- Life & Culture
The Ultimate Guide to Robots & AI in Japanese Culture
In the modern world, Japan has been the pioneering population when it comes to robotics and artificial intelligence (AI).
In 2000, $5.7 billion worth of robots were produced in Japan. In 2021 alone, they manufactured and shipped a colossal amount of robotics, that comprised nearly 50% of the global market share.
But how did they become the world leaders in the field of robotics, and how has that influenced Japanese culture?
In this article, we’ll walk you through the history of the robotics revolution, the most popular robots on the Japanese market, and how they’re put to use in day-to-day across the country.
What is a Robot?
Firstly, it’s important to define what a robot is. It can be quite difficult to define as the world of robotics and technology, in general, is constantly evolving.
A robot is a machine that can carry out instructions and perform complex actions. Robots are programmable by a computer and can be guided by an external device, or this can be kept within the robot itself, making it largely autonomous.
With the rapid advancement of complex developments in AI over the last 20 years, the vision is that robots will rely more and more on AI to function and excel capabilities, rather than programming.
AI will be the technology that gives robotics and automation the most significant push. The technology will allow a robot to make logical and reactive decisions in real time, and learn from their experiences, making them more viable to integrate into pockets of society.
However, depending on the type of robot, traditional programmed automation still has its benefits.
What are Robots Used for in Japan?
Through committed investment in robotic technologies, Japan is making workplaces safer, reducing the risk of error, and enabling other longer-standing technologies to advance at a faster rate. They are pioneering a revolution in robotics, with the drive to improve efficiency and productivity for both their economy and society.
Currently, in Japan, the main uses for robots are:
- Science and Medicine
How Common are Robots in Japan?
At the moment, operational robots are the most common in Japan, found within the industrial sector. They’re present in factories all over the country, particularly in the automotive and electronics fields. The country ‘employs’ around a quarter of a million industrial robot workers to execute tasks like welding, painting, assembling parts, and lifting heavy objects.
Outside the factories, the varied uses of robots attract thousands of tourists and locals to the museums, hotels, and cafés of Tokyo every year.
Types of Robots in Japan
Although robots are predominantly used in the fields of science and manufacturing, that hasn’t stopped a number of alternative ventures from going ahead.
In the science and technology museums of Japan’s cities, you’ll find a wealth of innovations catered to a range of applications, in a myriad of forms.
- Japanese Humanoid Robots
Humanoid robots are called such because they resemble the human body in shape. For example, see ASIMO, the humanoid robot built by HONDA in 2000.
- Animal Robots
Japanese animal robots are usually designed and built to offer comfort to humans, like PARO the therapeutic, automated seal.
- Domestic Robots
The domestic kind is designed to provide service in households, but can sometimes also be used for education, entertainment, and therapy.
- Social Robots
The employment of social robots, in cafés and behind the front desk of hotels, is starting to pick up speed in Japan, with robot-staffed pop-up cafés becoming popular permanent features in the cities. If you want to know where you can meet Japan’s social robots, we’ve listed some hotspots further down in this article.
- Guard Robots
Built to act as security staff for properties and companies, guard robots are used to keep areas safe, with built-in eye cameras to help the robot navigate the area whilst capturing the action.
- Industrial Humanoid Robots
As you’ll see further down in this article, industrial robots were a huge turning point in the history of the Japanese economy and helped the country excel past the competition during the motorisation movement of the 1950s.
- Astronaut Robots
Japan’s first astronaut humanoid robot was developed by the University of Japan. It was named Kirobo, and accompanied the first Japanese commander of the International Space Station.
When did Robots Become Popular in Japan?
Although the technologies of robotics and AI are still in their infancy, Japan’s history of robotics is a relatively long one and can be traced back to the karakuri ningyo, (mechanical dolls) of the 17th to 19th centuries.
A Brief History of Japanese Robotics
The karakiuri ningyo are mechanised automata, or simply ‘self-operating machines’. The technology was first used in Ancient Egypt, but later became popular in Japan as the dolls it powered were used to entertain the Emperors and Empresses of Japanese dynasties. Some dolls were capable of serving tea, firing arrows, and even painting Japanese characters.
Later, in the early 1950s, Japan would further this technology, and apply it to the needs of the industrial sector, to help accelerate its period of rapid economic growth. At the time, there were labour shortages in the manufacturing sector, and the need to catch up with the motorisation movement had become urgent.
In 1969, Japan’s first domestically manufactured industrial robot, “Kawasaki-Unimate 2000”, was completed, and, by the early 1970s, car manufacturers across the country were implementing the Kawasaki-Unimate in their factories. The benefits were undeniable; car manufacturers were, at the time, struggling to secure people willing to do the tough labour, and one Kawasaki-Unimate could work day and night, alleviating the need for 20 human employees.
Around the same time in 1973, professor Ichiro Kato completed the WABOT-1, the world’s very first, full-scale humanoid robot. The robot had a torso, hands that could reach out and clutch objects, legs that could walk, albeit in a very rudimentary fashion, and camera eyes that could see. The innovation of the WABOT-1 made Japan the world leader in the field of robotics, and it has been ever since.
By 1995, 500,000 industrial robots operated in Japan. And, a year later in 1996, HONDA unveiled the world-famous P2 humanoid robot, which enlightened a number of institutes to the vast possibilities and potential purposes of humanoid robotics.
By 2012, it’s estimated that approximately 1,500,000 industrial robots were in use.
Japanese Robotics Companies
As one of the most advanced economies, Japan is host to some of the world’s most prominent technology companies. And, unsurprisingly, the top 5 companies for general robotics are household names internationally, too.
Thousands, if not millions, of households all over the world will have a technology of some form from one of the companies listed above, whether it be on their driveway, in their kitchen, or in their pocket.
What role do Robots play in Japanese Culture?
Since the days of the Dynasties, robotics has come a long way, and plays more of a part in Japanese culture than, arguably, anywhere else in the world.
From the late 19th and early 20th century, the morals and ethics surrounding robots were already being discussed amongst Japanese academics and intellectuals. So much so that biologist Makoto Nishimura designed and manufactured the Gakutensoku robot, a creation born from his concerns about the possibility of robots being seen as slaves to humans.
A good example of Japanese attitudes towards the idea of robots can be seen in the mass popularity and franchise success of Astro Boy, or Mighty Atom. It’s especially loved by members of the Otaku culture of Japan, the country’s most popular subculture devoted to all things manga, anime, video games and technology. The manga series is about a young android boy living in a world where robots and humans co-exist. Astro is depicted fighting crime, evil, and injustice for the greater good. It reflects a widely accepted idea that robots will add to the rich culture and longevity of Japan, not threaten it.
Japan’s positive attitude towards the production and use of humanoid robots can be tied to the core principles of Shinto and Buddhism, the country’s predominant religions.Osamu Tezuka, the creator of Astro Boy, said of the connection,
“Japanese don’t make a distinction between man, the superior creature, and the world about him. Everything is fused together, and we accept robots easily along with the wide world about us… We have none of the doubting attitude toward robots, as pseudohumans, that you find in the West. So here you find no resistance, simply quiet acceptance.”
Although the integration of robots into everyday life hasn’t been smooth or, necessarily, successful yet, there is a remarkable level of innovative work being carried out by engineers and visionaries, keeping the dream alive in the public imagination.
Where can I see Robots in Japan?
Although Tokyo is the main hub for more consumer-based robotics, you can encounter a number of displays and demonstrations up and down the country.
Here are a few notable hotspots to indulge your curiosity:
Henn Na Hotel – Various Locations
Believe it or not, the easiest place to come face-to-face with a humanoid robot could be in your hotel.
The Henn Na Hotel chain is famous for its ‘employment’ of robot staff at the front desk and on the hotel floor, to help visitors with luggage. The robot receptionists may resemble a human, or, quite possibly, a dinosaur, and are ready and waiting to answer any question, and help visitors check into their rooms with ease.
Founder of the Henn Na Hotel chain, Hideo Sawada, has spoken publicly of his vision to bring humanity closer to the day when robot-manned hotels are not just a gimmick, but a true means to offer our societies more efficient customer service in the hospitality industry.
DAWN Avatar Robot Café – Nihonbashi, Tokyo
The DAWN Avatar Robot Café has garnered a lot of worldwide attention in recent years for its revolutionary innovations in the hospitality industry. But its prestige isn’t simply down to the fact that it’s full of robot waiters taking orders, making coffees, and talking to customers about coffee bean varieties.
The acronym, DAWN, stands for Diverse Avatar Working Network, a new community-focused venture from Ory Lab, and was founded by Kentaro Yoshifuji. The project serves to bridge the gap between disabled citizens and accessible work, with each robot waiter controlled remotely by disabled workers.
The Dawn Avatar Robot Café has been a permanent fixture in Tokyo since 2021 and is an ideal demonstration of the opportunities that could arise in a future where humans and robots exist in an integrated society.
National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation – Odaiba District, Tokyo
Also known, simply, as Miraikan, Japan’s National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation is essential for those who want to learn more about the technologies of today and tomorrow, through multi-sensory means. Miraikan takes visitors on an immersive journey through humanity’s relationship to the universe and the possibilities of our future in technology.
Here, visitors can interact with Paro, an animal robot resembling a seal, created to be a responsive comfort and therapy robot. Or Otonaroid, a human-like robot, and Alter, a robot that can perform complex human-like movements.
Throughout the day, there are also demonstrations of ASIMO, by HONDA, the humanoid robot who can run, kick, and more.
What Does the Future Hold for Robotics & AI?
While no one can claim to accurately predict the future, there are some indicators of what the future may hold for robotics and AI.
Both fields are evolving incredibly quickly, not just in Japan, but all over the world, meaning the possibilities are somewhat endless. Over the past two decades alone, we’ve seen a rapid advancement in their development and range of applications.
From home assistant AI in our households, like Google Assistant and Siri, to robots aiding surgeons in theatre, and the first self-driving cars on our roads, our relationship with both technologies is already well underway and shows no signs of slowing down.
However, as Osamu Tezuka highlighted, not everyone’s attitude towards the integration of robots and AI is as relaxed and as welcoming as that of the Japanese population.
In the West, there has been, for many years, much concern and debate around the possibility of such technologies taking over our jobs. While these views may be a misconception of the true vision for technology, they’re not without merit. In the last 40 years, we have seen a number of jobs such as supermarket cashiers, switchboard operators, and some factory-based roles fall away to faster, more efficient technological solutions.
And, yet, technology has also been used in various ways to save industries and businesses from collapse, allow us the ability to get more done at a much faster rate, and assist us in our homes, schools, and communities.
So, while no one can claim to see the future of robots and AI exactly, it’s clear that they will play a pivotal role in our societies, and advance the human race to unprecedented new heights.
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