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and in so many directions that research focused solely on highlighting the newest gee-whiz models quickly becomes out of date.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.


The Problem of Women in Early Modern Japan

by Marcia Yonemoto, author of The Problem of Women in Early Modern Japan

This guest post is published in conjunction with the Association for Asian Studies conference in Toronto. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on March 19th.

During the final month of the bruising 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign, Inoguchi Kuniko, a member of Japan’s parliament and former Minister of State for Gender Equality and Social Affairs, registered her disappointment at the coarseness of American political discourse, and remarked that “when the glass ceiling breaks, there are a lot of injuries that a woman must bear.”[1] This struck me as a valid but curious statement, coming as it did from a high-profile female member of the conservative wing of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and staunch ally of current Prime Minister Abe Shinzō. For despite the Abe government’s vigorous endorsement of “womenomics,” its policy program to increase the number of women elected to public office, in high managerial positions in business, and in positions of authority in public life in general, Japan is still far from reaching the government’s target goals—indeed, at least by the measures of the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, Japan is trending downward, not upward, in terms of resolving persistent gender inequality.[2] So in speaking about the danger of shattering glass ceilings, was Inoguchi simply expressing sympathy for then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton? Was she speaking from her own perspective as one of a spate of women cabinet ministers in the Abe government, many of whose terms in office were cut short by campaign-finance and other scandals? Or was she speaking in the abstract, ruminating perhaps not about when women in Japan break the glass ceiling, but if they ever will?

These particular questions can’t be answered with any certainty, but it is clear that roles and perceptions of women in Japanese public and private life continue to evolve, to raise questions, and to spark debate. I address very similar issues in my book, The Problem of Women in Early Modern Japan, except my focus is on women in the seventeenth through early nineteenth centuries. The book explores the challenges women encountered when trying to reconcile confining social norms with individual autonomy, obligations to others with desires of their own, and limited public authority with myriad forms of private power. While the early modern military state often has been viewed as authoritarian and oppressive, its social and political controls were far weaker than those enjoyed by state today. And while the government articulated cultural norms and ideals of propriety, it lacked the comprehensive authority to enforce them, and this allowed considerable latitude for women to learn, to work, to write, and to play in ways contemporary observers may find surprising.

[1] “U.S. Presidential Campaign Shocks Women Around Asia-Pacific,” Asahi Shinbun/Reuters, 10/20/2016.

[2] Japan’s overall ranking dropped from 101st out of 145 countries surveyed to 111th out of 144. By comparison, the United States’ overall ranking also went down between 2015 and 2016, dropping from 28th to 45th. See World Economic Forum, The Global Gender Gap Report 2015, accessed at: http://reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-report-2015/ and World Economic Forum, The Global Gender Gap Report 2016, accessed at: http://reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-report-2016/ . Other data, however, show some progress—a 2016 Cabinet Office poll showed that for the first time, a majority of Japanese adults (54.2%) believed that “women should continue working even after they have children.” Maiko Ito, “Majority for First Time Says Mothers Should Continue to Work,” Asahi Shinbun 11/14/2016, accessed at: http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/AJ201611140005.html


Marcia Yonemoto is Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Colorado Boulder and author of Mapping Early Modern Japan: Space, Place, and Culture in the Tokugawa Period (1603–1868).