Review of Jennifer Robertson – Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Robots, Gender, Family, and The Japanese Nation

Review of Jennifer Robertson, Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Robots, Gender, Family, and The Japanese Nation, University of California Press, 2018, bibliography, index, 253 pp.

Reviewed by Mona Abaza, The American University in Cairo

Having lived as a child for many years in Japan, Jennifer Robertson begins her work on robots, robotics, and humanoids, and their relationship to social inequalities and changing gender roles, with a thought-provoking, personal note on how she became engaged in such a fascinating and timely topic as Robo Sapiens Japanicus. Robertson recalls that when she was a child living in Tokyo in 1964, she had to watch television at neighbours’ houses. Later, when her family acquired a set, she became a fan of two cartoons in which the heroes were robots, Astro Boy and Gigantor. The former has a robot family and the latter robot develops an emotional tie to a ten-year-old boy. In the chapters that follow, Robertson points out that Astro Boy played a key role in post-war Japan in promoting a positive image of the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Astro Boy also presented a friendly image of the humanoid industry.

Robertson’s work raises a number of challenging questions about the vast and complex field of roboticists. In particular, she explores, human and artificial intelligence and emotionality, interweaving and combining in the process, the robotization of the human life. The perpetuation of sexist gender stereotypes and the physical representations of “female” and “male” robots are also analysed in connection with the perplexing continuity of ascribed gender roles and functions in the division of labour within both human and the robot worlds. Parallel to these issues, Robertson also considers the further intrusion of machines in human life, the growing significance of prostheses and the aestheticization of disabilities, and the world of emotions. Above all, the question of blending human and artificial intelligence is thoughtfully examined. Other ideas that are skillfully incorporated into the work are “sensory motor versatility” (p. 3); speculation about “singularity,” or the possibility of interchangeability between, and the convergence of, human and machine intelligence; the highly debatable status of “humanoids” and their function in capitalist in capitalist society; and the role of the latter in the changing status of the family, women’s postponement of marriage, and the institution of marriage in general in Japan.

The ways in which the expanding field of roboticists is either reversing certain gender representations derived from Japanese artistic traditions, challenging stereotypical gender roles, or simply perpetuating them, are all central, multifaceted aspects that Robertson astutely reflects upon. Certainly, too, Robertson’s numerous previous works on gender, the body and sexuality—in particular, her book Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan[1] (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), which addresses questions of androgyny and cross-dressing in Japan—should be read as a  compendium of a long and erudite intellectual exercise on gender matters.

In a way, as the French would say, this work concludes the famous proverb “la boucle est bloucée”.

Robertson’s endeavour in Robo Sapiens Japanicus is the result of rigorous research that elucidates the repeated confusion between science-fiction robots and the real things. There is a popular feeling of resentment of the corporate values that actual robots embody. Robertson’s implicit argument, running throughout this work, is that robots are incredibly expensive machines and labs have to rely on state and corporate funding to create them, and thus the robots (of all types) reflect the “values” of the funders. Real robots—as opposed to science-fiction robots—have no agency at all, and are not capable of representing diversity or alternative, progressive approaches or solutions to present-day circumstances .

The book consists of seven chapters: “Robot Visions,” “Innovation as Renovation,” “Families of Future Past,” “Embodiment and Gender,” “Robots’ Rights versus Human Rights,” “Cyborg-Ableism beyond the Uncanny (Valley),” and “Robot Reality Check.”

Robertson undertook a thorough ethnography which started in 2006, encompassing extensive fieldwork between 2007 and 2008. This was complemented by incredibly extensive documentation in the expanding field of robotics, in addition to an impressive number of interviews with Japanese roboticists. Also included in the interviews and communications were government bureaucrats, corporate officials, academics, and consumers. Participant observation in robotics laboratories and industrial exhibitions plays a major role. Illustrations of science-fiction cartoons, comics, and fascinating photographs displaying the wide variety of robots, proto-robots, child robots, prostheses, designer prostheses, humanoids, actroids, geminoids, and animal robots animate the text, and enrich it visually.

Robertson discusses the various gender representations in robotics in comics, in Japanese popular culture, in cartoons, in fictional ethnographies, in art works, in art installations, and in novels and films. As her starting point in the opening chapters, she astutely draws analogies with Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis and the early popular science-fiction works of Isaac Asimov, which shaped the Western imagination for many years. However, she convincingly argues why Japanese robotics is so distinctive, even unique, when contrasted to the Euro-American world. She takes as a starting point the common dystopian literature trope in Occidental culture about robots taking over the human world and eliminating humanity, then goes on to imply that this apocalyptic vision seems to be non-existent in Japan. This is because, in today’s Japan, “the association of robot is with benevolent, intelligent machines whose shapes and functions are inspired by biology and diverse life-forms” (p. 5). Robertson’s work is a futuristic and yet highly grounded, well-documented, and perceptive ethnography.

But what makes the human–robot interactions and relationships so different in Japan from those elsewhere? The key to understanding the difference lies in the classical anthropological binary dichotomy of nature versus culture, which Robertson brilliantly addresses. Japan’s radical conception of nature, shizen, is summarized in the metaphor of the purposefully dwarfed bonzai tree. Nature in Japan is a protean entity shaped by religious, social, and ritual interventions and scientific experiments. Nature exists in multiple forms and seems to be inclusive of culture, even part of it as a symbiotic constituent. Nature in Japan, as reported by Robertson, is equally contingent upon human artifice and mediation. This explains why robots can be perceived as living things in the Shinto universe, leading a pioneering roboticist to regard artificial humans as “nature’s grandchildren” (p. 15). As a further consequence, in Japan, “unlike some Abrahamic monotheistic societies or communities, religion and science are regarded as compatible and even synergistic” (p. 16). Following this line of thought, Robertson raises the question in chapter 7 of what should be the fate of “aging, damaged, defective, and inoperative robots,” which explains the photograph on the cover of the book. Taken in 2014, it depicts forlorn Wakamaru robots in a cage on the grounds of Osaka University awaiting removal to an industrial waste recycling center (p. 183). Robertson describes the fascinating emerging phenomenon of a new type of memorial rite, the robot funeral, that can be observed in Japan today at several Buddhist temples. And, in 2014, a new web-based service was inaugurated to offer robot funerals (p. 184). This phenomenon is supported by the sophisticated philosophy of materiality in Buddhism, and the chemistry between deep religious and spiritual ideas and material objects. It likewise clarifies why funerary rituals in Japan can include animal pets, artefacts, and objects that were people’s most intimate possessions, and raises the possibilities of robot reincarnation and re-embodiment (p. 187).

How then to define robots and humanoids? Robertson articulates it in the following way: “A robot is an aggregation of different technologies, sensors, lenses, software, telecommunication tools, actuators, batteries, synthetic materials and fabrics that make it capable of interacting with its environment, with some human supervision (through tele-operation) or autonomously” (p. 6). Humanoids are only one model of robots, which may take the form of wheelchairs, bathtubs, fish, seals, swallowable capsules, and vacuum cleaners. Large sections in almost every chapter analyse how roboticists reproduce standardized and stereotypically gendered features in their creations. In fact, one of Robertson’s main concerns is to challenge the uncritical and sexist gender representations in the physical appearance of the robots, the functions assigned to them, and the different ways in which publics communicate with male and female robots. For example, we are told that Actroids (Repliee), which are female replicates or doubles, were designed for use in “typical” women’s jobs in upmarket shops, bars, information booths, office complexes, and museums to greet customers (p. 114).

Will robots solve the problems of the high cost of children’s education, shrinking public child-care facilities, excessively long working hours, and unpaid overtime work? And what is the correlation between the rise of the average age of marriage of Japanese women to twenty-nine years, the growing phenomenon of the modern, single Japanese woman, and robotization? Can robots help the rapidly aging population in need of increased health care and assistance that cannot be provided by humans, given the current low birth rate? Would women be replaced in these caretaking functions by Actroids, as an alternative solution to women’s demands for emancipation from the restrictive family responsibilities that conservative politicians would like them to maintain? It is no coincidence that “sex robots” also figure in such debates. Robertson demonstrates how the public discourse on robotization is used to propose technological solutions to socio-economic problems, and why humanoids are proposed as alternative solutions for caregiving and companionship in the capitalist, highly automated labour market in Japan.

For me, one of the most thought-provoking ideas in the book is the material on the body, prosthetics, and handicaps in chapter 6. Once again, Robertson starts the chapter with a personal story recalling her childhood in Japan. She often saw disabled war veterans dressed in white, playing music in the streets using rudimentary prosthetics, and she explains how this vision has deeply affected her. Reflecting on the removal of these men from the streets and shopping arcades by the police in preparation for the 1964 Olympics (p. 146), Robertson addresses the question of the visibility, or rather the invisibility, of disabled persons in Japanese society, and the fact that there is a significant population of disabled persons in Japan.  She moves from there to the question of mobility prosthetics and, by extension, “cyborg-ableism,” which opens news horizons for the sociology of the body. Prosthetics for athletes offer a wide range of possibilities that can even exceed the normal capacities of the human body, giving rise to debates about the morality of providing superior limbs for disabled athletes and outfitting able-bodied athletes with prostheses following elective amputation. Imaginative, arty, and even flamboyant prosthetics are now at the forefront of such debates in the world of sports and everyday life. Other athletes have celebrated the difference they pose. Maya Nakanishi, who lost her right leg in an accident in 2006, is a good case in point. Nakanishi became an icon when she posed nude with a fashionable prosthesis. Not only her nude calendar, but also her training with the US Olympic track and field coach, earned her worldwide fame. Nakanishi insisted that she “wanted people to understand that I was trying to use a disadvantage as my special characteristic as well as express my stance of using that as a tool for living” (p. 149). Another part of this field is the wide range of possibilities that robotic prostheses can offer to disabled persons. For instance, Toyota’s prosthetics work focuses on restoring and even exceeding the normal function of an existing but disabled limb, as opposed to manufacturing replacement limbs (p. 150). Companies like Cyberdyne manufacture “wearable robots,” or exoskeletons. However, as Robertson points out, such robotic“power suits” require a body that is not missing any limbs.

Readers will learn a new vocabulary, including Japanese words and robotics terminology, but Robo Sapiens Japanicus remains accessible; it is not merely a visionary and nuanced book, but also pleasurable to read. It is a highly inspiring work, as it opens new perspectives on the unlimited possibilities of exploring artificial life and the growing impact of nanotechnology on questions of the sensory, activation, and locomotion components of robotics (p. 84). While firmly remaining a critical and feminist anthropologist, Robertson unlocks new horizons in the domain of embodied intelligence, and most specifically, gender inequalities.

Mona Abaza

Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology and Anthropology

The American University in Cairo,

[1] Takarazuka is a controversial theatrical genre—the largest all-female theatre in the world—created about a century ago in Japan.


Mona Abaza is professor of sociology at The American University of Cairo. Her interests are Islamic networks, sociology of knowledge, gender issues and urban theory, among others. She can be reached at