Looking Ahead by Going Back

Japanese robotics is imagineering a future dominated by nostalgia and nationalism.

“Chair of the Future.” Seventy years ago, Margaret Mead confirmed her futurist leanings by proposing that universities should promote the study of profound social transformations by appointing Chairs of the Future. Research on historical cultures and societies—“the Middles Ages and Classical Greece”—was already well established, she argued. The acceleration of social change together with the lengthening of the human life span meant that “no one will live in the world into which [they were] born, and no one will die in the world in which [they] worked in [their] maturity” (Mead in Cornish [1977]1983, 128–129). In her numerous writings about human futures, Mead (2005) aimed at a broad readership; her work remains relevant and demonstrates why anthropologists especially are well positioned to engage “future futures.”

A collage that illustrates Prime Minister Abe’s vision of a future extended family with human and robot members. Jennifer Robertson.

Mead contrasted “prefigurative” (new) culture with “postfigurative” (traditional) culture. The former refers to societies in which the elders learn from youngers; the latter to one in which the youngers learn from elders. Current culture is “cofigurative” in that young and old alike learn from their contemporaries or peers (Mead 1972, 31). What Mead did not grok was the extent to which future technology, as I have argued in the case of Japanese robotics, would be deployed to salvage a traditional status quo—an agenda I characterize as retro-tech and retro-robotics.

Robots are associated with the future and/or the imagination of a future. But industrial robots, Roombas, humanoids, and animaloids are now very much part of the present. Not a day goes by without media coverage about robots and artificial intelligence (AI). The fictional robots populating anime and manga have a decades-old subjecthood in cultural studies. As I elaborate in Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Robots, Gender, Family, and the Japanese Nation (2018), a major task I faced was to call attention to the disconnect between actual robots and the robots that populate comics, novels, and movies. Although technologically complex, actual robots are clumsy, slow, and underwhelming compared to their fictional counterparts. 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. Robo-hype needs to be tempered by robo-reality checks.

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 is quickly outdated. 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.

The impression “out there” that commuters in Tokyo share sidewalk and office space with humanoids requires a concerted effort to dispel. Most robots are still in the prototype stage and interact with humans only under limited, controlled conditions, mainly in settings such as laboratories, corporate showrooms, shopping malls and department stores, science museums, and in closely monitored test situations within select schools, nursing homes, and hospitals. My solution to these quandaries was to explore and interrogate the type of national-cultural, social-institutional, and family structures within which roboticists, manufacturers, and politicians alike assume that humans and robots will coexist. I also excavated substantive historical backstories in order to help contextualize the imagineering of human-robot relationships since the mid-1920s when the newly coined “robot” (robotto) became a household word.

The Inobes represent the ideal household—and more specifically, the traditional stem nuclear family (ie)—in which a married couple lives with their children and parents.
Aptly described as wary of immigrants and refugees, Japan has one of the fastest aging populations and shrinking labor forces among postindustrial nation-states. Young women and men increasingly eschew marriage, and, for the past decade, the birthrate continues to remain below the rate of mortality. In his first term in office (2006–2007), Prime Minister Abe Shinzō debuted Innovation 25, a visionary blueprint for the robotization of Japan by 2025. Reelected in 2012, Abe has renamed the proposal Innovation Japan, without an end date, and most recently, Society 5.0—the latter is described as an “ultra-smart” society in which all things will be connected through the Internet of Things. Abe is also planning to use the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to showcase robots in a separate “robot Olympics.” Although the robots displayed will be those made for the civilian market, the Japanese state, like its US counterpart, is also keen on parlaying robotics and associated spin-off industries in the lucrative weapons economy.

The byword “innovation” in Innovation 25 is misleading; renovation is a more accurate term, for the proposal reifies the conformist values represented by the male-headed household as a microcosm of Japanese society. Innovation 25 includes an illustrated fictional ethnography of the Inobe Family of 2025 that was also published separately as a graphic book in 2007. Their name is an abbreviation of inobēshon (innovation). The Inobes represent the ideal household—and more specifically, the traditional stem nuclear family (ie)—in which a married couple lives with their children and parents. The household’s many robots, from the humanoid housekeeper to robotic appliances, relieves the home-based wife of housework and child and elder care tasks that Japanese women today are not interested in giving up their careers and independence to assume. Abe and his ministers argue that a robot-dependent society and lifestyle insures safety, comfort, and convenience. Implicit in the rhetoric of robotization is the assumption that a woman will be more willing to marry, have more than 1.3 children, and live with her elderly parents and in-laws if she can rely on robot maids, nannies, and caregivers (Robertson 2018: 50–79). Moreover, she could remain at home and retain her career by telecommuting to work. Abe’s vision of future society is but a nostalgic dream of the traditional extended family system—with the addition of robot members (see accompanying image).

In Japan, the family or household (ie) is the site where robots will be domesticated and even granted citizenship, irrefutable proof of which is a household register (koseki), possession of which is limited to Japanese nationals. The therapy robot, Paro, modeled after a baby harp seal, received a koseki in 2010 in which the inventor was listed as “father.” Although gimmicky, that Paro could have a koseki demonstrates that the sociodynamics of human-robot coexistence is determined not by their species difference, but by the manner of their bonding, which is informed by the ie system.

Only in the past few years have roboticists in the United States imagined their robots as family members. In 2014, a US robotics team based at MIT introduced Jibo, shaped like a Unidyne microphone, as “the first family robot.” Mother, a six-and-a-half-inch, one-pound robot shaped like a matryoshka doll, was introduced in 2016 by Sen.se (now incorporated into SoftBank, sponsor of the humanoid, Pepper). When activated by “motion cookies,” Mother monitors multiple events and behaviors in keeping with the stereotyped gender role after which she is named. Advertisements for both robots place them in upper middle-class homes inhabited by white, heteronormative nuclear families. In Japan and the United States alike, robots mirror and embody the conservative, status-quo ideologies endorsed by the state and corporations, from whom funding for research and development is crucial. The takeaway futures forecast for both societies is that, to circle back to Mead, “cofigurative” culture is transmuting into a robo-technologically enhanced version of “prefigurative” culture, in which the future is dominated by tradition.

Jennifer Robertson is professor in the Departments of Anthropology and the History of Art at the University of Michigan. Her books include Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Robots, Gender, Family and the Japanese Nation (2018); Native and Newcomer: Making and Remaking a Japanese City; and Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan. Robertson is the Japan editor of Critical Asian Studies and was president of the Society for East Asian Anthropology, 2009–2011.

Cite as: Robertson, Jennifer. 2018. “Looking Ahead by Going Back.” Anthropology News website, July 18, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.921

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