More than any other country on earth, Japan has put its faith-and future-in the hands of technology
By TIM LARIMER Tokyo
The simple wooden house sits in an unremarkable old neighborhood in an Osaka suburb, the kind of place people forget still exists in modern Japan. There are no pachinko parlors or cyber cafés-no shops of any kind, really. It's an unlikely place to download the next version of Japan's technological evolution. But listen to what happens when a gray-haired, asthmatic septuagenarian named Kazuko Komiyama returns after visiting friends: "Welcome home," a voice chirps. "Isn't it a nice day?"
The high-pitched greeting belongs to a robot. It's a simple machine, to be sure. This isn't the Terminator, or whiny gold-plated C-3P0 of Star Wars, or even Japan's own Astro Boy with his atomic-powered rockets. But it's a robot nonetheless: a chocolate-brown wombat that eventually will be able to flutter its eyes when Komiyama, 77, enters the room and giggle when she scratches its fuzzy little head. It tells her what the weather is like. It reminds her when it's time to take her medicine. It serenades her.
For Komiyama, a mechanical companion is a guard against the dreadful loneliness many elderly Japanese must endure. She saw one such tragic story on a TV news show recently. "An old man's death went unnoticed because he lived alone," she says. "Day after day, his diary read, 'I didn't meet anybody today. Again.' I don't want to end up like that." So when welfare workers from the Osaka suburb of Ikeda asked for volunteers to test the prototype of Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.'s pet robot, she jumped at the chance. She keeps the robot propped up on a stack of clothes in her living room. After a month, she's starting to warm to the thing, despite one irritating habit. "It speaks with a childish voice," she complains. "That makes me feel like I'm treated as an old person. I would rather have an equal relationship with a robot."
This is modern Japan, a Gizmo Nation where even grannies make friends with their gadgets. For half a century, the Japanese have made it a cultural mission to turn out-and obsess over-a succession of cool, elegant and increasingly human machines. And what machines they have become: chart-topping virtual pop stars; robotic geishas; memory sticks the size of a thumb to carry around video images; headgear that projects computer screens into thin air in front of wearers' eyes; washing machines for the human body; toilets that measure a person's weight, body fat and urine sugar levels. The country that gave the world transistor radios, the Walkman and hand-held videogames is now positioned to turn its love of gadgetry into a lucrative national enterprise once again.
When the E0, a humanoid robot developed by Honda, took its first unencumbered step in 1986, it was heralded as a major breakthrough. That first step took 30 agonizing seconds to complete. Japan's technological ascent was much less halting, as it embraced machines that would carry it from the depths of postwar despair to the heights of affluence with the speed of a bullet train. Along the way, Japanese put machines on a pedestal, cherished and befriended them. It sounds quaint now, this idea that redemption is to be found in technology. But that was a critical message for Japan to digest back in the 1950s, and it persists as a national mantra today.
It is one of the nation's enduring ironies that this obsession was ushered in by the worst technological nightmare humans have yet created, the atomic bomb. Dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the devices brought a horrific end to World War II and left Japan dazed, defeated and devastated. The grim reality of what had been wrought by the world's finest minds could easily have predisposed the nation to abhor science, to flinch from technology. But the A-bombs had the opposite effect. "Japanese realized that the only way to live after experiencing the worst form of catastrophe through technology was to become friends with technology," says Saya Shiraishi, a cultural anthropologist at Kyoto Bunkyo University. "People entrusted their hopes and dreams to the machines of the future world."
That decision was not entirely instinctive. In September 1945 Emperor Hirohito, shamed by defeat, explained in a letter to his 12-year-old son Akihito that Japan's military had over-emphasized martial spirit and neglected science. Instead of acknowledging the folly of war, or the horrors that Japan's ruthless army had perpetrated in Asia, the Emperor and Japan's postwar leaders decided that they would embrace the victor's strength-the edge in technology enjoyed by the U.S. The Americans who helped rebuild Japan gave weight to this idea, supporting a manufacturing revolution because the U.S. needed the country to serve as a bulwark against communism.
No less influential than industrial policy or the musings of an Emperor may have been the comic-book character Astro Boy. Appearing in 1951, the robot drawn by Osamu Tezuka quickly became a cultural icon in Japan-a figure that embraced both scientific know-how (he could fly and had super strength) and human frailty (he suffered when his scientist father banished him for failing to grow up). "Astro Boy represented hope for Japan at a very difficult time," says Junichi Murakami, sub-director of a museum near Osaka that honors Tezuka. "He emphasized science, not nature, because he wanted people to get rich from science." Even the robot's name-in Japan, he's called Tetsuwan Atom-turned destructive technology into another word for salvation. "Astro Boy was like our religion," says Minoru Asada, an Osaka University robotics researcher. "The robot was never something to be feared."
Today, those bonds have never been stronger, as Japanese live in an increasingly automated world. Use a pay phone and an image of a uniformed woman appears, bowing. There is a train line that runs without human operators, ticket-takers or conductors. Vending machines sell an amazing array of goods: beer, 10 kg bags of rice, fried octopus balls (cooked while you wait), videogames, porn magazines. There are robots that run factories by themselves, robots that make parts for other robots, even robots that make sushi. It's not unusual to see scenes like this one at a Tokyo restaurant: a dozen people sit down to dinner, each with a sleek notebook computer plugged into a cell phone. They don't talk much. They e-mail each other, and other friends who can't join them in the restaurant. The diners-all fans of an actress they have never met but with whom they have communicated online-need the laptops to connect, even when sitting across a dinner table from each other.
Recently in a hot springs town near Nagano, 101 owners of Aibos, those pet robot dogs made by Sony, got together to compare notes and see how their "pets" would react in a crowd of robotic canines. They dressed their Aibos in little coats and hats and brought them in fancy wicker cases designed for real dogs. Wataru Hiraishi, 35, prowled the convention with a laptop computer, equipped with a camera and connected to his cell phone. He was broadcasting the event live over the Internet. "Yes, I talk to it all the time," Hiraishi says of his own Aibo. "I say, 'What are you doing?' But it never responds."
Common sense suggests that there's something unhealthy about an obsession with a robot dog, or any other machine for that matter. But in Japan, these gadgets serve an important social purpose, linking people who have been disconnected in an impersonal, urban world. Single people looking for a mate can use a video-cell-phone matchmaking service. Men wanting more illicit companionship use telephone clubs that allow them to select a woman's picture, dial her up from a phone booth and arrange to meet. In video arcades, you can anonymously challenge players at other consoles to games without ever speaking to them. "Among Japanese there's an interesting combination of social reserve and a strong urge to network, to make friends," says Kim Binsted, an artificial-intelligence researcher at Sony. "People use the gadgets to overcome their reserve and make contact."
There is a history to this cultural impulse. In the old days, says Masayuki Iwata, head of planning at cell-phone matchmaking firm Kekkon Joho Center, "an auntie-type would get a fee for introducing people." Auntie has been replaced by fiber cable and semiconductor chips. "In traditional Japanese culture, people wanted to have a relationship with some kind of medium," says Kazuhiko Hachiya, who created an e-mail program called Post Pet that has 1 million subscribers in Japan. The program's main feature is the cartoon character a user can transmit along with his or her e-mail. "People prefer intermediaries over face-to-face communication," says Hachiya.
This all sounds like a strong argument for Japanese to embrace the Internet. Yet oddly, Japan has been slow to log on-14% of Japanese use the Net, less than half the percentage in the U.S. The explanations are familiar: personal computers are not popular because it's difficult to use the Japanese alphabet on a keyboard; telecommunications charges, among the highest in the world, make Internet access prohibitive; the industries that drove the development of information technology in the U.S.-banks, insurance companies, finance firms-have in Japan enjoyed protection from competitors. Therefore, they have had little incentive to become more efficient.
That should change now that trade and investment barriers have been lifted-opening previously protected sectors to foreign competition. Moreover, the gateway to the Internet is moving from the personal computer to a more Japanese device, the cell phone. Already, 41% of senior high-school students in Japan carry mobile phones to school, compared with 12% in the U.S. "People are getting comfortable walking around with their own information systems at hand," says Yuichi Washida, an analyst at the Hakuhodo advertising agency's research institute.
At the same time, schools are cutting back on science training. Junior-high students underwent 420 hours of science instruction annually in 1970. Today they get 350 hours, and in three years, that number will be reduced to 290. High-school students in Japan receive about half the science instruction their British counterparts get. The Japanese education system was once known for its discipline and high standards; today there is a dumbing-down of the curriculum by lowering standards and drastically reducing the content taught in classrooms. One cram school teaches basic biology to medical students, because so few of them have studied the subject in high school. And the old complaints about the education system have not gone away. "In Japan, students are not expected to think," says Fumio Hara, a mechanical-engineering professor at the Science University of Tokyo. "It's all memorization."
Even the Astro Boy generation is becoming disillusioned. "People thought science and technology were almighty and would solve every problem," says Jinzaburo Takagi, a nuclear physicist. "Now their negative aspects are being exposed and seem instead to be causing the problems." Indeed, the presumed infallibility of science is eroding because of a series of nuclear power plant accidents, polluted waterways, toxic clouds released from trash incinerators and crumbling bridges and tunnels on train tracks. Maybe, Japanese are starting to ask, their technological prowess is not so mighty after all. Even one of Japan's latest marvels, the I-mode cell phone that links to the Internet, is so beset with problems that its operator, NTT DoCoMo, has said it will scale back new subscribers.
In some quarters, the 1990s are being written off as Japan's lost decade. While information technology was transforming the U.S. and the rest of the world, Japan was making super-flushing toilets and Tamagotchi electronic pets. Many Japanese wonder if the country can transform its affection for machinery into a new economy for the 21st century.
They should take comfort in the history of the previous one. Japan didn't invent the transistor. But Sony co-founder Akio Morita was smart enough to buy rights to the device and figure out what to do with it. Flash forward half a century, as Sony uses robotics technology developed in the U.S. as the basis for the Aibo. Now in Japan there is a buzz in the air about robots, dotcoms and video phones, to be sure, but also about dramatic changes in the way people do business that could eventually usher in a new era of entrepreneurism and dismantle the old-boy network.
Even Astro Boy is back, in film revivals and emblazoned on children's lunchboxes. "There's a boom in nostalgia for Astro Boy," says the museum sub-director, Murakami. "The economy has been sluggish, but he always represented hope for the future. If people believe in him, then maybe their dreams will come true again." Japan's faith in technology just might redeem the nation once more.
With reporting by Donald Macintyre/Tokyo, Sachiko Sakamaki/Kobe, Hiroko Tashiro/Kyoto and Takashi Yokota/Ikeda
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