On Japan as a Robot-Loving Nation

I suppose I am not your typical blogger in one way: I don’t blog about news items that grab my attention, because I am rarely happy with my first-order immediate reaction to the news. It often takes me years before I consciously “get” why a piece of news grabbed my attention. For instance, I have had this snippet saved in my email for a couple of years now:

…Japan’s robot love goes farther than respect for function, and deeper than mere pragmatism can explain. Shinto, Japan’s homegrown religion, is an animist faith. The Japanese embrace of robots is a logical extension of ancient beliefs that all things, living and nonliving, organic and inorganic, can possess a transcendent spirit. In Japanese tradition, humanity has never been reserved for humans. Is it any wonder that Japan is welcoming the cyborg future with open arms?

From: “ASIAN POP: Robot Nation” by Jeff Yang, SF Gate Thursday, August 25, 2005

I thought I’d flush this one out of my email as an example, not because I have suddenly had a deep insight into the thought. The article the quote is from actually doesn’t explain the thought satisfactorily. For a year or so, I thought I’d have to visit Japan, maybe get into manga, martial arts, Godzilla or Zen to get the thought at a deeper level, but then it struck me that the insight buried here probably can’t be found in cultural commentary. You’ll only get to trite Japano-philic (?) poetry that way.

So I am throwing open the thought for you, thoughtful reader, to brainstorm and deconstruct. Does Japan as a nation have a special attitude towards robots and robotics? If so, what is special about it? Where does it come from?

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. I have a theory, but it ain’t pretty.

    While many societies stress the value of placing the life of your (family, feudal lord, country) above your own, exhorting you to indirectly commit suicide by joining the militia, none have achieved the attitude of the Japanese towards suicide.

    Samurai, daimyo and even the shogun in feudal Japan were liable to be invited to commit sepukku by their feudal overlord, or could redeem themselves of any dishonour by the mere expedient of slicing their abdomen open. And the funny thing is, they actually did it! So many examples are revered in Japanese culture, like the 47 Samurai, that I would suspect recent phenomena like the kamikaze pilots are expressions of the same cultural phenomenon.

    Now, what other intelligent (currently fictional) entity do you know of, which would behave in a similar way?

    The emergence of a new underclass which you can do unto, like the ones in the class above do unto you, would be greeted with rapturous joy in such a society. Moreover, even these pesky western moral values which deplore treating humans like machines will not have any issues with treating robots in like manner.

    This is more of a troll than a theory, of course. Feel free to delete it. But the quote cited makes about as much sense as: “The American colonists’ embrace of slavery is a logical extension of ancient beliefs that all humans, regardless of colour, can possess a transcendent spirit.”

  2. Wow, why would I delete that? Far from being a troll, it is a pretty neat antithesis to the more rapturously mystical implications of the Yang quote. I personally don’t have any opinion yet, since I have no first hand knowledge/experience of Japanese attitudes to technology, but it strikes me that your theory is at least as plausible as the one implied in the quote, which might be stated as “the Japanese view robots as being as sacred and valuable as human life, and treat them as equals, as opposed to the West, which treats them as either things or threats.”

    Thanks for the thought. Maybe I’ll now forward this to some Japanese friends for some fun.


  3. Nah. I don’t really buy my own idea. India has a history of a caste system and widows committing voluntary suicide. Doesn’t say anything about their current or future robot-loving nature.

    Actually, I’m not sure about the proposition itself. Is there something specific about robots, or is it simply part of a larger “technophile” vs “technophobe” question? Japan has been on the bleeding edge of hardware innovation for decades now, so it’s no surprise that there’re more robots there than anywhere else. Is that also responsible for them shaking off the Luddite reaction to any new technology more effectively.

    Is it the culture? I loved the Japanese “Giant Robot” series as much as any Japanese kids did, and our class was full of kids talking into their watches like Johnny Sokko.

    So I don’t have a clue, really. It’s just that Yang’s hopelessly romantic notion cried out for a swift kick in the butt.

  4. It might be much more simple than all that. Anime and Manga are full of robots. When the anime generation grew up, they simply wanted to see their childhood stories brought to reality. Also, the population is more homogeneous (read: no one wants the dirty jobs) and insulated (read: they don’t get much help from outside), with the median age rapidly increasing. The hope the elderly could be cared for by robots in the future.