The economist has an absolutely fascinating piece on Japanese culture and robotics:
HER name is MARIE, and her impressive set of skills comes in handy in a nursing home. MARIE can walk around under her own power. She can distinguish among similar-looking objects, such as different bottles of medicine, and has a delicate enough touch to work with frail patients. MARIE can interpret a range of facial expressions and gestures, and respond in ways that suggest compassion. Although her language skills are not ideal, she can recognise speech and respond clearly. Above all, she is inexpensive . Unfortunately for MARIE, however, she has one glaring trait that makes it hard for Japanese patients to accept her: she is a flesh-and-blood human being from the Philippines. If only she were a robot instead.From the technical point of view, though, it is unlikely that the optimistic visions described in this article will materialize in the near future. So far, people have not been able to make robots perform well at typically human tasks, i.e understanding speech, recognizing objects (beyond a few crude classes), and so on. All the robots currently in existence basically repeat a few pre-programmed motions in some pre-specified, possibly random, order - i.e. industrial robots for manufacturing, robotic dogs. This seems to be the limit of our current abilities and there is only so far you can go with that.
Many workers from low-wage countries are eager to work in Japan. The Philippines, for example, has over 350,000 trained nurses, and has been pleading with Japan—which accepts only a token few—to let more in. Foreign pundits keep telling Japan to do itself a favour and make better use of cheap imported labour. But the consensus among Japanese is that visions of a future in which immigrant workers live harmoniously and unobtrusively in Japan are pure fancy. Making humanoid robots is clearly the simple and practical way to go.
Few Japanese have the fear of robots that seems to haunt westerners in seminars and Hollywood films. In western popular culture, robots are often a threat, either because they are manipulated by sinister forces or because something goes horribly wrong with them. By contrast, most Japanese view robots as friendly and benign. Robots like people, and can do good.
The Japanese are well aware of this cultural divide, and commentators devote lots of attention to explaining it. The two most favoured theories, which are assumed to reinforce each other, involve religion and popular culture.
Most Japanese take an eclectic approach to religious beliefs, and the native religion, Shintoism, is infused with animism: it does not make clear distinctions between inanimate things and organic beings. A popular Japanese theory about robots, therefore, is that there is no need to explain why Japanese are fond of them: what needs explaining, rather, is why westerners allow their Christian hang-ups to get in the way of a good technology. When Honda started making real progress with its humanoid-robot project, it consulted the Vatican on whether westerners would object to a robot made in man's image.
Japanese popular culture has also consistently portrayed robots in a positive light, ever since Japan created its first famous cartoon robot, Tetsuwan Atomu, in 1951. Its name in Japanese refers to its atomic heart. Putting a nuclear core into a cartoon robot less than a decade after Hiroshima and Nagasaki might seem an odd way to endear people to the new character. But Tetsuwan Atom—being a robot, rather than a human—was able to use the technology for good.
These sanguine explanations, however, may capture only part of the story. Although they are at ease with robots, many Japanese are not as comfortable around other people. That is especially true of foreigners. Immigrants cannot be programmed as robots can. You never know when they will do something spontaneous, ask an awkward question, or use the wrong honorific in conversation. But, even leaving foreigners out of it, being Japanese, and having always to watch what you say and do around others, is no picnic.
...AIBO, the robotic dog that Sony began selling in 1999. The bulk of its sales have been in Japan, and the company says there is a big difference between Japanese and American consumers. American AIBO buyers tend to be computer geeks who want to hack the robotic dog's programming and delve in its innards. Most Japanese consumers, by contrast, like AIBO because it is a clean, safe and predictable pet.
AIBO is just a fake dog. As the country gets better at building interactive robots, their advantages for Japanese users will multiply. Hiroshi Ishiguro, a robotocist at Osaka University, cites the example of asking directions. In Japan, says Mr Ishiguro, people are even more reluctant than in other places to approach a stranger. Building robotic traffic police and guides will make it easier for people to overcome their diffidence.
Karl MacDorman, another researcher at Osaka, sees similar social forces at work. Interacting with other people can be difficult for the Japanese, he says, “because they always have to think about what the other person is feeling, and how what they say will affect the other person.” But it is impossible to embarrass a robot, or be embarrassed, by saying the wrong thing.