Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

Why Japanese Love Robots (And Americans Fear Them)

Animism, Frankenstein and the Biblical injunction against creating life led to the dawn of robotic warfare

  • October 12, 2010

The affection of a certain island nation for all things robotic – from hundred foot tall warfighting mecha to infantile therapy robots – is well known. It contrasts sharply with the equally entrenched Western fear of automatons, beginning with the very invention of the term “robot,” which was coined in a Czech play that debuted in 1921 in which, naturally, the robots eventually rise up and kill their human masters.

How could two cultures come to such fundamentally divergent conclusions about the status and future of the semi-autonomous helpmates whose increasing presence in our lives seems pre-ordained by nearly every sci-fi vision of the future?

Heather Knight, founder of the world’s first (non-industrial) robot census, has made the study of robot / human interaction her life’s work. She posits that the difference between Japanese and American attitudes toward robots is rooted in something much older than even the idea of robots: religion. “In Japan… they’re culturally open to robots, on account of animism. They don’t make a distinction between inanimate objects and humans.”

Animism is a component of the Shinto faith, the religion that preceded the introduction of Buddhism to Japan and remains an influential part of the country’s culture. Animism is the notion that all objects have a spirit - even man-made objects. Here’s social scientist Naho Kitano in Animism, Rinri, Modernizationp; the Base of Japanese Robotics (pdf)

The sun, the moon, mountains and trees each have their own spirits, or gods. Each god is given a name, has characteristics, and is believed to have control over natural and human phenomena. This thought has continued to be believed and influences the Japanese relationship with nature and spiritual existence. This belief later expanded to include artificial objects, so that spirits are thought to exist in all the articles and utensils of daily use, and it is believed that these sprits of daily-use tools are in harmony with human beings.

In the West, in contrast, creating life inevitably leads to destruction of the creator – a notion that is hardly original to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as author Rui Umezawa points out.

In order to understand fully religion’s influence on the West’s attitude toward robotics, we also must remember that Judeo-Christian monotheism also adheres to the doctrine that only God can give life, a popular interpretation of Genesis in which there is only God in the beginning and all living things are His creations. Exodus also decrees that idolatry is a sin. Thus, any human who breathes life into an inanimate object is assuming the role of God and thereby becoming a false idol. Such a blasphemer deserves punishment, and in the conventions of science fiction, this usually comes in the form of betrayal by the robots. From the 1920 work R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Czech playwright Karel Čapek - who is credited with coining the term “robot” – through The Terminator movies to Battlestar Galactica, such human vanity is constantly met by rebellion by its creation.

In a feedback loop initiated by these preconceptions, culture influences not only the perception of robots, but also the design of robots created by Japanese and American engineers. Sally Augustin, a journalist writing for Miller-McCune, argues that Americans value emotionally expressive robots, while Japanese are content with inferred emotion conveyed by robots whose faces are obscured in the same manner as actors in Japanese Noh plays. More concretely, Americans have directed much of their research toward robots with military applications, while the Japanese “are investing billions of dollars on consumer robots aimed at altering everyday life.”

Given that Japanese culture predisposes its members to look at robots as helpmates and equals imbued with something akin to the Western conception of a soul, while Americans view robots as dangerous and willful constructs who will eventually bring about the death of their makers, it should hardly surprise us that one nation favors their use in war while the other imagines them as benevolent companions suitable for assisting a rapidly aging and increasingly dependent population.

Follow Mims on Twitter or contact him via email.

Keep up with the latest in intelligent machines at EmTech Digital.

The Countdown has begun.
March 25-26, 2019
San Francisco, CA

Register now
More from Intelligent Machines

Artificial intelligence and robots are transforming how we work and live.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to MIT Technology Review.
  • Print + All Access Digital {! insider.prices.print_digital !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    The best of MIT Technology Review in print and online, plus unlimited access to our online archive, an ad-free web experience, discounts to MIT Technology Review events, and The Download delivered to your email in-box each weekday.

    See details+

    12-month subscription

    Unlimited access to all our daily online news and feature stories

    6 bi-monthly issues of print + digital magazine

    10% discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Access to entire PDF magazine archive dating back to 1899

    Ad-free website experience

    The Download: newsletter delivery each weekday to your inbox

    The MIT Technology Review App

  • All Access Digital {! insider.prices.digital !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    The digital magazine, plus unlimited site access, our online archive, and The Download delivered to your email in-box each weekday.

    See details+

    12-month subscription

    Unlimited access to all our daily online news and feature stories

    Digital magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Access to entire PDF magazine archive dating back to 1899

    The Download: newsletter delivery each weekday to your inbox

  • Print Subscription {! insider.prices.print_only !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six print issues per year plus The Download delivered to your email in-box each weekday.

    See details+

    12-month subscription

    Print magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    The Download: newsletter delivery each weekday to your inbox

/3
You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.