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  • Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Robots, Gender, Family, and the Japanese Nation by Jennifer Robertson
  • Gerald Figal (bio)
Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Robots, Gender, Family, and the Japanese Nation. By Jennifer Robertson. University of California Press, Oakland, 2018. xvi, 260 pages. $85.00, cloth; $29.95, paper; $29.95, E-book.

The 2008–9 Japanese animation series Ivu no jikan (Time of Eve) envisions a near-future Japan in which humans commonly own and live with advanced androids serving as housekeepers, caregivers, companions, and personal assistants. In itself, that now-commonplace sci-fi scenario is not terribly compelling. What makes the series interesting, however, is the space of the eponymous café where the house rules dictate there can be no discrimination between humans and androids, the latter of whom, when they enter Time of Eve, lose the holographic halos that mark them in public as androids. The interactions that follow among the café patrons, who do not know each other's ontological status, raise in a lighthearted way several of the issues—notably gender relations and robot rights—surrounding the visions and realities of robots in Japanese society which Jennifer Robertson trenchantly cuts through in Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Robots, Gender, Family, and the Japanese Nation.

Ivu no jikan is very much part of the starry-eyed vision of robots in Japanese society that Robertson recounts in her introductory chapter, its theme echoing in fact the chapter's epigraph taken from Akifumi Tamaoki, the general manager of Toyota Motors' Partner Robot Division: "Our dream is to create a society where it is nothing special for people to live together with robots" (p. 1). Robertson's opening survey of robots in Japanese popular imagination, prominent contemporary robotics platforms aspiring to fulfill Tamaoki's dream, and Prime Minister Abe Shinzō's active support of that dream's realization to solve myriad social problems establishes the context of her critical intervention that roughly spans Abe's two administrations (2006–7; 2012–present). The thrust of that intervention is first to distinguish promotional hype from technological reality in recent robotics research in Japan and, more important, to discern how promotion, development, manufacture, and deployment (actual and imagined) of robots in Japan intersect with and are informed by pressing problems, social assumptions, and political agendas. Through fieldwork at robotics labs, interviews with industry representatives, and analyses of policy statements, academic discourse, and public media promoting robot-human coexistence, Robo Sapiens Japanicus offers a much-needed, clear-eyed view of Japanese robotics shorn of advertising hype and science fictionalization and instead grounded in physical, social, and political realities. [End Page 553]

With these realities as her focus, Robertson centers the first half of the book on demonstrating how robotics discourse, design, and deployment serve to reinforce status quo social structures and relations, particularly those involving gender roles within families and workplaces. This theme runs throughout chapters 2 ("Innovation as Renovation"), 3 ("Families of Future Past"), and 4 ("Embodiment and Gender"). The author convincingly argues that what is typically promoted and understood as ideologically neutral technologies designed to solve problems such as labor shortages and to liberate people from daily drudgeries so that they can realize personal potentials are in fact complicit in maintaining an ideologically conservative conception of a national body. In that conception, for example, robots rather than immigrants fill labor shortages and women are freed by female-gendered robots from doing "women's work" to have more time to rear more children. After this analysis, it's hard to read Prime Minister Abe's enthusiastic support for robotics R&D without deep cynicism, which might not be entirely fair as it would seem to foreclose on any possibility of government promotion that might actually be objectively good and proper within particular contexts.

That caveat aside, Robertson's examination of the Abe administration's 2007 Innovation 25, which "lays the conceptual groundwork for human-robot coexistence, the pursuit of cyborg-ableism, and the inauguration of a Robot Olympics" (p. 28), makes clear the socially retrograde character of a technologically forward-looking initiative. The technological innovation it espouses does not extend to social institutions, family structures, or gender roles. Rather, Robertson argues, its "retro-utopian rhetoric" (p. 36...


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