Jennifer Robertson on Roboticization in Japan

Jennifer Robertson is Professor Emerita of Anthropology and the History of Art at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is also an Affiliate Professor of Anthropology and Japan Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle. Among her seven books are Native and Newcomer: Making and Remaking a Japanese City (1991), Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan (1998; Japanese translation, Gendai Shokan, 2000), and Robo sapiens japanicus: Robots, Gender, Family, and the Japanese Nation (2018). Additional information at
Amari Huang CMC '23 interviewed Dr. Jennifer Robertson on October 19, 2020.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Jennifer Robertson.

Japan has long been a leader in technological development and continues to break records in their progress. For example, this past July, Japan successfully erected Giant Gundam Yokohama, the largest robot to date. What contributes to Japan’s success in this field? How do other developed countries compare to Japan’s technological innovation?

Gundam is a cartoon character, and the robot is a gimmicky version of it in front of a hotel. It is designed to invite tourists into Tokyo, like the Statue of Liberty in New York. That said, the fact that they can build this giant robot has a lot to do with the advanced state of Japanese hardware and software technology and robotics. When people think of robots, they often think of humanoid robots—not a Roomba, toaster, or washing machine. While the humanoid robots themselves are not very practical, they can help spin off industries. Gundam, for example, is now able to walk, so this technological advancement can be used in different industries like the automotive industry. Another example of this is the technology needed to create ASIMO, the bipedal humanoid robot, which has been translated to make mobility devices like an exoskeleton or a lumbar support device for nurses. In terms of Japan’s success in the technology industry, Japan is still the largest producer of industrial robots, which do not capture the attention of the public in the same way as humanoid robots and look exactly like pieces of machinery designed to do exactly what they do. Also, Japan produces 52 percent of all industrial robots in the world, but they have fallen behind China in terms of employing robots in factories. The United States is third in employing robots, and South Korea and Germany are fourth and fifth respectively. Japan has been successful in developing technology because former Prime Minister Abe was the number one advocate and promoter of the roboticization of Japan so that robotics and its spinoff industries could lift the Japanese economy out of its recession.

How has COVID-19 increased the significance of the role of robots in everyday life? Do you think these changes will be long-lasting and spread to other countries?

The Japanese have really been at the forefront of creating robots that can be used to disinfect public spaces. For example, while ultraviolet light can be dangerous for humans to use, robots can be equipped with ultraviolent disinfecting sensors to sterilize hospital equipment or airplanes. Additionally, robots have been used to help deliver food and substances to people who are in quarantine, and processing intake information machines have been used to provide a sort of telemedicine to people. So by necessity COVID-19 has helped to generate spin off industries for different kinds of robots to deal with this pandemic. 

In terms of the changes’ longevity, this pandemic is not going anywhere anytime soon, so people will need to have new technologies that will help them cope with the effects of COVID-19 even after it is over. Also, as humans continue to degrade environments, we are going to see more and more pandemics like COVID because the minute people start drilling in the Arctic is the minute they are going to be releasing all of these viruses into populated environments that are not going to be able to handle exposure to them. From this experience, we know that technology can help us adapt to this new environment. In terms of changes that are spreading from Japan to elsewhere, Japan is not the hub of robotics, but robotics is a global industry and there are many different centers of robotics and roboticists are internationally minded. The majority of the students working in technology laboratories are from foreign countries like China, Turkey, Iran, the. US, Germany, Denmark. They all collaborate. However, there is more secretive development programs in the weapons economy, which is very lucrative. Technological innovations and robotics-based innovations geared towards surveillance, espionage, and war tend to be nation- specific. Japan has recently joined the weapons economy under former Prime Minister Abe although the Japanese Constitution forbids Japan from waging offensive war. 

In your book, you write “... in Japan robots are designed for (future) use in civilian settings, such as hospitals, offices, factories, and family home.” Do certain aspects of this robot future take priority? If so, what or who decides what takes priority? 

Robots designed for civilian settings are a way to put a friendly face on robotics. In fact, very few people in Japan think of robots as weapons—they think of them as cute. For example, SoftBank has an emotional support robot Pepper, which talks to people and gives support, but it tends to malfunction a lot. However, the most common robots are not humanoid robots at all which are  not very stable. The most popular household robots in Japan or in the world include the most popular robot around the world, the vacuum cleaner Roomba, robotic toilets, robotic bathtubs and others. So robots have been incredibly useful, not as humanoids but as bathtubs, cleaners, toilets in eldercare facilities, especially in Japan with an aging population. Moreover, there are also animal-shaped robots, like Paro the seal robot, which is the number one therapeutic robot in the world. Paro, which has antiseptic “fur,” has countless sensors and can remember people’s names, and react to being petted or even punched. Additionally, robotic rice cookers are hugely successful in Japan. These robots are all really important in Japanese civilian life, for the home, and in hospitals. The market for those kinds of robots is large but not as lucrative as the kind of money that a weapons system robot or an industrial robot would bring in. However, it helps the Japanese, and increasingly Americans and others, to become more familiar with robots and to think of robots as collaborators, coworkers, and family-like companions. 

It’s apparent that Prime Minister Abe had planned to develop a military market for robots to revitalize Japan’s economy. To what extent does this threaten global security? How might this sentiment change with Prime Minister Abe’s resignation?

Currently, current Prime Minister Suga, who was former Prime Minister Abe’s longtime secretary, is like former Prime Minister Abe’s clone, so they have very similar policies. In terms of global security, AI in Japan is not a threat to global security because they are still not a dominating military power. The US currently still is in the longest war ever in Afghanistan. As a result, there is an endless need for weapons, which creates this vicious cycle, that is, endless wars and the need for weapons—whether or not Japan becomes part of that vicious cycle is still debatable. So far, they are collaborating in other people’s weapons programs by selling technologies that can be assembled and incorporated as weapons systems. However, because they are no longer a military empire (or even an economic empire to the extent that China is), they are not, in my view, posing any kind of overt threat to global security. 

Many people argue that governments should establish a system for a universal basic income because robot-human cohabitation means that robots will replace almost every job that people have. Do you think that robots will inevitably replace all human labor? How soon in the future do you think this will happen?

The Japanese are not afraid robots will take jobs away from them because robots have augmented industries where there were not enough workers. For example, 50 percent of work in the automotive industry is done by robots but the other 50 percent of work needs to be done by people. The Japanese also know that humans need to design robots and to continually tweak them, create new technologies, and to repair them. This may indicate a need for people to raise their skill base. So in general I think Americans need to move away from these kinds of Terminator scenarios—imagining robots as killers or stealing people’s jobs—because the jobs that robots are taking away are probably jobs people do not want anyway. These jobs are dangerous, and Japan has an aging workforce. There is no way to subject people to those kinds of employment when there is an aging population and a country that is immigrant unfriendly. It remains the case that the Japanese have pursued a strategy of automation over replacement migration. During and before World War II, conscripted labor prisoners of war from China and Korea worked in Japan, but after the war, they decided that they did not want to bring in guest workers, which is what jump-started their automotive factories—basically robotics. These economic patterns are something to look at when it comes to which jobs robots are taking away, which jobs robots are filling because there are no humans who should take those jobs, and which jobs are still being done by humans. 

Outside of Japan, in countries that might not have an obviously aging population, it is still an unlikely case that robots are taking everyone’s jobs. Although there are countless dystopian movies like Ex Machina or The Terminator, in the real-world, robots are not particularly awesome or overwhelming at all. They are instead rather clunky and far from impressive. 

In your book, you write about Buddhist temples holding recycling and funeral services for robots. What does this imply about the way that people value robot “life”? Do you think this has any impact on consumer sustainability?

The recycling and funeral services tended to be one-off kinds of things because they are expensive and difficult to organize. In Japan, it is common for people to have funerals for their calligraphy brushes, dolls, and other important items because it is believed that everything, even non-sentient beings have kami (a vital force) When people take their items to a temple for a funeral and it is burned, the burning releases the items’ spirit and energy. This is common in China too and even more so in Japan. With advancing technology, people bring their computers to temples for funerals too, mostly because burning computers entirely would release toxic chemicals into the air and many of their parts can be recycled. 

Transcribed by Amari Huang with minimal editing by Professor Robertson

Amari Huang CMC '23Student Journalist

nesnad, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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