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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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Makoto Ishida for TIME
Researchers Fumio Hara and Hiroshi Kobayashi have created a robot that can register six emotions.

The Myth of the Machine

The outside world's stereotype of the Japanese is that they lack individual identity, that they are all prints off the same negative. The image of the robot only feeds the stereotype. In the Western imagination, Japan is a land where robots and robot-like workers toil together at anonymous companies, where Japanese robot manufacturers copy Western ideas and collude on research-and where bureaucrats at the Ministry of International Trade and Industry direct the production.

Poppycock. In truth, the Japanese robotics industry - like electronics and other dynamic sectors of Japan's economy-is and always has been driven by highly motivated, risk-taking entrepreneurs. We do not see these remarkable individuals because first, unlike their Western counterparts, they are not interested in self-promotion, and second, convinced a priori that they do not exist, Westerners have never bothered to look for them.

Yet such individuals have made critical contributions to Japan's technological development. Consider Gensuke Okada, an ex-manager of new product development at Kawasaki Heavy Industries. In 1967 Okada met with American robotics pioneer Joseph Engelberger. At the time, Kawasaki was not a wealthy company, and Engelberger was a prophet without recognition in his own land. But Okada was convinced he could sell robots to car companies, and Kawasaki soon became the first Japanese company to manufacture an industrial robot.

Even more remarkable is the case of Seiuemon Inaba, president of Fanuc. During the 1980s, Fanuc's factory at the foot of Mount Fuji, where robots build robots, became the very symbol of Japan's industrial prowess. In reality the truly remarkable thing about Fanuc was not the factory, but the man. Almost singlehandedly, Inaba had taken numerical control - a technology key to the operation of robots that was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - stripped it of bells and whistles and marketed the technology so well that by the mid-1980s Fanuc was one of Japan's most profitable companies.

Today, at a time when even Japanese bemoan their supposed lack of technological creativity, the country continues to turn out pioneers in robotics. For years Rod Brooks, an Australian robotics researcher at M.I.T., had tried without success to interest U.S. toymakers in the commercial potential of pet robots. The recent success of Sony's digital doggie Aibo proves Brooks was right. Developing something as outré as entertainment robots was a big risk, but after more than 50 years in business, Japan's firms remain true to their entrepreneurial roots.

Also highly innovative is RoboCup, an annual robot soccer competition. Sony researcher Hiroaki Kitano's ultimate goal in devising the match was not to replace humans with gadgets. Rather, the point is for robots to serve humanity by performing tasks better done by machines, like dangerous rescue missions. For the equally important job of refining such machines, Sony - and Japan - will continue to rely on the dynamism and entrepreneurship of very human individuals.

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