In this age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, while the labor force of the Western world freaks out about the potential future of robots taking away their jobs, the Japanese are like “Robots entering the workforce? It’s about time! When!?”
Are us Japanese out of our minds, or is there something queer about our culture that makes us express hospitality even to soulless chunks of metal and computer chips? Does Japanese hospitality go that far?
It’s actually not hospitality but rather the subconscious cultural idea that there is a god in anything with form, and in every god there is personality. The Japanese view anything tangible – trees, mountains and rivers, spoons, chairs and clothing – as something to be treated with respect and oftentimes love and friendship, because they all have souls. And robots have been no exception. Robots are not to be feared, but welcomed.
So let me take you through the long, wacky and humorous history of the great Japanese confusion of the living and non-loving, and our sentiment for robots.
- 1. How the Japanese came to see souls are hearts in everything
- 2. How the Japanese came to see life in manmade tools
- 3. Tools are the good guys in fairy tales
- 4. Robots in Japanese entertainment
- 5. How the Japanese view Robots
1. How the Japanese came to see souls are hearts in everything
Japanese people being animists, meaning they believe there is a soul even in things we would not consider living, began millennia ago, when Shintoism was their only belief.
According to Kojiki, a collection of myths and the oldest piece of written records in Japan dating back from the 8th century, the Adam and Eve of Japanese mythology, Izanagi (the guy) and Izanami (the girl), were given a mission to produce land by a superior god. So they got married and immediately after, had A LOT of sex.
Izanami gave birth to the numerous islands of Japan, giving a name to each. When there was enough land for people to live, the couple had TREMENDOUS amount of sex again to give birth to the god of houses, god of roofs, god of doors, gods of seas, gods of rivers, gods of the boundaries between rivers and seas, gods of trees, winds, mountains and fields. And those new gods themselves gave birth to smaller deities.
You get the point. In Japanese culture, everything we see around us was born from a single sexually-super-active couple and everything is a relative to everything else. They all have names because they are all important children of Izanagi and Izanami, and it’s natural to think that all things possess a heart and soul,
2. How the Japanese came to see life in manmade tools
OK, so for the Japanese, everything in nature and all things that were there from before humanity can recall (like houses) have gods within. But then how about things human beings created more recently, like swords, cell phones, and ultimately, robots? Well, no they don’t have gods assigned to them, but they may acquire personality.
It is believed that tools of any sort, when thrown away after being used over a 100 years, will be possessed by mischievous spirits. There are a few paintings drawn around the 15th or 16th century depicting the imagery of such living tools. These spirits are called Tsukumogami.
Japanese swords made by legendary sword-smiths were also thought to carry some kind of will of their own. A famous example is the Japanese katana sword Muramasa, which happened to be the weapon used to murder the father, grandfather and wife of one of the greatest rulers of Japan, TOKUGAWA Ieyasu (1543 – 1616). Muramasa is also said to have been in the hands of the fierce samurai warrior SANADA Nobushige when he charged into Ieyasu’s camp during one of the last battles fought in the samurai era, almost taking Ieyasu’s life.
Some Japanese historians think that the idea of tools being possessed by spirits was part of a movement to discourage people from throwing away things they didn’t need anymore and instead encourage them to hang on to old stuff, with the spirit of Mottainai.
There is in fact a formal festival and ritual where people show respect and care towards tools. Sewing used to be a part of everyday life for women, and needles were an indispensable partner who did the daily sewing together. There is a day once a year (called Hari-Kuyō) in which people let their needles rest and bid farewell to broken needles by sticking them into tofu. The idea is: because the broken needles spent their whole work-life being stuck into hard material, they should rest their bodies by being stuck into something soft.
3. Tools are the good guys in fairy tales
Japanese children grow up reading and listening to fairy tales just like any other culture, and there are a few dozen all-time favorites, and among them, there are a few in which non-living things come to life to save the day.
One is the tale The Crab and the Monkey (Sarukani-Gassen).
In a nutshell, the story goes:
A crab was walking with a rice ball (you can replace this with “sandwich,” for Western folks reading this) in its claws and was stopped by a monkey who demanded that the crab trade the rice ball with the persimmon seed the monkey had. Of course the crab said “WTF no” at first, but was soon convinced that it would be a good deal as the seed would eventually grow into a tree and avail an armful of persimmon.
The crab went home and did just that. But when the tree bore fruit, the monkey came, climbed up the tree and started eating ripe persimmons. Of course the crab said “WTF are you doing” but was soon killed by the monkey when it picked a sour persimmon and threw it at the crab. Baby crabs came out of the dead body, only to find out that their mother had been killed, and cried.
The baby crabs met a chestnut, a bee, a rice mortar (a tool to make rice cake) and a pile of bullshit, who somehow were also victims to the monkey’s jackass-ness. They ally and devise a plot to murder the monkey. So they snuck into the monkey’s house, and the chestnut hid in the stove, the bee hid near a bucket full of water, the bullshit hid in the entrance space, and the rice mortar hid on the roof.
When the monkey came back and sat in front of the stove and lit it, the heated chestnut tackled the monkey causing a bad burn. The monkey ran to the bucket to get some water, only to be stung by the bee. When the monkey tried to run out of his house, he slipped on the bullshit and fell down at the entrance. The monkey was finally crushed dead by the rice mortar that jumped off the roof on top of him.
So tools are thought to be capable of showing empathy, and this type of fairy tale instills the idea that tools can be good guys. They have high EQ, despite some humans (depicted as a monkey in the story above) seem not to.
4. Robots in Japanese entertainment
The idea that material things can have minds of their own and help people out in life have carried on into modern eras, and evolved into the idea that robots will be developed in the future in order to be a partner to human beings to help attain their goals, through Sci-fi manga and anime.
Legendary Japanese manga-comic book author TEZUKA Osamu created one of the first popular Sci-fi mangas, Tetsuwan Atomu (called Astroboy in English speaking countries) in 1952, and it became popular nationwide when it became an anime in 1963. Atomu was a robot that was created with emotions almost equivalent to those of humans, and goes to school and tries (and struggles) to live as a human boy. He then goes on to fight bad guys, putting himself at risk to help humans in need.
Then comes Doraemon which debuted as manga in 1969 and became an anime in 1973, shown on TV every week ever since. It is still the Japanese anime every Japanese person grows up watching. Doraemon is a robot that lives together with a 5th grader boy and helps him at times of need, and rejoices, cries and laughs with him as his best friend.
Imagine growing up watching Sci-fi anime that feature only friendly and helpful robots. To many Japanese people’s minds, entertaining the thought that robots too can have emotions and therefore be relatable to humans is a given.
The Gundam universe is another well-known anime series which a significant number of Japanese people watched as they matured. In Gundam anime, pilots ride building-sized man-shaped robots to fight in war. The highlights of the shows are scenes where robots destruct other robots and also often the pilots on them, but it is clear that it’s man who is causing war and conflict, and the blame is not on the robots.
The Gundam robots are vehicles, tools, and partners that help humans accomplish goals, namely to end wars. Gundam pilots, and also many real Japanese people, believe that building strong trust with their tools through using them for a long time will allow them to perform better as their minds and limbs synchronize with their tools, eventually becoming one.
5. How the Japanese view Robots
So the Japanese do everything they can to welcome robots into their community and build a good relationship. As a start, Japan-made robots are designed to look likable and given easy-to-remember nicknames by default.
Robots made in Japan are honestly not as technologically advanced in terms of capabilities as those of the rest of the developed world. However they are far more likable in terms of how they look. Their eyes would typically be round so as not to cause any hint of threat towards human onlookers.
Japanese robots are given easy-to-familiarize names. C3PO and R2D2 of Starwars are very likable robots to anyone, however if the film maker George Lucas was fully Japanese in mind, the robots would have been named something like Kevin and Stewart.
If we don’t want robots to be hostile to us, we need to feel affection towards them, is the Japanese way of dealing with the anxiety towards the unknown future life with robots. Robots? AI? Bring it on!