The thirtieth anniversary in 2009 of Mobile Suit Gundam, a hit anime franchise, served as the opportunity to construct an 18m tall, 35-tonne replica of one of its key robot characters on Tokyo’s Odaiba. During the two months RX-78-2 Gundam was on display it drew 4.15 million visitors. Crowds are also flocking to see another giant anime robot statue – Tetsujin 28 – built to commemorate Kōbe’s recovery from its 1995 earthquake (see Kobe Tetsujin Project). And it’s difficult to turn a corner without seeing an image of Tezuka Osamu’s Astro Boy, perhaps the most famous anime robot of all; his latest role is the official ambassador for Japan’s bid for the 2022 World Cup.
Japan’s love of humanistic robots goes back several centuries to the Edo era when much smaller karakuri ningyo (mechanized automata and puppets) were crafted to serve tea, or to decorate the portable shrines used in festivals: you can still see such dolls in action today on the floats used in festivals in Takayama and Furukawa among other places. These are the roots of a culture that continues to see robots as entertainment, life assistants and even friends. One robot called I-Fairy has officiated at a wedding while another, the robot seal Paro is being used for therapy in hospitals and elderly care homes.
This is just the tip of the coming robotic iceberg. As Timothy Hornyak points out in his fascinating book Loving the Machine, “more and more intelligent machines are expected to start working in Japanese society in areas such as healthcare as its population ages rapidly and its workforce shrinks.”