The Illusion of Japan as a Technological Utopia

In the year 2000, a short series of documentaries on Japan called ‘Japan TV’ was made by BBC Choice. At the beginning of the episode entitled “Future in Japan”, the narrator, against the backdrop of a montage sequence showing off various Japanese mobile phones and CD players, reads: “Japan’s today is Britain’s tomorrow; Tokyo is a gadget freak’s heaven. High-tech products that are part of everyday life in Japan are not yet available here.” This was, and continues to be a common representation of Japan, but trip to the country that year may well have left the viewers of that documentary wondering “where are all these high tech products that are part of everyday life over here but are not yet available in Britain?” Or, to conclude eventually that the first lines of that particular documentary were, in fact, hyperbole. But this would have posed the question of how, and more interestingly, why, this image had come about. This essay will address the very real phenomenon of Japanese technological proficiency, and it will go on to examine some examples of how it has come to be represented in early 2000’s British television media. The essay will look at whether these technological images and the efforts they represent can be attributed to ‘soft power’, and in with this in mind it will also look briefly at how these representations have, on a global scale, helped Japanese exporters and developers abroad. 

The concepts of the future, technological advancement and far away and exotic places have been inextricably linked in the western psyche for a long time. In 1661, a British philosopher and founder member of the Royal Society wrote: 

“To them that come after us, It may be as ordinary to buy a pair of wings to fly to the remotest regions, as now a pair of boots to ride a journey; and to confer at the distance of the Indies by sympathetic conveyances, may be as usual in the future as by literary correspondence . . . I doubt not posterity will find many things that are now rumours verified into practical realities. It may be that, some ages hence, a voyage to the Southern tracts, yea possibly to the Moon, will not be more strange than one to America.” (Margolis, 2008) 

Over the course of three hundred and fifty-two years since Glanville’s speculation, the far away and exotic land of Japan has seen its image oscillate between polar extremes in the eyes of the west. From Kaempfer’s eclectic images published in 1727, to the ‘Yellow Peril’ of the 1900’s, western representations of Japan came to fascinate and terrify in equal measure. Also during this time, technology improved at a rate never before seen by mankind, and it too came to captivate and petrify us: at no point was this more the case than when we finally did get to the moon in 1969, when the technological advances of the Cold War renewed feelings that, for better or for worse, technology would continue to improve. The Cold War continued in the two decades that followed the lunar landing, and during this time Japan came to be seen as an economic superpower. Japanese technology, in particular, came to be seen as durable and reliable: as Hunt and Target (1995, p.5) remark,

 “By the late 1970’s… the rate at which the quality of Japanese products had improved had been impressive and people in the West were looking for the reasons why. The first realisation was that Japanese companies had a clear focus on quality and cared about it. ‘Good enough’ was not an expression used in Japanese companies.” 

Also around that time, Vogel (1979, p.13) famously wrote “The extent of Japanese superiority over the United States in industrial competitiveness is underpublicized” in the provocative ‘Japan as Number One’. It would be this perceived dominance that would lead to anti-Japanese sentiment in the 1980’s, as Hook et al (2005, p.6) remark “Japan, at best, evoked images of an economic juggernaut, driverless and careering out of control”, and by 1990 a poll suggested that “three quarters of Americans viewed Japan’s economic power as a greater threat to the United States than the Soviet Union’s military power” (Agiesta, 2012). But, as Japan’s Bubble Economy began to slowly implode shortly after that particular poll was taken, the images of Japan as an economic threat also began to subside. The technology of the country continued to enjoy its positive image without the backdrop of ‘Japan Inc.’ as a negative connotation. Thereafter, along with the advent of Japanese computer games, the modern western interpretation of Japan as a technological utopia began to find its roots.

In his work entitled ‘Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics’, Joseph Nye (2000, p.5) wrote 

“A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries – admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness – want to follow it. In this sense, it is also important to set the agenda and attract others in world politics, and not only to force them to change by threatening military force or economic sanctions. This soft power – getting others to want the outcomes that you want – co-opts people rather than coerces them”.

The Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s recent efforts to export modern images of ‘Cool Japan’ have been identified as a form of soft power (Nagata, 2012). However, In order to better understand Japan’s position with regards to its technology, let us first consider the nature of its currency. As its Bubble Economy began to burst in the early 1990’s, the Bank of Japan began reducing interest rates to battle deflation, and interest rates reached zero in 1999 (BoJ overnight call rate). Japanese government has therefore become able to loan billions of US Dollars’ worth of capital to developing nations for infrastructure and development projects at virtually zero per cent interest for long periods of time. A section of Japan’s Official Development Assistance Charter (2003) reads,

“As nations deepen their interdependence, Japan, which enjoys the benefits of international trade and is heavily dependent on the outside world for resources, energy and food, will proactively contribute to the stability and development of developing countries through its ODA. This correlates closely with assuring Japan’s security and prosperity and promoting the welfare of its people. In particular, it is essential that Japan make efforts to enhance economic partnership and vitalize exchange with other Asian countries with which it has particularly close relations.” 

It would therefore makes sense that, in return for these low interest loans, the companies selected to carry out the projects are required to be Japanese multinationals – an example of so called ‘tied aid’. In the past, Japan has been heavily criticised for its policies of tied aid, and from the perspective of Orientalism, the western discourse on Japan’s aid programmes provides a fascinating debate: the Commitment to Development Index has consistently ranked Japan’s “development-friendliness” bottom of all the OECD member states, and the most recent release ranked it twenty-sixth out of twenty-seven (Roodman, 2012). This has been something that prompted a spirited rebuttal from Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2006), who set about outlining various problems of the index. The logistics of these exchanges are, however, beyond the scope of this paper, but the fact remains that, in terms of ODA, many of Japan’s development loans remain tied in reality as they are denominated in Yen and require consultation with Japanese firms in order to be established. As Rickards (1991) remarked “because much aid remains tied and donor agencies prefer large-scale infrastructure projects, overseas assistance continues to benefit Japan’s private sector handsomely.” However, whether a project is tied or untied, the developers in the Japanese private sector will inevitably find themselves with same problem as Japan’s exporters: the appreciation of the Yen against the Dollar. Put simply, as the price of the Yen increases, so too do the prices of Japanese goods and services abroad, and thus the need justify these prices is increased. It is, then, not only of vital importance that Japanese companies are seen to be technologically superior in order to be competitive abroad, but it is also crucial that the Japanese government plays an active role in reinforcing these images. The Yen saw significant rises against the Dollar in 1998, and again from 2002 to 2005 (indexmundi). 

In February 2002, Honda’s Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility (ASIMO), which Honda has dubbed “the world’s most advanced humanoid robot”, became the first non-human ever to ring the bell to open the New York Stock Exchange (Hesseldahl, 2002). In the same year, Jonathon Ross (2002), the presenter of a series of documentaries on Japan called ‘Japanorama’ said in a mock-condescending tone reminiscent of 1990’s ‘Japan Bashing’: “Honda has spent around $60,000,000 developing this bruiser, ASIMO. He’s not tomorrow’s robo-soldier, is he? Rearrange the letters and ASIMO replies “I AM SO!”” ASIMO was then the product of around 14 years of research into humanoid robotics, and the real developmental costs of the robot have not been disclosed publically. It was initially introduced as a potential helper for people with reduced mobility: when the robot was revealed for the first time a Honda spokesman said “It would provide a person without mobility the ability to move because it would be an extension of themselves… think of the potential of how that would give that person a better life.” (Kornblum, 2000). However, Honda have not released any plans to sell the device commercially since its unveiling in 2000, and its functions since then have been appearances at science and technology shows, and as part of a live showcase at Disneyland in California called “Say Hello to Honda’s ASIMO”.

In the late 1990’s, In addition to the Tamagochi, the releases of Sony’s PlayStation 2 and Sega’s Dreamcast games consoles meant that Japanese technology now had the full attention of young westerners.  The 1990’s and early 2000’s also saw a string of Japanese robotic products created with the same ethos and whose releases caused sensations in the media but whose sales figures failed to impress.  In particular, Sony’s Aibo, a robotic dog released in 1999, provides and apt example. The units were particularly ambitious in their design: they were able to recognise various vocal commands and could be taught to sit and roll over on cue. But the high production costs of the Aibo meant that their retail price was also rather steep, and the average western child or teenager was not ordinarily able to afford it — this was perhaps the reasoning behind Sony’s decision in 2006 to discontinue its production. However, it is the Sony Dream Robot (SDR), created in 2002, which provides another example of a Japanese-made robot which was rigorously marketed but never actually sold. The aforementioned Japanorama (2002) reported that the retail price of the SDR would be around £20,000, but a release date was never announced. Nevertheless, given that they were perceived to be too expensive for the average person to afford, the very fact that these products were seen in the media could well have changed the perceptions of Japanese technology in many people’s eyes. As Morley and Robbins (1995) remarked, “If the future is technological, and if technology has become ‘Japanized’, the syllogism would suggest that the future is now Japanese too.” Regardless of their sales figures, the impact which the Aibo and the SDR had on impressionable westerners from younger generations with regards to their views on Japanese technology should, therefore, not be underestimated. 

In 2001, the newest line of softer-looking Sony Aibos were released, and this caused the usual stir in the media, but it also led some to question where Sony was going with its project. As Herper (2001) put it:

“There’s really only one downside to Sony’s whole Aibo program: The company has portrayed the cute pseudo-creatures as the future of artificial intelligence. But like comic book and animation aficionados who have seen their pet art forms taken over by cute, anthropomorphic animals, artificial intelligence geeks must be getting anxious. Robots, some must be complaining, were supposed to become more than just toys.”

It is perhaps this western credulity concerning Japanese technology that causes an exaggerated sense of expectation: at the turn of the new century, the presenter of a documentary made for Channel Four called ‘Travels in Virtual Japan’ (2000) attended a technology exhibition in Tokyo, where he donned a pair of demonstration Olympus ‘Eye-Trek’ glasses and said:

“This is amazing, I’m watching a movie here on these new Olympus special glasses. Imagine you’re going home from work on the train and you put these on and you can watch a film, you can watch a video of some kind, and no one will ever know what you are watching. Amazing.”

This would have been a forgettable piece to camera, were it not for the remarks that followed:

“The same company is apparently working on a special pair of clear gasses that have cameras in them, and earphones, that record every conversation you ever have. So, for example, if you walk into a party and you meet somebody and you can’t remember their name but you’ve met them before, the information will be recorded in your glasses, and the glasses, which are called the ‘Whipering Glasses’, will whisper to you the name of the person you can’t remember. Now, that is very clever.”

It is perhaps the case that the difficulties involved with financing, developing and selling such a device have become more apparent in the last twelve years, but even the most generous of viewers today would have to concede that the idea is also very farfetched. And, with no evidence of this project available online, one is forced to wonder where that information came from. Nevertheless, the important thing to note here is that this is an example of the notion of Japanese technical superiority which was so prevalent in the 1990’s: as Morely and Robbins (1995) argued, “Japan is held up as the future, and it is a future that has transcended Western modernity”. It is therefore a logical conclusion that we would be less likely to question the technical ability of Japanese companies when we hear, for example, rumours about their research.

While the ‘Whispering Glasses’ may one day be “verified into practical reality” there remains a tendency among western commentators to overreact when it comes to commenting on Japan. Japanese technological advances represents human desires for progress, economic wealth and quality of life, but western representations of Japanese technology appeal to even deeper senses of wonder and reflect western fantasies of technology in the future. Japanese companies have used this idea, and, with the help of the production of robots that resemble humans or animals, they have extended their aura of technical superiority to a level that exceeds their real capabilities. This is rooted in the need for competitive advantage as the price of the Yen appreciates against the Dollar, and this is particularly important for Japanese developers engaged in large-scale government-led infrastructure projects abroad. Whether or not the invention of the AIBO, the SDR and ASIMO can be attributed to soft power, as opposed to expensive marketing strategies, is debatable, but approach of ‘Cool Japan’ demonstrated by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is certainly built on the lessons learned from the changes in the images and representations of Japan in the West—and, in terms of the country’s competitiveness abroad, perhaps most important of all are those of its technology. 

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