Robo Sapiens Japanicus. Robots, Gender, Family, and the Japanese Nation

Robo Sapiens Japanicus. Robots, Gender, Family, and the Japanese Nation
by Jennifer Robertson
University of California Press (2018)
ISBN-13: 978-0520283206

Review by Riyoko Shibe and Paul Tebble

In the mid-1920s, the word “robot” (robotto) was coined as Japan began to embrace the possibilities and potential of human-robot coexistence. Robo Sapiens Japanicus by Jennifer Robertson is an ethnography and sociohistorical analysis that discusses these possibilities and their implications, exploring the intertwined relationship between robot visions and politics, society and culture.

Robot technologies, dependent on state support because of their complexity, tend to ‘mirror and embody state and corporate ideologies and priorities’ (p.82). This idea forms the crux of Robertson’s argument, which focuses especially on Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s extensive support of the robotics industry. By using robotics as a sociocultural prism, Robertson uncovers Abe’s conservative ideologies – as well as Japan’s attitude more broadly – towards national membership, race, gender, and disability.

Robertson begins by examining Innovation 25, Abe’s 2007 proposal envisioning Japan in 2025, where humanoid robots, integrated into families, are key to the stability of the nation. In Abe’s blueprint, Japan’s social issues – the ageing population, low birth-rates and labour shortages – have been solved through the provision of caregiving and companionship robots. By analysing historical and current government documents, Robertson uncovers similarities between the proposal and wartime right-wing propaganda. She concludes that rather than “innovating”, Abe’s proposal uses a rhetoric of advanced and sophisticated technologies to couch and reinforce traditional, patriarchal and conservative values. This proposal, as we see throughout the book, represents the Japanese robotics industry more broadly, and exemplifies ‘advanced technology in the service of traditionalism’(p.79) – an imagined future constructed to legitimise socio-political ideologies, ultimately advancing Abe’s nationalistic agenda.

Innovation 25 centres around visions of the future where robots are integrated into families, undertaking domestic and caregiving chores. Robertson is quick to point to the ‘sexist logic’ (p.25) embedded in the proposal: the administration, while supporting the production of humanoid robots as the solution to low marriage and birth-rates, overlooks the provision and upkeep of day-care centres, which would be a proactive solution enabling women to work outside of the home. By drawing attention to some of the incisive Japanese voices raised in opposition to the government rhetoric, Robertson, non-Japanese, is careful not to speak in place of Japanese women, and brings balance to her discussion.

Robertson moves on to explore what constitutes a “normal” body within Japan, shedding fascinating – and disturbing – light onto the narrow and hostile conceptions of normalcy reproduced by the robotics industry. She firstly analyses the development of service robots gendered to suit the role they are designed to perform, essentialising the gendering of both labour and bodies. She then extends normalcy to nationality, and we see the exclusion of the “other” through perverse rules of national membership that grant robots more civil rights than actual humans. From robots like Paro, Astro Boy and Doraemon being given their own family registry and special residency permits, to being adopted into actual families, Robertson paints a lucid picture of how robots are constructed as integral to the stability of the family – and by extension, the Japanese nation, serving to reify cultural norms regarding gender, race and nationhood. Non-Japanese people, by contrast threated this stability and these norms; foreigners, ethnic minorities and Korean zainichi born and raised in Japan, whose family have lived there for generations, are refused these privileges. Robertson shows how the rhetoric of robotics and technology diverts our attention from the conservative and xenophobic ideologies embedded within this deeply problematic system of national membership.

Finally, Robertson explores disability, an underrepresented but vitally important area of discussion, to which this chapter is a fantastic addition. Analysing the development of mobile technologies designed to make people walk upright on two legs, she uncovers their incompatibility with the nuanced needs and diverse bodies of disabled people. Robertson argues that such technologies, promoting the fully limbed body as a vision of normalcy, exclude those who cannot and do not fit into this ideal, and so reproduce discriminatory, hostile attitudes towards disability. She heavily critiques the government’s perverse, ableist logic that supports this technology while overlooking the development of accessible spaces, eliding from view disability as a social and cultural phenomenon.

While an excellent, rigorous and articulate ethnography, Robertson, although stridently contesting the essentialisation of identity, at times herself essentialises Japanese society by making broad generalisations of “the Japanese” and how “they” perceive the world. In this sense, it would have been apt to include more actors in her discussion, and Robertson’s focus on the government in leading the dominant discourses on gender, race and disability was in this sense limited. The political, social and economic position of countries is defined be a plethora of actors, and in the case of Robertson’s book, I was left wondering which other voices were involved in contesting or echoing these discourses, internal and external to Japan.

Despite this, throughout the book, Robertson’s message sings clear: the discourse on robots is far more than just a high-tech vision of the future. Rather, it serves to reproduce hegemonic power structures and narrow, hostile conceptions of normalcy, eliding from view the range of bodies that should be allowed to exist in the world: it is ‘as much, if not more, about social engineering than nuts-and-bolts robotics’ (p.62). Robertson succeeds in following the anthropological tradition of rendering the normal strange, offering refreshing – although not ground-breaking – insight into how gender, family, nationality, race and disability are navigated within Japan.

Related links:

More or Less Human (Podcast)

Cyborg (Blog)

Artificial Intelligence: Affected Intimacy (Blog)


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