Japan’s special relationship with robots: Tech fact or fiction?

There has been much written and said about Japan’s appreciation of all things robotic. This oft-quoted cultural phenomenon has been propped up with plenty of explanations, cultural, economic and even spiritual, but solid evidence is harder to come by. Is it true to say that the Japanese view robots as friendly helpers while the West sees them as potential agents of the apocalypse? Or is this simply tech fiction posing as fact?

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An economic necessity

It is true that Japan is one of the world leaders when it comes to supplying industrial robots and the country’s government has plans for this to continue, aiming to grow robot sales from 600 billion yen (£4.6 billion) a year to 2.4 trillion yen (£18 billion) by 2020. And it is also true that a very real economic problem is driving the adoption of robotics on a mass scale.

Japan’s rapidly aging population means that individuals of working age will soon struggle to support their dependants. Predictions for 2060 indicate that 40 percent of the population will be over 65 years of age. This, coupled with the county’s low immigration rates – less than 2 percent of Japanese residents were born outside the country – leaves an economic crisis looming on the horizon.

Robotic workers offer a potential solution and will in the future, perhaps, be able to offer the necessary care required by Japan’s greying populace. However, outside of the aforementioned industrial robots and high-profile, but experimental, humanoid robots picked up by the media (Honda’s Asimo, for example) the average Japanese citizen has very little interaction with robotic technology. The future may see every Japanese home ably assisted by an automaton helper, but the present certainly does not.

[easy-tweet tweet=”The future may see every Japanese home ably assisted by an automaton helper, but the present does not”]

A cultural fascination

Culturally, Japan is also viewed as having a more welcoming attitude to robots than the West. The oft-touted view is that Hollywood sees robots as killing machines, while Japanese media is much more likely to portray them as a benign presence. Examples of the man versus machine trope in cinema include Terminator, Blade Runner and iRobot. But is this surprising, or even unique to robotics? Hollywood has a long history of sensationalism and for every Skynet looking to take over the world, there’s a Wall-E or R2-D2 trying to save it.

Japan’s love of robotics, on the other hand, is evidenced by Astro Boy, the hugely popular story of a humanoid robot that acts alongside humans to save the Earth. However, when you consider that Astro Boy was often battling other human-hating robots, the East-West divide becomes less clear cut.

Japan certainly has a pronounced interest in robotics and some cutting-edge research is emanating from the Asian archipelago. Robots that can play baseball, create music and even cook have been developed, but are still at the early stage of development. These innovative creations feed into our preconceived notion of Japan as the home of quirky, experimental robotics, but there are institutions all over the world conducting similar research, whether it’s Estonian delivery robots or robotic surgeons in the US.

A religious origin

Japan’s love for mechanical objects has also been attributed to certain teachings found in the local Shinto religion. Some consider the religion to be a form of Animism, a set of beliefs where all non-human bodies contain a spiritual essence. While this is normally applied to natural phenomena like mountains, rivers and animals, some have claimed that Japan’s fondness for humanoid machines also stems from these beliefs. Everything from the aforementioned Astro Boy to Japan’s 18th century Karakuri puppets have been attributed to Shinto’s Animist tendencies, but we see similar fascination with animatronics in Western cultures without a strong connection to animism. Toy Story, Furbies, and Leonardo da Vinci’s 15th century mechanical knight are all examples of how widespread and enduring mankind’s interest in robotics is.

[easy-tweet tweet=”Japan’s love for mechanical objects has also been attributed to certain teachings found in the local Shinto religion” hashtags=”tech, future”]

Japan certainly has a strong affinity with robotic technology, particularly when it comes to industrial and humanoid robots, but to ascribe this to some special cultural, or even religious, relationship is a stretch too far. Perhaps Japan’s position as a world leader in robotics is more practical – stemming from its aging population and the threat of economic decline. In any case, Japan’s technological ambition is surely one that many other countries will follow. In the future, the robotics industry may well prop up many others, from manufacturing to healthcare, and the work being undertaken by engineers and developers in Japan and abroad is likely to deliver global benefits.

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