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What Japan's Friendly Robots Told Our Kids


When George Bush and his entourage of CEOs flew to Japan to preach that Japan should "play fair," it was another way of saying that it should play by our rules. The suggestion, sometimes stated baldly, is that Japan has done nothing for us over the years except glut our markets with inexpensive appliances and reliable automobiles.

The sad irony, however, is that Japan has been giving us plenty for years -- we simply haven't been receptive to its good example. Or, I should say, grown-ups haven't been receptive. The current generation of American children, with a nearly innumerable selection of sci-fi toys to stir their imaginations and to encourage their participation in the high-tech future, may owe great thanks to Japan. And so may American manufacturers who will hire these children some years from now.

Toys, Japanese-designed toys of the Fifties and Sixties, truly made a difference in America, for they nurtured among my generation, the baby boomers, a healthy regard for technology and the future -- something, I regret to say, our own parents and our own culture were incapable of nurturing.

We children who grew up watching Japanese sci-fi on TV and playing with Japanese-made sci-fi toys, have known a Japan very different from the one George Bush, Lee Iacocca and our own parents knew. The Japan they knew was, after its near annihilation by atom bombs, our humble country cousin who tried his best to be like us.

In a 1960 picture book on Japan, published by Life, there is a photo of an assembly line in a Japanese toy factory. The caption reads, "Deft hands in the Kosuge factory (left) use Detroit methods to make toy cars," as if this were as close as the Japanese would ever come to our own achievements. In those days, Japan's efforts were touching and somehow pathetic. This is the Japan Messrs. Bush and Iacocca remember. It is the Japan they want to preserve, which is why they cannot accommodate the new Japan, an aggressive world power.

On the other hand, we -- the children of the Bushes and the Iacoccas -- saw Japan as highly imaginative, technologically innovative and wholly unafraid of the future. Nowhere was this better expressed than in their manufacture of tin toy robots. Imported to the U.S. by the hundreds of thousands from 1955 to 1975, such toys were delicate pieces of machinery, often with antennae, spindly appendages, spring-loaded doors, and well-articulated body armor (very much in the tradition of kozaiku, the highly-regarded workmanship of small, delicate objects), which is why so few Japanese tin toy robots exist today.

One may wonder what the Japanese manufacturers were thinking when they designed these things for children. Apparently, they set out only to make the most of the idea of a robot, and this they did; the variations they invented over the years are innumerable and remarkable. And now, in the world community of collectors, these toys are considered some of the most ingenious and well-wrought inventions of 20th-century manufacture.

Most were no taller than 12 inches, made of brightly lithographed tin, and nearly all of them were made to look and act benign: robots carrying crescent wrenches, say, or pushing wheelbarrows, as if to help rebuild Japan -- which was the idea, after all. Over the years, as Japanese electronics grew more sophisticated, so did the toys. Some were remote-controlled and capable of walking forward, bending at the waist and picking up objects.

By 1961, 60 percent of all toys manufactured in Japan were battery-operated. It was as if the technological aspirations of the toy makers could hardly be contained by the inconsequential gewgaws they had to manufacture for a living. And surely this was the case.

What I'm pointing to here is an attitude, and it's not a matter of work ethic only. Rather it has to do with Japan's enthusiasm for technology, especially robots, and Japan's accommodation of the future. In the 1950s, while American children were watching "Roy Rogers" and "Sky King" on TV, Japanese children were watching "Astroboy" and "Tetsujin 28 Go," cartoons whose heroes were robots. And while we Americans may have had an occasional space hero such as Tom Corbett or Buck Rogers, we rarely if ever saw humans working with robots for the good of the world, which was (and is) the Japanese model. Indeed, our culture and its traditions have been antagonistic to the machine at every turn.

Creation by human hands -- specifically the building of things that somehow suggest life -- is inimical to the Judeo-Christian tradition, which disdains any inventor's attempts to "play God," no matter how well-intentioned. As the Old Testament commands, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image." What is more, you can't trust a machine because it doesn't have a soul. Even Plato condemned humankind's presumption to improve nature and viewed it as an affront to God's powers. And still we embrace this bias, preferring the "natural" to the "artificial." Our heroes are either animals, like Bugs Bunny, or superhuman, like Superman.

Add to this the dog-eat-dog credo of Western capitalism, which has bred mistrust among workers and management to such an extent that almost any notion of "progress" is viewed negatively, often depicted nowadays as the too-brainy computer that eradicates jobs and responds to human entreaties for sympathy with a monotonal "It does not compute." Consider all of this and you begin to see that it's no wonder we Westerners have bungled the high-tech ball.

If we view American-made toys of the 1950s and '60s, this is what we find: in addition to the usual domestic favorites such as dolls, an array of construction and farm vehicles (decidedly low-tech); conventional weaponry of all kinds, from Davy Crockett knives to GI Joe machine guns (clearly status-quo or nostalgic); spy paraphernalia (decoder pins, disguised weapons, etc.), some of which are forward-looking but decidedly destructive and all of which are holdovers of a slowly-thawing Cold War; and all manner of playsets that glorify mostly events of the past (e.g., the Civil War, World War II).

In short, the emphasis in these two decades was clearly on maintaining the status quo -- holding the line -- and, in fact, what was American space exploration but another means of defense, precipitated by the harrowing launch of the Soviets' Sputnik?

The truth is, until recently, Americans were quite afraid of the future in general and outer space in particular, as evidenced by a quick glance at such sci-fi films as "The Thing from Another World" (1951), "Earth Versus the Flying Saucers" (1956), "It, the Terror From Beyond Space" (1958). Infected with the paranoia of the Cold War and burdened by the guilt of atomic fallout, Americans watched the skies and each other suspiciously, anxious about invasions of every kind.

It was left to the baby boomers, once they had come of age in the Seventies -- the Steven Spielbergs and the George Lucases -- to rehabilitate American sensibilities. It is no accident, for instance, that the Jedi knights of the "Star Wars" trilogy were fashioned after Japanese samurai, who had long been a mainstay of Japanese comic books and animated cartoons and who, during the late Sixties and early Seventies, were making their appearance on the toy market as futuristic warriors.

It was no coincidence that in the Seventies, contrary to the bias of virtually every Western-made sci-fi film, robots suddenly became our allies in the movies, as did the outer space aliens themselves. The Japanese had been promoting this view for decades. And we kids knew it because we'd been watching Japanese sci-fi and playing with Japanese toys all the while.

Nowadays, in an atmosphere of increasing acrimony, we would do well to remember that the Japanese have long shared their vision and their hope freely. Their interest in industrial robotics, for instance, they were willing to share in the 1960s. But American industry -- the grownups -- ignored them because robotics wasn't the "real world." Now laments John O'Hara, the president of the American Robotic Industries Association, "the total population of [industrial] robots in the U.S. is around 37,000. The Japanese add that many robots [to their industry] in a year."

We youngsters who have now entered the high-tech race will do our best to better America, but many of us can't forget who inspired us early on. And some of us will voice the truth, as painful as it might be to our parents: The future belongs to Japan, like it or not, because the Japanese got a 40-year head start on us. They were thinking ahead, way ahead, in the Fifties, while we Americans were only watching our backs.

Ron Tanner teaches in the Writing and Media Department at Loyola College.

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