Up and Atom – robots in Japan

While I’m pondering science fiction and technology, and their interaction, one thing which is hard to cover without vast research (and languages I don’t read) is the question of how the influences in either direction might differ between times and places – especially places.

But there is one obvious example where it does seem possible to find reasonably persuasive conclusions. Commentators often say that Japanese attitudes to technology in general are somehow different from those in the West, though usually at the not very interesting level of implying enthusiasm for gadgetry (those elaborate toilets usually get a mention, too). The strongest case, though, seems to apply to one kind of technology, and its fictional representations, in particular: robots.

A tradition of charming automata – related to earlier puppetry, combined with Buddhist and Shinto influences that blur the boundaries between animate and inanimate things, has apparently engendered a largely benign view of robots in Japan. This is reflected in fiction, especially in the two most important creations: Mighty Atom and Mobile Suit Gundam. The first, AKA Astro Boy,  is a super-powered, world-saving, peace-making robot of astounding cutesiness, conceived by Osamu Tezuka in 1951. He looks like this.

The first appearance of Astro Boy

The second, later, label refers to a whole raft of giant weaponised robots, “piloted” by teenagers – who also generally seem to end up saving the world. These anime superstars look more familiar, and less friendly…

Both have inspired big media franchises  – embracing comics, film and TV, toys and kits, and much other merchandise. And both feed into a general enthusiasm for robots and robotics, and research into making new ones.

As one academic engineer put it, “The difference between Mighty Atom and Terminator shows the differences between how Japanese and Westerners view robots. Westerners tend to have this sense of alarm or wariness, Japanese are unique in the world in their unique affinity and love for robots.”

This is an oversimplification, inevitably. Early audiences cheered Arnie’s Terminator, not Sarah Connor. And the print corpus of Western SF, and even film to some extent, includes an enormous range of possible robots, and possible responses to them. Still, there is lots of testimony that many Japanese engineers were enthused by Astro Boy when young, and set out to build something like him when they grew up.

The result is a wonderfully blended culture of research projects, design exercises, hobby clubs, toys, stories, and commercially available bots. Other influences are easily incorporated. ASIMO (which stands for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility, of course), has done a thousand corporate stunts, but there is still something touching about the small figure bringing a bouquet to the bust of Karel Capek in Prague.

But there definitely seem to be specifically Japanese influences at work here. The best source I’ve found so far on this is Timothy Hornyak’s Loving the Machine (where the Prague photo appears). There is some useful incidental stuff in Peter Carey’s Wrong About Japan, too. Any other useful reading would be good to hear about…

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