A recent photo essay in The New York Times caught my attention: “Japan’s Robots Face Hard Times.” As manufacturers cut back on production in the ongoing recession, fewer robots are needed on the production line. Some of the models depicted are on the non-humanoid variety, while others have recognizable human features, such as Yaskawa Electric’s industrial robots with two arms and two eye cameras.

There is a chef robot with a human hand making sushi; a robot resembling a snowman, with articulated hands, interacts with a child. Aibo, the friendly dog, with a price tag of $2000 never made it into the mass market. Some small bots recognize speech. Another humanoid model plays the violin. Does it play a sad song today?

There are robots to remind the elderly to take their medications and issue a stern warning if the person tries to take the same medication twice. Japan is a country with an aging population and low birth rate, and the government is grooming robot nurses to help care for the elderly. The creepiest robot I came across in my online searches was Geminoid, the robot twin designed by Hiroshi Ishiguro, a researcher and professor at Osaka University. Geminoid was made from a silicone cast of its creator, and is powered by pressurized air. Its micro-movements run on semi-autonomous motion programs.

Ishiguro can “telecommute from home by transmitting his voice via lip sensors to the robot from his home. Geminoid eerily conveys a sense of sonzai-kan or presence.

Japan views its robot creations as friendly helpers, so I read. Even the giant robot from the Gundam TV series that towers over central Tokyo is a friendly presence. It was Japanese shows that launched the Transformer toys, which were the inspiration for the Transformer movies.

Why this obsession with robots in Japan?

According to Patrick Galbraith, ethnographer at the University of Tokyo, “I think that hopefulness is what the Japanese see in robots.” Perhaps.

When I think of the Japanese, I think of an inward people. It wasn’t until 1853 and the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry with a fleet of U.S. warships in Japanese waters, that island Japan opened its borders to foreign trade in any quantity under the threat of naval bombardment. Remarkable, when you think about it. “Trade with us, or else!”

In the 1930s Japan pushed out violently and cruelly into Manchuria and China and Pacific nations. There it collided with Western powers, notably the United States, in World War II. Japan had become a modern industrialized nation that, nonetheless, held onto traditional ways. Japanese officers, for example, wore samurai swords and executed prisoners with them. Japan produced some excellent ships and planes, but generally lagged behind the West in technology, relying on fanaticism to defeat its enemies. Fanaticism did not achieve victory, as we know, but it did inflict grievous losses on U.S. forces, which influenced President Truman to use the atomic bomb to quickly end the war. There, in a most horrible and violent lesson, Japan was confronted by a profoundly superior technology.

In the 1950s, Japan again pushed out into the world, this time with trade. I can remember when Made In Japan, stamped on simple toys, was a joke. But the joke was on us as Japan Inc. penetrated U.S. markets and beat us at our own game. The trade was mainly one way. “We trade with you—you don’t trade with us.” In that, Japan remained an island, inward nation. It took up baseball and, in time, exported its players to us. It participates in a global economy, but not at the cost of its essential character.

Japan, I would say, has been producing an elaborate play of itself for centuries. Everything from the making of a samurai blade to pouring tea is a ritual, a ceremony. When firearms threatened to destroy too many of the samurai class, (see Kurosawa’s epic film “Ran,” based on “King Lear”) Japan was able, for a time, to ban firearms. It was more important to carry on the drama of war.

Japan’s signature art forms: kabuki and noh plays, bunraku puppet theater, are rituals in which the individual is hidden behind the mask. At a karaoke club you can slip out of your mundane role in society and sing like a star. The mask represents a type or stereotype or archetype, one might say. The dramas represent real social forces, which nonetheless are ritualized. This is less true of Japanese cinema.

Is it possible, then, that the robot has become a new character in this ongoing drama? I mean the fact that robots are a presence in the mall and home in a way they are not in America. It has been years since I can remember seeing some kind of robot answering quiz questions in a store or shopping center here at home. The descendants of Robbie the Robot might be popular in animated films—Steven Spielberg likes them—and in toyland. But they do not have the same presence, sonzai-kan, in our version of the modern world.

We use humans and animals, along with prostheses, as aids to the disabled and elderly. And I doubt that we will build a generation of robots to aid the elderly. They will be too expensive, for one thing, and Medicare will not pay for them. And I think we view robots with more suspicion than the Japanese do. We have plenty of people looking for jobs these days.

Japanese exceptionalism has taken different forms, from the world’s largest battleships they built in World War II, to the computers and cameras of geek culture. Their cameras are also works of art; Nikon is to my generation what Leica was to an earlier era. It is impossible to say how far the Japanese will go with their humanoid creations, that can already sing and dance, perform in the pageant of their culture. I have read that the art of the geisha has found renewed appeal among contemporary women in Japan. Perhaps the robot will stop at the entrance to the geisha house.

By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.