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Once an SF Dream, Now a Reality

February 1, 2001
Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy), a pioneering manga (cartoon) written in the 1960s that is still widely read today. (Tezuka Productions)

The famous Japanese cartoonist Osamu Tezuka created a comic book titled Tetsuwan Atomu, whose protagonist was a robot by the same name. Tetsuwan Atomu appeared as a serial in a boy's magazine from 1952 through 1968 and as an animated cartoon on TV from 1963 through 1966, with a new version of the show running from 1980 to 1981. Tetsuwan Atomu was extremely popular among both boys and girls. The robot character became known outside Japan as Astro Boy. In the story, the character was supposed to have been born in 2003. Today, that year is not so far off, and robots--once viewed as things of the distant future--are starting to appear all around us, as illustrated by the following status report on robots in Japan.

A Flurry of Robot Exhibitions
ROBODEX 2000, held in Yokohama at the end of November, was an exhibition of robots--not industrial robots but robots designed to function as partners of human beings. ROBODEX 2000 was the world's first robot exhibition dedicated to this specialty area. The event, sponsored by a committee consisting mainly of electronics manufacturers, showcased some 200 robots made to resemble humans, animals, and insects. ASIMO, a humanoid robot created by Honda Motor Co., was on display, and there was an area where visitors could play with AIBO, the popular dog robot from Sony Corp.

ASIMO looks like a child dressed in a spacesuit. "It's so lifelike!" visitors exclaimed as the robot walked smoothly, held out its hand to greet people, and moved its body in time to music. In part because the manufacturer had sent out press releases about the robot in advance, the ASIMO display was deluged by an unexpectedly large number of visitors. As a result, the organizers of ROBODEX 2000 ended up having to limit the number of visitors and even to stop selling same-day entry tickets.

A few weeks before ROBODEX 2000, a preexhibition event called RoboFesta Kanagawa 2001 was held in the city of Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture. About 20 of today's most advanced robots were on display at this two-day event, which attracted some 38,000 visitors. One of the robots had a caterpillar tread, which would enable it to search for and rescue people buried in rubble during an earthquake. Another was a planetary exploration robot that could be operated by remote control and thus could be used on the moon or Mars. Yet another robot was capable of moving so smoothly that its motions--turning around when tapped on the shoulder, shaking hands, and so on--appeared totally natural.

Robots are also stealing the show at other kinds of events, such as toy expositions. Since AIBO went on the market, many other appealing animal robots have come out. Two of the more unusual are a jellyfish and a fish, both of which actually swim underwater. Word has it that people find it therapeutic to watch the swimming motion of the robots.

The market for companion robots is growing in Japan. (Sony Corp.)

Japan's First Robot Specialty Store Opens
Even aside from robot-related events, there are many opportunities these days to come into contact with cute robots. In August 2000 a store specializing in robots opened in Tokyo's Akihabara area, famed for its electronic-goods shops. Known as Tsukumo Robocon Magazine house, the shop is a cooperative venture between Tsukumo Co., a large-volume discount seller of personal computers, and the editorial department of Robocon Magazine (published by Ohmsha). Though the shop is very small, with a floor area of only 70 square meters (753.5 square feet), it offers about 30 finished products (including a walking insect robot known as WonderBorg), as well as semifinished products and assembly kits. Also on hand is equipment for use in games and competitions: for example, a sumo ring for robot sumo wrestling matches and a Micromouse maze. To cater to more serious hobbyists who want to try making robots themselves, the store also carries such components as transistors and bearings, tools, and relevant publications.

Several major trends in Japanese society, including industrial restructuring, the falling birthrate, and the graying of society, have created demand for nonindustrial robots. Known as personal robots, they are designed to help human beings with a variety of tasks. Ever since the days of Astro Boy, Japanese people have been open to the idea of living with robots. Now, this mentality has the potential to lead to the flourishing of a unique robot culture.

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Trends in JapanCopyright (c) 2001 Japan Information Network. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.