” Rather than focusing on the nuts and bolts of engineering, he attempts a cultural study of robots in Japan, specifically “performing robots” as opposed to robots as servants or functional machines.

If examining the social implication of the robot in Japan through the lens of performance studies sounds somewhat niche, be assured its applications are broad. The word “robot” actually comes from the theater: Karel Capek’s 1920 play “R.U.R.” popularized the Czech term roboti, meaning “labor” or “slave.” When the play was translated into Japanese in 1923, the word didn’t become robotto, as is common now, but jinzō-ningen (artificial human).

This helps to explain the subtle difference between the English and Japanese dictionary definitions. In English, a robot is a type of programmable machine; in Japanese it’s defined as a controllable, artificial human. The suspicion with which robots are treated in much of Western pop culture and the frequently positive take on humanoids and robots in Japanese manga and anime make for an interesting contrast.

Sone situates the robot in the context of geinō, an umbrella concept for Japanese performing arts that includes festivals and folk arts as well as sumo, the tea ceremony, and formal examples of performance such as kabuki. “Geinō practitioners were regarded as ‘strangers’ who crossed between zones of the sacred and profane, good and bad, inside and outside,” Sone writes, suggesting Japan’s robots and performers occupy something of the same position.

He takes readers through the history of Japan’s relationship with robots, from Gakutensoku, the first humanoid robot originally presented at a national exposition in the 1920s, to modern-day robotic “pets” such as Sony’s Aibo dog and Paro, a therapeutic seal, as well as “cute” robots such as Tomotaka Takahashi’s Robi. And who can forget the creepy androids of Hiroshi Ishiguro?

Sone traces these more recent developments back to “Astro Boy,” Osamu Tezuka’s manga from the 1950s and ’60s about a friendly robot child. He also examines the motivations behind actual robotics engineers, many of whom were inspired by such science-fiction narratives. In effect, such researchers are trying to realize their childhood fantasies, a fact acknowledged openly by many of them.

Oriza Hirata and Ishiguro’s much-trumpeted “android theater” project, ongoing since 2008 and bolstered by a surfeit of government subsidy, also comes under Sone’s analysis. The plays would seem to echo Japan Inc.’s vision of a harmonious future for robots and humans alike. Theatrically, however, the results have been mixed, and Sone notes that overseas critics were little impressed, and that the androids are “typecast,” to some extent, as foreign outsiders.

Robots are not just the preserve of intellectuals and government press releases, however. Sone also looks at “low art” examples of robotics among hobbyists and in mass culture. Events like the Robocon robot contest series are considered in reference to Buddhist thinking and animism, whereby the robot-creator relationship is not one of master and slave. Sone’s comparison of the “idiot robot” event Bacarobo with manzai comedy is illuminating.

Less convincing are the connections he attempts to draw to the subcultural worlds of otaku (geek) and moe (feeling affection for fictional characters). He cites Hatsune Miku, a humanoid persona voiced by a software application, and obsessive fantasies about female fighting cyborgs or “virtual female-machines.”

Sone neglects to mention, however, the 2012 Hatsune Miku opera created by Toshiki Okada, Hiroki Azuma, Keiichiro Shibuya and Marc Jacobs.

So is Japan truly a “robot-loving country,” as is often suggested? Sone dissects the notion, holding that much of it is perpetuated by government programs and the media, not to mention manufacturers and developers.

For example, he examines differences between exhibitions of Honda’s ASIMO humanoid in Japan and Australia, assessing what the company presumably believed about the expectations of the respective audiences.

The section on the human-machine mishmash that is the Robot Restaurant in Tokyo’s Kabukicho area is lucidly written and enlightening, cutting through the deluge of media coverage the burlesque show has received to highlight its similarity to a prewar cabaret as well as its inherent “techno-Orientalism.”

The notion of Japan and its robots is exploited on all sides to form a selective image of the nation. Sone dispenses with this “techno-nationalist” discourse and its lazy generalities, cutting to the heart of specific examples of “Japanese” robot culture. His book is welcome and timely, not least because robots will undoubtedly figure into the ways that Tokyo promotes itself to the world during the 2020 Olympics.


Coronavirus banner