Why do the Japanese like robots?

Europeans like to think that Japanese people have their own, special, mysteriously positive relationship to robots. This is especially true when it comes to social robots. Think of Asimo, Aibo and Paro, for instance. Robots are a much bigger issue in Japan than it seems to be in any European country. Starting from the popular culture, robots are present everywhere. They are in manga, anime, and action figures, usually presented quite like saviours of the world. They are in statues in public places. In Tokyo’s Shiokaze Park stands Gundam, a 54 foot tall robot figure intended to raise environmental awareness.  And they are in shops. Pepper, a big-eyed newcomer in the humanoid markets, welcomes the customer entering the shop in more than 140 SoftBank Mobile stores.

Reasons often given for the Japanese enthusiasm about robots are related to religion and history. The main Japanese religion is Shintoism, which has the worldview of animism to the external world. Plants, animals, rocks, as well as artificial devices and the environment possess a spiritual essence. So robots, especially social, animal or human-like robots can easily be imagined to have a soul. This is something strange to European Christian religions, which find immortal soul only in human beings, and often have only instrumental attitude to non-human entities.

Some researchers1 have questioned the religion-based explanation. It has been shown that also other, namely Western cultures express techno-animism, mystifying and animating for instance computers and artificial intelligence. So techno-animism could be just a reaction of the post-modern human to the mechanisation and rationalisation of the everyday life, nevermind whether in Japan or Europe.

Another popular explanation stems from Japan’s history of building human-like machine workers. Already in the 17th century, the Japanese introduced karakuri ningyô, mechanical dolls that served tea. Again, it has been argued1 that building karakuri dolls should less be interpreted as an early sign of Japanese natural interest for robots but more as a side-effect of certain political actions. The military rulers at the time, the Tokuhawa-Shogunate, were scared of rivals developing advanced technologies. They prohibited developing technology for other but toy and show business purposes, and highly skilled developers turned to build toy feats like karakuris. Later the mechnical dolls were totally forgotten, but dusted off after the World War 2 to demonstrate the high-tech history of Japanese technology, especially compared to Western one.

With karakuris in particular and robots in general, Japan clearly stands out from the West.  But it is hard to tell after all, whether this is because of the some mysterious Japanese robot-loving nature or just because of reaction to the mechanisation of everyday life and on the other hand, some historical political actions. Anyway, Japan go strongly on with robots. For instance, to cope with the care needs of the world-fastest ageing population, Japan has a ‘New Robot Strategy’2 to develop robots for nursing and assistance of the elderly.

However, when I travelled in Japan, I found out that Japanese care facilities are not crowded by robotic devices at all. Human touch is appreciated instead. This is (again) what we Europeans have in common: we may be suspicious to the idea of robots taking care of our old. It will be interesting to see how robots are adopted in Japanese elderly care services. In METESE project, we keep our eyes open to learn from the Japanese experiences and apply this knowledge to the Finnish elderly care service system.

References

  1. Wagner, C. ‘The Japanese Way of Robotics’: interacting ‘naturally’ with robots as a national character? 510–515 (2009).
  2. New Robot Strategy. Japan’s Robot Strategy – Vision, Strategy, Action Plan. (2015).