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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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Shuzu Ogushi for TIME
Metalworker Saito bends steel into the precise curve needed for a hull.

Man Beats Machine
Machines may have taken over in Japan, but they still have not replaced an Úlite corps of trained craftsmen who refine products that no industrial robot can replicate

Let's say you're an aspiring engineer interested in a job at Tokyo's Mitaka Kohki Ltd., a manufacturer of telescopes, microscopes and high-precision medical equipment. First you'll be asked to draw a portrait of yourself. Next, you'll make a model airplane out of wood and paper-and it had better fly. If so, you get an interview and a lunch at the company canteen, where you should expect to be watched closely. Company founder and chairman Yoshikazu Nakamura, 68, attends the lunches and notices how applicants handle their chopsticks. "We check their manual dexterity," says Nakamura. Why? "All of us are craftsmen."

The greatest honor for a Japanese musician or painter is to be designated a "Living Treasure" by the government. Those who have worked with machines to create modern Japan receive similar recognition from the Labor Ministry. Since 1996, 150 have been celebrated each year as the country's "Outstanding Skilled Workers." Among their number, however, is a very special tribe that works with machines, and sometimes makes them-but whose members have skills that exceed anything a machine can do. Without these workers Japan would lose the competitive edge that it has built over the years. Small companies dedicated to craftsmanship, like Mitaka Kohki, often provide the concepts and breakthroughs that major corporations need. "Innovation is the only way we can compete with big companies," says Nakamura, whose firm has 150 patents. "We need craftsmen who can invent special devices."

Satoru Saito has one of the bigger jobs for a craftsman. An employee at Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries, one of Japan's oldest shipbuilders, he is responsible for bending a precise curve into the giant steel plates that make up the hulls of seagoing ships. That's a job no machine can do as accurately as Saito. And the difference between a machine-made hull and one shaped by Saito is significant: with the right curve, a boat will glide through the sea with less resistance and burn less fuel.

Saito's skill is called "line-heating." He stands before a metal plate 3-m high, 17-m long and 20-mm thick, armed with a blowtorch in his right hand and a hose in the left. He scores the plate in parallel lines with the blowtorch, which heats the metal. Simultaneously, he sprays water on the plate, which cools it. This causes the steel to expand and contract until it curves exactly right. Saito, 45 has been working at the shipyard for 26 years, and time is required to learn the technique: five years to do a simple curve and another five to become really skillful. "There is no textbook," he says. "It depends on your long-term experience." A bending machine run by computer, currently being developed, may someday replace elements of his work. "But," says Saito, "there will always be a part that can be done only by humans."

Masayuki Okano has a factory in Mukojima, a section of Tokyo's Sumida ward that is jammed with small machine shops. A popular trade in the past was producing machines to make seamless metal cylindrical containers, such as lipstick tubes, ballpoint pens and cigarette lighters. Most of those products faded years ago-how many people use metal cigarette lighters?-but the technology lives on in Okano's six-man shop. Seamless metal containers still have myriad uses in the high-tech age: they make particularly good casings for long-life lithium ion batteries, used in mobile phones and notebook computers, since they don't corrode as welded casings do.

Okano has few peers when it comes to devising and refining ways to make such cases from stainless steel, magnesium or titanium. The technique is called "deep drawing," in which a sheet of metal is pressed around a die until it thins out and is joined perfectly. Okano's craftsmen figure out how to do that for each design and then build a machine capable of pressing the casings automatically. "Human hands are the best sensors," says Okano, who taught himself the business from German textbooks in the 1950s. One of his current challenges is to design a metal case for a cellular phone, which may appeal to environmentally conscious consumers who disapprove of plastic. He has also made molds for NASA and is working with the U.S. Defense Department to make small parabolic antennae for reflecting laser beams.

Yoshiyuki Nagashima, named an "Outstanding Skilled Worker" last year, makes grinders for industrial machine tools. His is a somewhat obscure product. To mass-produce electronic parts, companies need extremely precise dies. Those are ground on a table-like plate. No machine can make the plate as flat as it needs to be. What's more, a machine-made surface produces the wrong kind of friction: to do its job precisely, the plate's surface needs minute scorings, of only a few microns each, where machine oil can reside. Nagashima's company makes the entire grinding mechanism, and the scorings on the plate are done by hand using a chisel-like tool called a kisage. More than 300 man-hours are required for each plate. "You have no choice but to rely on human hands," says Nagashima, who set up his own company in 1973 after training at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. "This cannot be done by machine." Indeed, when each machine is completed, a plaque is affixed with the name of the worker who did the scoring: "I've made this machine to the utmost of my abilities and good faith. Please use it with care and affection for a long time." That's a human touch typical of Japan-and one that remains as vital as ever.

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