Review of Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Robots, Gender, Family, and the Japanese Nation | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Review of Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Robots, Gender, Family, and the Japanese Nation

Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Robots, Gender, Family, and the Japanese Nation
Jennifer Robertson

University of California Press, California, 2017
280 pp., illus. 30 b/w. Paper, $29.95
ISBN: 9780520283206.

Reviewed by: 
Ahyoung Yoo
September 2018

In 1964, video artist Nam June Paik created his first robot. Named after Mozart’s concerto, the robot, K-456, was created with the help of a Japanese engineer Shuya Abe. The rudimentary robot was far from perfect. Paik controlled the robot remotely so that the robot could walk, although painfully slowly. It played political speeches by John F. Kennedy and excreted white beans on the floor. Clunky and exposing its metal framed body, the robot had one key feature. Its slightly anthropomorphic body had both two breasts and a penis. Paik made it ostensibly clear that the robot was an androgynous one, defying the clear division between genders. However, Paik took off the penis when he brought K-456 to New York City in 1964. Jokingly, in the artist’s usual tongue-in-cheek manner, Paik had commented on this removal. “I had to make it more fashionable to fit East Side galleries.” For what it’s worth, this decision to transition the robot from a gender-defying one to a feminized one conforms to the capitalist logic of social order by promoting K-456 as essentially female, using its (fake) breasts as the most ostensible signifier of its femininity.

The incident curiously prefigures what unfolds in today’s robotics technology in contemporary Japan as it is described by Jennifer Robertson in her recent book, Robo Sapiens Japanicus. In her heavily researched book, Robertson maps out a genealogy of humanoids in Japanese society and in particular, their cultural and social implications. The author examines the way robots are constructed and culturally molded in Japan through readings of visual, textual and technological examples across five chapters. She brilliantly weaves together visual analysis, interviews and history of Japan to illustrate how race and gender are at the core of the formation of Japanese identity that excludes “minorities.” What Japanese roboticists pursue is not the “convergence of humans and machines, but rather the coexistence of humans and robots” (3). In this sense, many roboticists have focused on creating a machine that reflects on and further perpetuates core values of Japanese society. The author argues that the current robotics projects in Japan often revert to sexist, patriarchal, patriotic, nationalist, and imperialist models.

Robertson deconstructs what innovation means for Japanese government officials, political leaders and roboticists through visual and textual production by project Innovation 25 under the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and the accompanying manga Innobe Family. The aim of the project is to naturalize the robot as a family member that secures Japanese idea of family and nation that the author calls “the dream of the safety, security, and convenience” (49). This author refers to this dream as “reactionary postmodernism” – that is, old images mined again for nostalgic dreams (49). The dreams of making japan great again are deeply rooted in similar imperial projects from the 1930s. The author illustrates how Japanese nationalism is connected to technological imperialism. The idea of the global is led by Japanese superiority in technology. Thus, the new technology is used to revivify nostalgic ideas and secure Japan its status as a global leader.

Robertson further historicizes the use of robot by finding a precedent in and drawing comparison to Yamato family from the 1950s that had a similar agenda promoted as “the zeitgeist of the time” (71). In both cases, robots in Japanese society conforms to and solidifies nationalist-patriarchal views of family as the basic unit of the society. Robots are imagined as human companions in Japanese society. Familiarization of robots in everyday life as useful creatures has been pursued in Japan since early on. The status of citizenship for cartoon characters is one such example as is the case with Astro boy. The increasing number of funerary practices for robot pets or computers is another. Robots are imagined as human companions who could solve problems within Japanese society as an answer to decreasing labor, aging population as a family member, a maid for household chore, a nurse. The author points out the close connection between “the restoration of the family – natal, marital, corporate, national – and the harmonious coexistence of humans and robots.” This connection is particularly dangerous because of the “suggestion – and one that has been voiced by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his right wing supporters – that Japanese colonization paved the way for the modernization of other Asian countries and cultures” (77). Such views also solidify gender roles, always imagined in a certain way. Humanoids that tend to house chores and caregiving are always signified as female, in this case.

As such, robot dreams do not radically depart from current state of affairs, but are rather used to re-live the nostalgic past. Robertson’s most powerful claim of this book is that the task at hand is to keep thinking about the lost voice of those overlooked in Japanese society, overshadowed by such dreams. The author points to the larger problematic implications of the facilitation and utilization of robotics technology in Japan. What is being overlooked is the issue of real people, especially that of minorities and immigrants such as zainichi Koreans. Robertson notes, “there is growing popular support, on one hand, to deny civil rights to permanent residents and, on the other, to confer the rights of citizenship and residency to robots and nonhuman animals, and even to cartoon characters.” For instance, Paro (a robot seal) is acknowledged as a citizen in the Koseki system whereas zainichi Koreans were revoked their citizenship (140).

Robo Sapiens Japanicus offers a historic account of robots in Japan, illuminating the cultural and sociopolitical implications of high-tech humanoids in the country that has been leading the technological sector. It traces the genealogy of the desire for Japanese superiority, aided with the promotion of technology, and concludes with a powerful statement, warning against abusive use of technology that merely reinforces fixed roles and discriminatory policies. This book is crucial for those studying aspects of technology in East Asia and beyond.