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Book Review: Inside The Robot Kingdom

As the translator for Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy, Frederik L. Schodt was in a particularly good position to write a book about the Robot Kingdom, otherwise known as Japan. The monicker came about as a result of the nation’s large population of industrial robots, which continues to dwarf that of other nations.

How Japan earned that title is a lesson to anyone interested in the country’s rise to prominence in the electronics and automotive industries, and presages the arrival of their famous humanoids. Entertaining black and white photos, quotes from prominent roboticists, and factoids are peppered throughout the book.

Schodt covers industrial robots from their rocky beginnings to Fanuc’s massive robot fortress at the base of Mt. Fuji. I must admit I was initially uninterested in reading about the manufacturing side of robot history, but I was pleasantly surprised by how dramatic the whole thing was. Without getting too technical he describes a variety of robots and their functions, and the vastly different receptions they received in the United States and Japan.

Japanese companies were so proud of their robots that they aired commercials on prime time television showing the latest in factory automation. In an essay by the president of Fanuc, industrial robots are compared to a fictional samurai from the Edo period. Like Tengezaemon, an industrial robot could still be very useful even if it had only one eye, one arm, and one leg to slide around on.

The author also takes us back in time to examine Japan’s technological blackout during its isolationist period. Here he discusses the cultural role of the karakuri ningyo (similar to Western clockwork automata), which many Japanese consider the precursor to modern humanoids. You can see some examples of these cool contraptions here.

Almost immediately following the end of the second world war Japanese pop-culture enshrined images of science and technology. An overview of the robot heroes in manga and animation sets the stage for a booming toy industry. These proved incredibly popular in Western markets in the form of tin toys and, much later, Transformers. The children that were raised on a steady diet of giant robots became inspired to build them.  Also included are examples of entertainment robots from Namco and Taito (video arcade companies) and those built for the World Expo ’85 in Tsukuba.

It’s not all good news, as made clear by some of the problems associated with factory automation.  Depending on your interest in the global robotics industry as it was evolving at that time, your mileage may vary. I felt it started to drag near the end, but it pulls off a strong finish by switching to robots developed for research purposes at Japanese universities. A variety of specimens, including the first robots built at Waseda University by the late Prof. Ichiro Kato (the father of humanoid robots), and others at the Hirose Fukushima lab, are a perfect way to end the book.

Apparently when it was first published it suffered horrible sales, probably because it was about a decade ahead of its time.  Either way I would recommend it to robot geeks, as used copies can be had for a pittance on Amazon.  You can also download the e-book at a fair price, which includes new full-color photos.

You can find out what Fred Schodt has been up to on his official website, and follow him on Twitter @FSchodt.

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