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  • Querying Robotics as Platform
  • Dylan Hallingstad O'Brien (bio)
Robo sapiens japanicus: Robots, Gender, Family, and the Japanese Nation
Jennifer Robertson
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018. xv + 260 pp.

In Robo sapiens japanicus: Robots, Gender, Family, and the Japanese Nation, Jennifer Robertson combines ethnographic work with nuanced engagement of an array of texts spanning pre- and postwar Japan to scrutinize the burgeoning field of robotics. Disputing robotics as a neutral field or one that breaks with culture, Robertson looks toward the imbrication of government investment under a rubric of innovation, with enterprises formulating robotic solutions to everyday problems and crises alike. She argues that interpolating formations of gender and (Japanese) ethnicity are materially and ideologically reproduced in line with conservative political imaginaries by robotic solutions. Gender and ethnicity, then, become productive and produced in new ways for both the state and capital in the field of robotics.

Robertson's text proposes robotics as a platform — doubly so. Robertson notes two definitions of "platform" that she places in productive relation: a set of technologies that serve as the basis for subsequent elaborations and a "public set of objectives." She aptly demonstrates the interrelationship of these two facets of robotics as a platform by interrogating the first Shinzo Abe administration's Innovation 25 proposal for a robot-supplemented future. Robertson shows how an imagined robot-human coexistence provides the grounds for forwarding conservative political ideals under the guise of freedom enabled by robots. But robotics also serves as platform in the sense of actually helping accomplish conservative goals outside the pages of Innovation 25: from robots as a set of technologies on which to build a new business of arms exports to robots as supplementing the workforce instead of permitting immigration.

Robertson critiques the notion of robotics as a neutral field, as most of the problems it aims to solve reflect the contouring of society to demand certain gendered forms of labor from certain bodies. Building on this critique, she illustrates that gender and the body are thought together in a way that naturalizes a conflation [End Page 670] of sex, gender, and sexuality through the robot as a platform; the robot's body and gender are necessarily connected, not contingent. The result is robotic anatomies composed of gendered motifs that become productive of a situational conflation of sex and gender through making gender's relation to anatomy necessary. Further, she argues, robots naturalize gender and the division of labor germane to conservative ideology by conflating culturally determined markers of gender with sex through the body of the robot, and having gendered robots perform certain tasks precisely due to their (gendered) bodies.

Integral to the text is a critique of how robotics is used to aestheticize and politicize "Japanese"-ness through utopian futurities. Specifically, the text looks at how conservative politicians and capitalist enterprise use robotics as a vehicle to bring together ethnicity, culture, and the nation under the heading of "Japanese." Robertson teases out how the platform of robotics in government-disseminated narratives aestheticizes elements such as safety and danger in relation to Japanese and foreign identities in order to politicize what is taken as Japanese itself; Japan itself is depicted as constructed by the Japanese people, themselves the repositories of Japanese culture. For example, Robertson turns to the fictive ethnography of the Inobe family embedded in the Innovation 25 proposal, which seeks to chart a "safe, comforting, and convenient" future. Robertson highlights how the Inobe family piece imagines safety as a distinct trait of Japanese society, enabled by constant robotic monitoring and by robots, not foreigners, performing tasks associated with present labor shortages. Likewise, Robertson points out a contest run by the government to have children provide drawings of what innovation means. One of the winners portrays a foreign-looking man, attempting to abduct a Japanese schoolgirl, apprehended by a robot. In this feedback loop, Japanese culture values safety and produces it through technology. Technology, however, is developed in pursuit of a version of safety that, as Robertson shows, has a lot to do with a mono-cultural, homogeneous portrait of Japan.

Robo sapiens japanicus also looks at how processes of designing robots and imagining the world in which...