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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