Robots: The Backstories

by Jennifer Robertson, author of Robo sapiens japanicus: Robots, Gender, Family, and the Japanese Nation

This guest post is published in conjunction with the American Anthropological Association conference in Washington D.C.. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on December 3rd.

Today robots have become, in the words of a Boston Globe headline from 2014, “the 21st century’s must-study subject.” Unless one is living in isolation or off the grid, one cannot avoid noticing that robots are in the news and entertainment media everyday. The scholarly literature on robots has also expanded exponentially, and the field of robotics is front and center in superheated debates about autonomous cars.

All the media attention paid these days to robots makes it a daunting challenge to write about them, as I realized while organizing my field notes and crafting my book. A major task I faced was to finesse the disconnect between actual robots and the robots that populate science fiction comics, novels, and movies. Although technologically complex, the former are clumsy, slow, and underwhelming compared to the latter. Video PR footage of actual robots moving is typically speeded up significantly, sometimes ten to thirty times their original speed, and is heavily edited to create the illusion of smooth, coordinated movement.

I also had to deal with the fact that the field of robotics and related technologies is evolving so quickly and in so many directions that research focused solely on highlighting the newest gee-whiz models quickly becomes out of date. How to keep my book relevant even after the robots featured in it were obsolete was a major concern. In addition, while seeking to analyze cross-cultural differences in attitudes toward robot-human interactions, I was careful to avoid fueling the stereotype of “the Japanese” as gadget obsessed and culturally prone to desiring robot companions over human ones.

My solution to these quandaries was to explore and interrogate the type of national cultural, social institutional, and gendered family structures within which humans and robots are imagined to coexist. I also researched and crafted substantive historical backstories to help contextualize the “imagineering” of human-robot relationships since the mid 1920s when, newly coined, “robot” (robotto) became a household word. Today, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, whose two separate terms in office bookend my work, is a leading promoter of robotizing the Japanese labor force. His 2007 blueprint for Japan, Innovation 25, anticipated the “robot revolution” formally announced in 2015. Abe is keen on making Japan a society in which robots of all configurations are utilized more than anywhere in the world, from agriculture to eldercare. He is also planning to use the 2020 Olympics to showcase robots in a separate “robot Olympics.” Although the robots displayed will be those made for the civilian market, Abe, like his Euro-American counterparts, is keen on parlaying robots in the lucrative weapons economy.

In Japan, the family or household is the place where robots will be domesticated and even given citizenship. Only in the past few years has this scenario become common in the United States and western European countries as evident in advertisements for gendered domestic robots called “Mother” and “Buddy.” Although it was broadcast in late October that Sophia, an android commissioned by the Saudi government, was the first robot to be granted citizenship, the fact is that the first robot to be granted citizenship was Paro, a Japanese robot seal recognized as the “World’s Most Therapeutic Robot.” Paro was added to his inventor’s family registry or koseki in 2010, which is irrefutable proof of Japanese citizenship.

The family or household is also the framework for a list of robot laws drawn up by writer and cartoonist Osamu Tezuka, the Japanese counterpart and contemporary of Isaac Asimov, whose robot laws are of a more abstract, universal nature. I argue that as Americans and Europeans become more comfortable with the prospect of sociable household robots, they will regard the family as the metaphor and model of human-robot relationships, just as they already do for animal pets.

And, just like in families when a relative passes away, a robot member will be similarly grieved and eulogized. Robot and computer funeral services have been provided by Buddhist temples for several years now. The glum looking humanoid robots on the cover of my book are in a holding cage at Osaka University waiting to be taken to a recycling center. It has never been confirmed if they were memorialized at a temple before being dismantled.

Jennifer Robertson is Professor of Anthropology and the History of Art at the University of Michigan. She is author of Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan and Native and Newcomer: Making and Remaking a Japanese City.

#tsumamototoyochien and Prewar Ideals

by Sabine Frühstück, author of Playing War: Children and the Paradoxes of Modern Militarism in Japan

In September 2016, the Twitter hashtag #tsukamotoyochien attracted a series of comments on Tokyo’s Tsukamoto kindergarten’s practices of educating three-to-five-year-olds according to prewar ideals. Apparently, the pupils at the kindergarten are taught to recite the 1890 Imperial Rescript on Education and to bow to the wartime emperor’s photograph in the hallways; they are also routinely taken to military bases—all with the explicit aim to prepare them to “protect their nation against potential threats from other countries.” One tweet pronounced Japan’s democracy to be dying. Another expressed the concern that these children were being groomed for direct recruitment into the Japanese military. Many other comments highlighted a new urgency surrounding issues of children’s education and their relationship to the nation state, all the while commenting on how “sweet,” “innocent,” and “pitiful” these kindergarteners were.

In July 2017, China’s internet giant Tencent vowed to limit daily playing times on its smartphone hit King of Glory for young players to one or two hours to “ensure children’s healthy development.” Army chiefs declared the same game a threat to national defense. With 80 million.daily users, the game had infiltrated the daily life of soldiers and officers with disastrous effects on their physical and psychological health. More and more service members apparently preferred playing war on their mobile phones games to training for war in the field.

In the meantime, American police killed 86 people, many of them children and teenagers, brandishing guns that looked real but were not.

In our modern world, childhood, war, and play continue to intersect in unexpected ways. Often children are used to validate and legitimize war or, alternatively, sentimentalize peace. Playing War examines the intersections of children and childhood and war and the military, to both identify the insidious factors perpetuating this alliance and rethink the very foundations and underlying structures of modern militarism in Japan and beyond. Japan is not a typical modern nation state; few other nation states have shared Japan’s trajectory, traveling as it did from war after war from the late nineteenth century into the twentieth to the peace and state pacifism known since shortly after 1945. Yet, viewing this intersection of childhood and war through a Japanese lens highlights the malleability of militarism as an enduring modern concept that, paradoxically, relies on a specifically modern and stable notion of children and childhood. Playing War shows how in Japan the interfaces and linkages between childhood and war, children and soldiers were first made during the late nineteenth century and have continued ever since—albeit in dramatically shifting ways.

Sabine Frühstück is Director of the East Asia Center and professor of Modern Japanese Cultural Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the author of Playing War: Childhood and the Paradoxes of Modern Militarism in Japan.

Avant-Garde Art in Japan and Brazil

Rio de Janeiro’s Paço Imperial is currently hosting an unusual retrospective of Japanese postwar art, ‘The Emergence of The Contemporary: Avant-Garde Art In Japan 1950-1970‘. Curator Pedro Erber is the author of Breaching the Frame: The Rise of Contemporary Art in Brazil and Japan, which similarly examines the uncanny contemporaneous trajectories of the Japanese and Brazilian postwar avant-garde art movements.

The exhibition’s introductory text is below, and Artinfo’s coverage of the exhibition includes an image slideshow as well as an interview with Erber:

BLOUIN ARTINFO spoke with curator Pedro Erber on the eve of the opening to find out more about the existing and underappreciated affinities between the Japanese and Brazilian postwar avant-garde art movements, the fertile yet turbulent situation in Rio in the run-up to the Olympics next month, and the contemporary significance of re-enacting certain seminal performance pieces from 1960s Tokyo as part of this exhibition.

breaching the frame

In the decades that followed the Second World War, Japan was the stage for some of the most radically innovative avant-garde movements of the twentieth century. Visual artists, critics, writers engaged in a common effort to reinvent the place of art in a society that rebuilt itself after the devastation of war and years of cultural censorship under the fascist regime of the Japanese empire.

In 1963, Miyakawa Atsushi, one of the most acute theoreticians of postwar art in Japan, observed that the reach and nature of the transformations taking place in artistic expression was such that the modern paradigm had become obsolete and in its place emerged a new paradigm, which he termed, in almost premonitory fashion, “contemporary art (gendai bijutsu).” Miyakawa’s observation referred not only to Japanese art, which could not be regarded as an isolated phenomenon. Rather, it resonated a general effort to think contemporaneity as the sharing of a common historical time across national, linguistic, and cultural borders.

The Emergence of the Contemporary presents the panorama of avant-garde art in Japan between 1950 and 1970 focusing on artists whose practice and theoretical reflections marked the transition from painting towards three-dimensional space, performance, and conceptual art. The exhibition brings together some of the most representative works of the period, besides documentary photographs, movies and other historical documents. It contextualizes the trajectory of the avant-garde in its dialogue with events that shaped the history of the postwar era, such as the movements against the renewal of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan (ANPO) in 1960 and 1970, the Expo ’70 in Osaka, and the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in particular.

Frustrating desires of exoticism, postwar avant-garde art from Japan reveals deep affinities with the trajectory of the Brazilian avant-garde, from painting to the object-based art and spectator participation. In addition, in the recurrences and resonances between 1964 and 2016, between Olympics past and present, another meaning of the contemporary emerges, in which the radical creativity and the impetus of social intervention of Japan’s postwar avant-garde art echo here and now, suggesting possibilities and limits for present day art.

Through a division more thematic then chronological, the exhibition highlights three moments of avant-garde art in Japan: Politics of Abstraction presents 1950s abstract and its discursive context; Art and Social Engagement approaches the transformations of politically engaged art from social realism to direct action and urban intervention; Matter, Concept, Act focuses on the inflection of political art into philosophical inquiry, the question of matter and dematerialization of art.

Get your own copy of Erber’s book, Breaching the Frame: The Rise of Contemporary Art in Brazil and Japan, online at IndieBoundAmazonBarnes & Noble, or UC Press (to save 30% on, enter discount code 16M4197 at checkout).

Pedro R. Erber teaches in the Department of Romance Studies at Cornell University. He holds a Ph.D. in Asian Studies from Cornell University, M.A. in philosophy from Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro, and B.A. in philosophy from Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro. Erber is the author of Política e verdade no pensamento de Martin Heidegger and articles on intellectual history, art, literature, and aesthetics.

Podcast Interview with Ian Jarred Miller, Author of The Nature of the Beasts

The Nature of the BeastsIan Jarred Miller, professor of Japanese history at Harvard University, was recently interviewed on New Books in East Asian Studies about his new book, The Nature of the Beasts: Empire and Exhibition at the Tokyo Imperial Zoo. In this eye-opening study of Japan’s first modern zoo, Tokyo’s Ueno Imperial Zoological Gardens, opened in 1882, Miller offers a refreshingly unconventional narrative of Japan’s rapid modernization and changing relationship with the natural world.

Visit New Books in East Asian Studies to listen to the podcast.

Fabian Drixler on the Culture of Infanticide in Eighteenth-Century Japan

Mabiki cover imageFabian Drixler’s Mabiki: Infanticide and Population Growth in Eastern Japan, 1660-1950 tells the story of a society reversing deeply held worldviews. Drixler, a professor of Japanese history at Yale University, describes the book as “a cultural history of infanticide and a demographic history of fertility change wrapped into one.”

This fascinating interview on the historical practice of infanticide with Yale’s The MacMillan Report may change the way you think about family planning and the cultural meaning of responsible parenthood. In a wide-ranging discussion, Drixler talks about what drove him to research a difficult subject like infanticide, his research methodology and challenges in gathering population data, and the importance of demography as a tool for understanding the past.


Back to the Parallel

We’ve received an update on the travels and adventures of the intrepid David and Janet Carle as they do the ground work behind their upcoming THE 38th PARALLEL: A WATER LINE AROUND THE WORLD, which is scheduled to be published in 2012. They’re still in Japan, talking to people about tsunami recovery and the restoration of the Japanese Crested Ibis. Follow each of the links to read the updates on their blog, Parallel Universe 38°N: The Water Line.

Barring the authors writing a final blog entry to summarize things, these will likely be the last blog updates they make until their book publishes.

Last stop on the 38th Parallel

David and Janet Carle

We rejoin our intrepid adventurers, David and Janet Carle as they travel the 38th Parallel seeking water-related environmental and cultural connections. Their book, THE 38th PARALLEL: A WATER LINE AROUND THE WORLD will be published in 2012. They have crossed the U.S., Europe, Turkey, Turkmenistan, China, and Korea, and will be in Japan in September 2011.
Here’s a post on their blog, Parallel Universe 38ºN: The Water Line as they discuss their upcoming trip to Japan.

A New Telling of the Nanjing Massacre

City of Life and Death
Poster for City of Life and Death

Lu Chuan’s 2009 film, City of Life and Death, which opened in New York last week, is a fictionalized telling of the Rape of Nanjing. Though the massacre has been downplayed in some historical accounts, it remains one of the worst atrocities committed during World War II. According to the International Military Tribunal, during the Japanese invasion of the city of Nanjing, 20,000 Chinese men of military age were killed and approximately 20,000 cases of rape occurred; in all, the total number of people killed in and around Nanjing was about 200,000.

“The Japanese refused to acknowledge the massacre officially,” Manohla Dargis writes in her review of the film, “while the Chinese, anxious to maintain relations with Japan, did not press the case, a tragedy twice over for the massacre’s victims.” Though the film can be difficult to watch, she says, “you keep watching because Mr. Lu makes the case that you must.”

Dargis notes that “Mr. Lu provides little background and context for the massacre … doubtless because his Chinese audience needed no such instruction.” For those interested in learning more about the historiographical and moral issues surrounding the tragedy, the UC Press collection The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography may be a useful resource. Through a series of original essays, the book considers the post-World War II treatment of the Nanjing Massacre in China and Japan, and examines how the issue has developed as a political and diplomatic controversy in the five decades since World War II.

How Three Mile Island Can Help Us Understand Japan

Three Mile Island coverAs Japan’s nuclear crisis continues to unfold, many are considering the lessons from Three Mile Island, America’s worst nuclear accident. The Washington Post recently interviewed J. Samuel Walker, a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) historian and author of Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective, on the similarities between the two disasters.

In Three Mile Island, Walker gives a comprehensive account of the causes, context, and consequences of the Three Mile Island crisis. The heart of Walker’s narrative is a moment-by-moment account of the accident itself, in which he brings to life the players who dealt with the emergency: the NRC, the state of Pennsylvania, the White House, and a cast of scientists and reporters. He also looks at the aftermath of the accident on the surrounding area, including studies of its long-term health effects on the population.

As we watch the aftermath of the crisis unfold in Japan, Walker urges a measured approach, drawing from his experiences with the NRC. During the 1970s, he tells the Washington Post, “proponents of nuclear power had underestimated the risks of a severe accident and that nuclear critics had overstated the likely consequences.” But he also warns against complacency, noting, “Before the accident, nuclear experts were confident that they had solved the most important reactor safety issues. This confidence and the complacency it fostered were shattered on the morning of March 28, 1979.”

The Remains of an Ancient Armada

Khubilai Khan

Seven hundred years after sinking to the bottom in the seething waters of a legendary battle, shipwreck fragments, pieces of armor, weapons, bones, and other relics lie submerged off the coast of Japan. These are the remains of Khubilai Khan’s navy, sent to invade Japan, but lost in the swirl of an ancient storm.

In Khubilai Khan’s Lost Fleet, James P. Delgado describes how in 1279 Khubilai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, conquered China and became the leader of the largest navy in the world. Twice he sent ships to invade Japan, but was defeated both times. Legend holds that as Khubilai’s ships waited off Japan’s shores, a “divine wind” rose and dashed the ships against each other, destroying all those who could not flee, and crushing the Khan’s hopes of adding Japan to his empire.

As a maritime archaeologist, Delgado pieces together the sunken evidence to reveal the fate of this doomed armada. In this Archaeology Magazine video, Delgado talks to ArchaeologyTV about exploring and excavating these ancient wrecks.