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A pop-up manga cartoon titled Maruichi's Tea Time designed specially for TIME by popular artist Nozomi Yanahara

COVER: Gizmo Nation
For the past 50 years Japanese have embraced the notion that salvation is to be found through technical innovation--and the world has benefited from their ingenuity
Timeline: A look at the rise of technology in Japan (photo essay)
My Robot, My Friend: Japanese love not only to give their machines names, but also to make them pals
Viewpoint: Let no one say these citizens are automatons
Birth of a Robot: TIME takes an exclusive inside look at the design, construction and assembly of "Pino" (photo essay)
Land of the Rising Gadget: At times, this can seem like an almost fully automated society (photo essay)
The 10 Smartest Machines: These whiz-bang doo-dads are just around the corner; plus, the 5 dumbest head-scratching devices (photo essay)
Lonely Inventors: Surprisingly, the country doesn't always reward its most creative scientific minds
The Old Ways: Some tasks are still done better by humans
Local Talent: Ota ward remakes itself
Cellul-Oids: Japanese cinema is full of mechanical monsters, mayhem and monkey business
On the Boards: An interactive Shakespeare
Essay: Ryu Murakami bemoans the alienation of youth
Essay: Pico Iyer on why the new is old in Japan

CINEMA: Hong Kong's It Girl
Nervy, gifted and terribly precocious, actress Cecilia Cheung may be the local film industry's next great hope
Web-only Interview: Cecelia shuns fame, rarely goes out, and has already moved house five times this year to escape press attention

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A nation once famed for its human touch has become a land of machines

John Stanmeyer/Saba for TIME
The Pana Robo neatly boxes chrysanthemums at a flower factory in Atsumi.

Visitors to Japan have long been entranced by the personal touch they find in the country - when they haven't been amazed or dumbfounded. Poets and backpackers have waxed eloquent about the sublimely arranged gravel of Zen temples or the delicate construction of a piece of sushi by a proud "master chef." Shoppers have marveled at the painstakingly wrapped presents that come from department stores. Or, at the other end of the fussiness scale, the half-hour needed for a platoon of bank clerks to cash a single traveler's check.

Goodbye to all that. Change has been coming for decades. But at the start of the 21st century, daily life in Japan is filled with man-to-machine encounters. Trains have no drivers on Tokyo's Yurikamome line. At the Tip Top Hair Salon, shampoos are performed by machine. Order an ice cream cone at a store in Nagano, and a robot designed to look like a bird does the serving. Machines may not yet be able to make sushi as a master can - they are nowhere close, in fact - but they're trying anyway.

For a people renowned for their interpersonal delicacies - bowing is an elaborate social code - this is quite a change. Japanese still bow on the telephone. But that's because they know a fellow human is on the other end. As machines begin to perform more and more of the jobs once filled by humans, as in convenience stores that have disposed of all clerks, those codes will either have to adapt or fall by the wayside. And where the Japanese go, the rest of the world is headed. Get used to it.

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