The Japanese Relationship with Humanoid Robots

for April, 2016

The Japanese Relationship with Humanoid Robots

Posted on 25 April 2016 in Cultural Awareness, Inter-Cultural Training, Market Insight -
Hitachi Robot

When I go into British companies to talk about Japan, I often get asked, “Why do Japanese people love Robots so much?” Although the development of Artificial Intelligence is happening on a global scale with robotic manufacturing technology no longer dominated by Japanese companies, they have developed a close relationship with and acceptance of “humanoid” robots as seen by the recent examples serving in shopping centres, banks and hotels (although technically this one was a dinosaur). With a rapidly ageing and decreasing population (with no real signs of immigration filling the gaps) alongside limited child-care facilities, the use of humanoids is certainly attractive for Japan’s current social challenges. Last year, PM Abe opened Japan’s Official Robot Revolution Initiative Council and called on the nation’s corporate sector to “spread the use of robotics from large-scale factories to every corner of our economy and society.” The humanoids that are being developed by Japanese companies such as Soft Bank (Pepper) & Hitachi (EMIEW3) can express themselves, have good mobility and seem to offer an alternative to the “human” experience.

Japanese Acceptance of Humanoids

The Japanese have never had much of a problem forming strong emotional bonds with substitutes for human connection. Look at their relationships with manga characters and let’s not forget they were the country who gave us virtual pets such as Tamagotchi. Many of these create intense emotional connections. The social media network LINE’s AI school girl character had men falling in love with her. I have often heard people quote the Shinto concept of ‘animism’ in Japan (meaning that all objects have spirits) to explain the emotional relationship between Japanese people and robots.

Cultural Factors Needing Consideration

A recent symposium* on the acceptance of humanoids comparing the UK and Japan showed that there is a significantly lower acceptance of humanoids in the UK and alarmism that they may take away jobs and render humans useless. Findings from the same symposium stated that: “In order to further social acceptance of the humanoid across cultures, designers of robots need to consider cultural factors in their potential users.”  Japan must culturally assimilate these humanoids outside of Japan to avoid an inward focus of their technology. They may be leading the way scientifically with face recognition yet facial expressions of Japanese people can be quite hard to read and even come across as indiscernible to more expressive cultures. The ritualistic set phrases used in different social interactions may foster a sense of intimacy for Japanese users, but may prove too distant and again “robotic” if used elsewhere.

However, to meet Japan’s current social challenges, humanoids may well be a solution-recent Nomura research indicates that almost half of the jobs in Japan could be managed by robots. However, I still remain unconvinced for their substitute as a child-care option..

*4th International Symposium on New Frontiers in Human-Robot Interaction-April 2015, Canterbury UK: Differences in Social Acceptance of Humanoid Robots between Japan and the UK.

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Symposium:In The Wake of Japan’s Nuclear Tsunami. The University of Sheffield

Posted on 25 April 2016 in News, Uncategorized -

I was asked to make some opening remarks for this Symposium held at Sheffield University on how the Tsunami had affected me personally, as it had prompted me to get back in touch with Japan, get involved with JETAAUK and ultimately start up my own business relating to Japan. I also spoke about how it was viewed by the rest of the world by bringing in observations from people I have spoken to with no knowledge of Japanese society-how they viewed the Japanese people’s  reaction to a crisis, the behaviour of whom was viewed as quite unusual such as the relative law and order and resilience that was still evident even in a time of crisis. I referenced the somewhat fatalistic Japanese spirit of “gamman” meaning to persevere or stick with it, something that people from more individualistic cultures find hard to understand let alone practise. Although there are negative sides to this mentality sometimes resulting in a tendency to not complain and put up with things that are not acceptable at all to avoid the shame of being seen to not being able to practise “gamman”, it did show the world the indomitable spirit of Japan that has stuck with many observers.

At this symposium, we also got to hear from fantastic PhD students who were doing research in areas that linked into the topic such as the nuclear debate and the planning of playgrounds in the affected areas to support the children. Some of the staff from the University are directly involved in implementing these play areas and the clean up of the Nuclear Plant in Fukushima. We also heard from Japanese representatives from Mitsubishi Research Institute and the University of Tokyo about the rehabilitation efforts that are still on-going in these areas.

 

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