Regarding Robot Cultures

In the spring and summer of 2005, Japan's Aichi Prefecture hosted the World Expo, displaying not only the state-of-the-art in Japanese technology, but also a prophetic vision of Japanese society and future lifestyles. The “future imaginary” (Fujimura, 2003) of the Expo emphasized the coupling of technological sophistication with an appreciation and care for environmental and human resources; it also featured robots as a prominent and ubiquitous component of everyday urban life. The robot exhibition hall was conceptualized as a city of the year 2020 where “people and robots live in harmony” (Aichi Expo Robot Project Guidebook). During the exhibition, members of the public had a chance to interact with approximately one hundred different types of robots, including child care (NEC's Papero), communication (Wakamaru) and therapy (AIST's Paro) robots, androids (Kokoro Actroid), cleaning (Matushita Electric, Fuji Heavy Industries) and security (Tmsuk) robots, and entertainment robots (AIST's dinosaurs, Toyota's humanoids). The presentation of robots in various quotidian contexts reflects the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry’s (METI) plan to support the development of “partner robots” as a key growth industry of the 21st century. Japanese corporations, such as NEC, Honda, Mitsubishi, and Toyota are also committed to the advancement of robotics technologies to the point where interactions between humans and robots run smoothly and robots are able to fulfill roles in the everyday. Within this larger national vision, the Expo functioned as a large-scale field test for service-oriented robotics technologies, a chance for the public to become more familiar with their capabilities, and a venue for the development of a domestic “robot culture.”


The "FT" or "Female-Type" Robot, designed by Tomotaka Takahashi.

Typically associated with the technological avant-garde, Japan's governmental, academic and corporate institutions are not merely producers of technology, but also authors of cultural narratives about how humans should relate to each other and their environment in current and future technologically mediated societies. Japan's evolving imaginary of a “robot culture” emphasizes technologies that are no longer just meant to do things for humans, but to also do things to and with humans (Turkle, 2006). Robots as social entities are expected to fulfill new roles as companions, caretakers, “natural” interaction partners, and mediators between humans and the increasingly complex socio-technical environments we live in. These “relational” artifacts enable people to project and reflect on their ideas of self and to interact with technology in qualitatively different ways (Turkle, 2005). The interdependence of the technical and the social makes technology increasingly visible not only as material artifacts, but as the embodiment of “a culture or a set of social relations made up of certain sets of knowledge, beliefs, discourses and practices”(Wajcman, 1991, p. 149). Consequently, discussions about the meaning of “robot culture” do not depend solely on technological constraints, but must include the particular cultural, social, historical, ethical and psychological dynamics of these new socio-technical systems.

Japan became known as the “robot kingdom” (Schodt, 1988) first through its domination of the industrial robot market; now it is recognized for a consumer culture that is singularly adaptable and accepting of robots and other high tech consumer products. A conceptual differentiation between Japanese spirit (wakon) and the borrowed Western technology has allowed for the introduction of material aspects of Western culture into the Japanese market, while distancing the realms of spirituality, morality and culture from foreign influence (Sugimoto, 1997, p. 169).

The special affinity of the Japanese towards robotic technologies is related to a history of traditional crafts such as karakuri ningyo (automata), animistic Shinto beliefs and Buddhist teachings concerning the interconnectedness of all animate and inanimate beings (Mori, 1981). Accordingly, robots are not only designed for utilitarian purposes, but to function “the same as flowers—something that speaks directly to the soul” (Tatsuya Matsui quoted in Craft, 2003).

The dependence and intimacy of Japanese lifestyles on technology has earned the country a reputation as the most “machine-loving” nation in the world. This reinforces the “techno-Orientalist” (Ueno, 2002) image of Japanese culture as “cold, impersonal and machine-like, an authoritarian culture lacking emotional connection to the rest of the world'' (Morley & Robins, 1995), making it at the same time a source of admiration and envy, awe and fear.Exemplified by Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy), the post-WWII poster boy for peaceful and friendly technology, advanced robotic technologies symbolize Japan's national policy of development through the steady advancement of technology; academic and commercial interests alike display them prominently as testaments of their technological and scientific prowess. Due to the scarcity of its natural resources, technology was the only way Japan could add value to its manufactured products (Morris-Suzuki, 1988, p. 37). Turning imported raw materials into high-tech manufactured goods for export became the widely accepted recipe for economic success after WWII (Schodt, 1988, p. 188). In the 1980s, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) subscribed to a policy of gijutsu rikkoku, or “technological nation-building” (Morris-Suzuki, 1994, pp. 210-212), which focused the growth of the nation on the research and development of original technologies that would be necessary for an “advanced information society.” METI expects much from socially interactive and assistive robots in relation to current social pressures. In a context of falling birthrates, a rapidly aging population, and environmental and energy problems, robots are seen as a way to create an affluent society with high quality of life (METI report, 2004).

Japan's political and economic emphasis on advanced technologies also depended on the societal structure to support such developments. The Japanese blue-collar working class has always been small, never constituting more than a third of the work-force, so a working-class identity like that in the West did not develop (Morris-Suzuki, 1988, p. 89). Furthermore, Japanese industrial paternalism and lifetime employment policies assured that workers would not lose their jobs as a result of workplace automation, but would be given work elsewhere in the firm. While protecting the male worker, the social structure of Japan supported the techno-nationalist dream at the expense of certain parts of the population, particularly women and the illegal foreign workforce, which could be hired and fired at will and bore the brunt of economic fluctuations, as the agricultural sector had done before them. Contrary to the US, the introduction of robots into the industrial workplace did not destabilize the workforce because robots were proposed as an alternative to immigrant workers, who were seen as a threat to Japanese society and “the most discussed social problem in the late 1980s and 1990s” (Lie, 288). Japanese women, on the other hand, were reconstituted as conspicuous consumers, the linchpin of the national economy and prosperity, in addition to their role as an invisible domestic workforce supporting the sarariman (white-collar worker).

The “nascent robotics culture” that relies on the possibility of companionship between humans and machines brings up not only issues of machine capabilities but of human vulnerabilities (see Turkle, 2006) and the ways that our lives change with the use of technology. As technologies, social robots bring up new challenges since they will have profound and direct, intended as well as unintended, impacts on humans as well as the environment (Restivo, 2002). An primary focus on the technical challenge of making a social machine can produce designs which have uninvestigated consequences for their users (such as effects on the quality of social interaction), individuals who perform jobs that the robots were designed for (nurses, caretakers, receptionists), as well as society in general (unemployment due to automation). The development of socially-oriented robotic technologies also calls us to must consider the limitations and capabilities of our social institutions (family, friends, schools, government) and the pressures they face in supporting and caring for children and the elderly (e.g. both parents working longer and longer hours, dissolution of extended family and reliance on a nuclear family model, ageism and the medicalization of the elderly). Rather than relying on robots as an automatic “technological fix” to contemporary social ills, we must reflect on them as components of social solutions. A concept that can be helpful here is the idea of a “cultural fix” which relies on revealing and questioning common assumptions, exploring alternative meanings situated within particular contexts, and putting changes in cultural meanings in the scientific imaginary to work in identifying and solving problems (Layne, 2000). This inherently multicultural endeavor calls for the participation of not only computer scientists and engineers, fascinated by the technical challenges of social robots, but also of social scientists, designers, and artists who study the social, cultural, philosophical and aesthetic aspects of sociable machines, and of members of the public who are the potential users of these technologies.


Craft, L. (2003). Humanoid Robots Speak to the Soul. Kategaiho International Edition, 1: 150-162.

Fujimura, J. (2003). Future Imaginaries: Genome scientists as sociocultural entrepreneurs. In A. H. Goodman (ed.), Genetic Nature/Culture: Anthropology and Science Beyond the Two-Culture Divide. Ewing, NJ: University of California Press (pp. 176-195).

Layne, L. L. (2000). The cultural fix: An anthropological contribution to science and technology studies. Science, Technology and Human Values 25(3): 352–379.

Lie, J. (1997). The ``Problem'' of Foreign Workers in Contemporary Japan. In J. Moore (ed.), The Other Japan: Conflict, Compromise, and Resistance Since 1945. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe (pp. 288-304).

Mori, M. (1981). The Buddha in the Robot: A Robot Engineer’s Thoughts on Science and Religion. Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Co.

Morley, D., Robins, K. (1995). Techno-Orientalism: Japan Panic. In, D. Morley and K. Robins (Eds.), Spaces of Identity: Global Media, Electronic Landscapes and Cultural Boundaries. London: Routledge.

Morris-Suzuki, T. (1994).  The Technological Transformation of Japan: From the Seventeenth to the Twenty-first Century.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Restivo, S. (2002). Romancing the robots: Social robots and society. In Workshop on Robots as Partners: An Exploration of Social Robots, Lausanne, Switzerland.

Schodt, F. L. (1988).  Inside the Robot Kingdom: Japan, Mechatronics, and the Coming Robotopia.  Tokyo & New York: Kodansha International.

Sugimoto, Y. (1997).  An Introduction to Japanese Society.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Turkle, S. (2005). Relational Artifacts/Children/Elders: The complexities of cybercompanions. In Proceedings of the CogSci Workshop on Android Science. Stresa, Italy: Cognitive Science Society (pp. 62-73).

Turkle, S. (2006). A Nascent Robotics Culture: New Complicities for Companionship.  Boston, AAAI Technical Report.

Ueno, T. (2002). Japanimation and Techno-Orientalism. In B. Grenville (Ed.), The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture. Arsenal Pulp Press.

Wajcman, J. (1991). Feminism Confronts Technology. Pennsylvania State University Press.

Topics:  Design, Popular Culture

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