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Readings: Gilson and Japanese "Robophilia"

Hi and welcome to the triumphant return of Otaku Academy – now with more French! Allons-y!

Today we're discussing a short piece by Mark Gilson called “A History of Japanese Robophilia,” from a 1998 issue of the journal Leonardo. According to the abstract, “the author discusses the particular penchant towards robots exhibited by the Japanese and attempts to explain the origins of this phenomenon through an analysis of Japanese pop culture characters.”

To me, the afore-mentioned topic could be an entire dissertation, not a two-page article. I would love to see more detailed analysis regarding Japanese cultural response over time to illustrated and animated robots. Some kind of oral history of Japanese anime fandom would be great – people who grew up with AstroBoy and Doraemon who could recount their stories of watching it with family, buying the toys, how the stories influenced their lives if at all. If, as Gilson says, the Japanese people are uniquely positioned to accept robots because of their pop culture interaction with fictional, “fantasy robots,” I'd like a bit more evidence. (Then again, perhaps Frederick Schodt's book is just what I'm looking for. Someone just lent it to me, and I haven't had a chance to look at it in depth.)

Gilson's thesis works thusly:

Robots were accepted in general as the tools to help rebuild postwar Japan. Fantasy robots have served to represent technology in nearly every form of in which it could present itself to Japan. Robots can be humanoid, like Atom, or a watchful superpet like Doraemon. Combattara and Mazinger Z represent components, expandability, and the user-machine interface. Gundam represents robots as weapons, and shows such as the popular “Evangelion” from 1996 have pushed the concept even further, as the robots from that particular series are hinted at having divine origins and are revealed to be biologically as well as mechanically derived.

Where will the future concepts in robotics come from? Keep watching the cartoons.

Gilson doesn't so much prove an argument as list a series of animated and illustrated robots from Japanese popular culture to show that there are plenty of different types of robots on offer, from cute and cuddly to menacing. In addition, he says, the wide variety of robots have multiple relationships to humans. Some of them are piloted or remotely controlled by humans, while others are autonomous, sentient beings. So the Japanese people, says Gilson, have broadened their robot palate, in a way that prepares them for future robotic interactions.

Toshiya Ueno says that the android or the “Japanoid automaton” has itself become a symbol of Japan, so perhaps Gilson's idea isn't that surprising. The concept of “Japanese robophilia” continues even ten years later. Look at Warren Ellis' recent rant on robots:

Robots do not want to have sex with you. Are you listening, Japan? I don’t have a clever comparative simile for this, because frankly you bags of meat will fuck bicycles if they’re laying down and not putting up a fight. Just stop it. There is no robot on Earth that wants to see a bag of meat with a small prong on the end approaching it with a can of WD-40 and a hopeful smile. And don’t get me started on that terrifying hole that squeezes out more bags of meat. (Source: BoingBoing)

This is actually from Ellis' take on Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, but look at the automatic association between sex, robots, and Japan. (As though we English-speakers wouldn't also enjoy the prospect of sex with robots. Let's not forget that the author of Love & Sex With Robots is white.) Granted, Ellis is writing from the robots' perspective – maybe his robots know something we don't about the Japanese national character.

Speaking of David Levy, who I've mentioned here earlier, I found an interview with him that asks some of the nasty questions that Stephen Colbert and other pundits on the circuit hadn't learnt to phrase delicately. You might find it interesting, too.

But I digress. Not being Japanese, and not having lived in Japan, I cannot say whether Gilson's theory holds water for Japanese culture – although I'm sure that many English speakers, when confronted with the same evidence, would agree that it does. Gilson himself has an undergraduate degree in Japanese language and literature, but the only critical sources he cites here are from Schodt. He is proposing an idea about the texts, rather than a full argument.

That said, what do you think about his idea? Do Japanese roboticists build humanoid robots better or more frequently because pop culture offered them a wide variety of models to choose from?


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 6th, 2008 01:53 am (UTC)
Playing Catchup!
Still trying to catch up with the reading, I tackled this text because it was relatively short.

One aspect of modern Japanese culture that is not touched upon at all, is what I'll call "the striving for the median" that young people experience. High school is a very regimented space, much more than the average school here with dress code, etc... fitting in with the group is encouraged and eclecticism and straying discouraged (the word otaku derives from "house" because Otakus spend a lot of time alone at home, something that really jars with social norms which are group oriented and focused outside the household - a Japanese will only very rarely - if ever - invite you home for supper).

This focus on the group and not straying for the norm has caused some concerns amongst Japanese regarding creativity. I can't remember who it was who pointed out the number of Nobel Prize winners coming from Japan is very small when compared to countries with a much smaller population. He saw it as a sign that creative and original thought is not promoted but that regurgitation of accepted facts and theories is.

Striving for excellence in repeating facts rather than having new ideas leads to a culture that will take existing ideas and push them to their limits. And Japanese technology has done just that many times over. From the car to electronics, the Japanese have taken existing technology and pushed it to various limits.

If something is a good idea, you can count on the Japanese to use it all the time (witness the wave breakers strewn along most seashores to protect seaside roads and other constructions from tsunamis - they found out what worked and used it everywhere.

Maybe the Japanese propensity for building robots stems partly form that too. Pushing the idea of industrial robots to their limit.

re: the Levy interview, I haven't read his book but when he says that robots may relieve humans of their loneliness, he couldn't be more wrong. If the robot can't pass a Turing/Voight-Kampf test then it won't be a good companion and so won't relieve someone's loneliness (though if it's a sexbot, I suppose it would relieve other needs). If the robot can pass these tests, then if the loneliness is caused by social ineptitude on the part of the human, what would change? A shy person would probably be just as shy talking to a robot indistinguishable from a human than to a human. I think the same would be true of any other social hangups, perhaps more so when faced with beings who don't seem to have any. And frankly, if a robot can pass those tests, I don't see why it would stay with its "owner" if the owner doesn't also treat it decently (so forget that teenagers in the treehouse scenario) leading to the same relationship problems humans have to begin with. I would expect sentient and intelligent robots to eventually ask for the same rights humans have - this has been explored in fiction before.

In short: if you can do what you want with the bot, then it won't satisfy your craving for company, just for sex. Problem not solved. If the bot can satisfy your craving for company, then you'll probably have to go through the same social dance as with another human to stay with it. Problem still not solved.

Chobitsu offers an interesting exploration of these ideas BTW.
Feb. 8th, 2008 06:12 am (UTC)
Re: Playing Catchup!
I've been reading Chobits lately, and I like how it tackles the issue -- Motusawa is so very resistant to see Chii as a person, but he refuses to treat her like an object. Actually he has what I would hope the eventual response is to humanoid robots: an ethical response.

Maybe the Japanese propensity for building robots stems partly form that too. Pushing the idea of industrial robots to their limit.

That I can definitely see. Friends who were at WorldCon told me the story of the decor at the White Crane Castle, and how even the manhole covers had to be just perfect. And I think that until the robot achieves perfection, we won't see the end of them. (And then once they're the best they can be, we'll just see them a lot more often.)

Re: the "striving for the median" idea, I suggest checking out "Shutting Out the Sun" by Michael Zielenziger. He sort of makes the same point that you were by telling stories of suppressed innovation at Sony.
May. 12th, 2008 11:04 am (UTC)
From Feburary 02 notes:

What is interesting is that I have been re-reading Asimoz's Foundation series about robots and cyborgs and Gaia and thinking about how they are positioned as saviours to the weaknesses of human beings and their short lives. And througout Asimov's works over the years, has been situations of cyborg/human relationships

In virtual reality studies, Howard Rheingold captured a ton of global fascination with a made-up essay about using idealized VR for sexual purposes.

Sex and technology seems be to be linked in our somewhat collective consciousness. Is a feminist made vibrator one of Haraways's cyborgs?

I'm interested in to what degree this fascination with robotics is unique to Japan - outside of Japan, we've lived in a world were pop culture in NA has been filled with narratives of AI, cyborgs and robots for a long time - comics, TV series, radio dramas, films, now advertising.

I'm curious, now that I know that Japan took NA pop culture and make itJapanese, much as NA has taken over managa/anime and reshaped it for their own audiences, to know to what level does global interests in robotic culture from different nation states relate, interact, and impact upon one another.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )


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