Saturday, April 26, 2008

Predicting the Robot Kingdom

i09's Mangobot column has a great article about Frederik L. Schodt, Astro Boy manga translator, interpretor for Osamu Tezuka, and renowned author of several books about anime, manga, and Japanese culture. This article looks at how some books writen by Schodt, one about robotics in Japan and another about manga, were ahead of their time. Many of Schodt's books are available for sale at the AstroBoy World Store and I can definitely recommend them having read a few myself. You can expect more about Mr. Schodt and his writings here on AstroBoy World in the future.

You can read the article on the i09 website or click the link below to read it here.

Welcome back to MangoBot, a biweekly column about Asian futurism by TokyoMango blogger Lisa Katayama.

In the spring of 1988, Japanese publisher Kodansha released a revealing English-language book titled Inside the Robot Kingdom: Japan, Mechatronics, and the Coming Robotopia. The book predicted a new era when humanoid robots would dominate Japanese society in the same way that industrial robots were then dominating behind-the-scenes manufacturing in the country. It was a topic that nobody in the Western world knew much about at all. The author, Frederik L. Schodt, was a freelance interpreter from Washington, DC who lived in Japan as a kid and traveled extensively between the Japan and the US—often as a private interpreter for Tezuka Osamu, the God of manga (Japanese comic books). And he predicted a social trend that was nearly beyond comprehension in the 1980s.

Robot Kingdom has been out of print since 1992. Although it got great reviews and the publishers had high hopes for it, sales figures were small. That was probably because the stuff Schodt was writing about was so alien to a U.S. audience. Schodt remembers seeing the book on the $1 rack at a bookstore in downtown San Francisco. Not long after that, Kodansha gave him back all rights to the book, as well as the original plates that were used to print it.

"The only problem with the book is that it was released ten years ahead of its time," says Chris Baker, a senior editor at Wired magazine. "If it had appeared in the era of ASIMO and AIBO, it would have found the audience it deserved." (Author Tim Hornyak published a follow-up to Robot Kingdom, called Loving the Machine, in 2006. It's a more pop-y, updated look at the robot industry, which, according to Hornyak, "has been very well received.")

In the 1980s, Americans seriously believed that the Japanese were going to take over the world. While technology manufacturing stateside was still subpar, it was equivalent to religious ritual in Japan—organized, routine, and very, very precise. Schodt, who had been hired to interpret during factory visits by major Japanese telecom companies visiting the U.S., was taken aback by the vast chasm between the two countries' processes. "The US didn't understand Japan's obsession with quality control and manufacturing technology," Schodt says. "They thought, we have the space shuttle, and we have the bomb. What else could we possibly need? Their factories were a mess."

When he returned to Japan, Schodt signed up for factory tours at JVC, Toshiba, Hitachi, and Fanuc. He found that each company had intense pride in their manufacturing processes and culture. The best of them had entire assembly lines formed by robots in virtually unmanned factories.

For the Japanese, robotics was not just a natural step in the evolution of the world; it was an enormous financial and emotional investment into a glorified future in which humanoid robots would eventually help humans in daily life. People were excitedly tossing around words like "robot kingdom" (ロボット王国) and watching anime like Gundam and Astro Boy with starry-eyed hope for a happy sci-tech future. "Robots are a metaphor for the relationship between technology and culture," Schodt says.

The book itself is a classic—it talks about the first Japanese robot ever (a tea-serving mechanical bot from the 17th century), scifi robots, anime robots, religion's influence on robotics, the difficulties of defining the word "robot", and the promising future of the humanoid. Schodt took most of the photographs in the books on his own, and collected the rest via all-day train rides across Japan to meet his sources. He even drew all the graphs and diagrams in the book by hand.

In addition to predicting the rise of robots in Japan, Schodt also foresaw the manga craze that would hit the U.S. in the 1990s. In 1983, when he published the iconic Manga! Manga!, most Americans had never even heard of Japanese comics; today they take up entire sections of bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble.

We've come a long way since Robot Kingdom. Stories about new Japanese bots show up in the blogosphere every day, and we all know that Japan's headed into the next phase of full humanoid bot integration (because I told you so). But in 1988, Schodt's book was the only resource on Japanese robots that existed in the US.

If you ask the man himself, though, he'll tell you that he was just in the right place at the right time. "I haven't actually predicted anything very accurately in life," Schodt says. "All I've done is identify a couple of trends that were staring me in the face."

Spoken like a true futurist.