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Japanese Studies
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The Robot's Heart: Tinkering with

Humanity and Intimacy in RobotBuilding
Hirofumi Katsuno

Doshisha University , Kyoto, Japan

Published online: 11 May 2011.

To cite this article: Hirofumi Katsuno (2011) The Robot's Heart: Tinkering with Humanity and
Intimacy in Robot-Building, Japanese Studies, 31:1, 93-109, DOI: 10.1080/10371397.2011.560259
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10371397.2011.560259


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Japanese Studies, Vol. 31, No. 1, May 2011

The Robots Heart: Tinkering with Humanity

and Intimacy in Robot-Building

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HIROFUMI KATSUNO, Doshisha University, Kyoto, Japan

This paper explores the processes by which humanoid robots become sites of affective investment
in contemporary Japan. It particularly analyses how narratives of intimacy, conventionally
found in relationships between humans, are being reproduced and embodied in interactions with
humanoid robots. It uses ethnographic research on participants in Robo-One, one of Japans
most popular robotics events, to examine the development of intimate relationships between the
human and the robotic, understood in terms of kokoro (loosely translated as heart). The
robots heart emerges in the grey area between technological material and human imagination.
Through the respective processes of tinkering and spectating, both robot builders and robot
watchers experience the intimacy that results from apprehending the robots heart. This
experience creates an endless hermeneutic circle, drawing together subject and object, original and
copy, creator and created, and watcher and watched, to ultimately reconfigure participants
senses of their own kokoro.

When people actually see a robot with their own eyes, they often say to me,
The robot looks alive! They have a vision of something that transcends our
reality, something that lies beyond us . . . I think they feel the heart in the robot
(robotto ni kokoro o kanjiteiru).
Shinkawa Shinichi, President of the Robosquare Museum, Fukuoka
This paper explores the processes by which humanoid robots become sites of affective
investment in contemporary Japan. More specifically, how can cultural narratives of
intimacy, conventionally founded on relationships between humans, be reproduced and
embodied in interactions with humanoid robots? Focusing on the Japanese perception
of kokoro (heart, or mind) one of the most popular tropes permeating contemporary
Japanese robot culture I examine how this concept serves as an affective interface that
enables intimate relationships between humans and non-human objects. Here, I take
kokoro as an embodied and emergent phenomenon, inseparable from the machines
human-shaped corporeality and simulation of human movement. This contributes a
new interpretation of the term touch, the most elusive and private of the senses, as the
central mediation of human-machine interaction. The ethnographic data for my analysis
comes from my fieldwork with the amateur robot builders who compete in Robo-One,
one of the most popular robotics events in Japan. Twice a year, hundreds of contestants
enter their homemade, semi-autonomous, radio-controlled, humanoid robots in
ISSN 1037-1397 print/ISSN 1469-9338 online/11/010093-17 2011 Japanese Studies Association of Australia
DOI: 10.1080/10371397.2011.560259

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Hirofumi Katsuno

categories such as footraces, hand-to-hand combat, soccer tournaments, and dance

contests. These robotics spectacles take place before a large public audience.
The sense of the robots heart or kokoro emerges through two distinct but interrelated
processes of touch: (1) the private process of tinkering in which robot builders replicate
humanity in robotic form; and (2) the public process of exhibiting robots that touches
the hearts of the audience at spectator events. In these dialogic modes of engagement,
both robot builders and audiences come to develop intimacy with the robot (or feel the
heart in the robot) through a web of touching rituals both physical and emotional. This
anthropomorphic practice of robot-making creates an endless hermeneutic circle; it
draws together subject and object, original and copy, creator and created, and watcher
and watched, ultimately reconfiguring participants senses of their own kokoro.
Consequently, the robot appears as an ambiguous figure part reality, part fiction,
and part metaphor in the grey area between technological material and human
imagination. In this highly ambiguous realm, subjective poetics and objective technology
become intimately intertwined. It is out of this dialectical conjunction of materiality and
humanity, an act of simultaneous exteriorization and internalization, that the robots
heart emerges.

Methodological Background
This study is primarily based upon anthropological fieldwork amongst technological
visionaries who engage in the nascent techno-culture of humanoid robotics.1 I
specifically focus on a community of amateur roboticists who participate in the RoboOne competition, among the most popular and frequently held spectacular robotics
events. These individuals the vast majority of whom are male corporate engineers
invest tremendous amounts of time, money and energy in attempts to approximate
human forms and simulate human movement robotically.
In the field of robotics, university researchers have made progress only when they have
been able to receive funding and publish their work.2 By contrast, corporate research has
continued apace for decades because of the promise of eventual profit. Amateur
development such as that showcased at Robo-One has become a third area free from
institutional constraints and open to public participation. The event serves as a biannual
arena for open experimentation in humanoid robotics, in which more than 100
engineers from diverse technological backgrounds contribute in particular ways to
overall technological progress. Although at the first Robo-One event in 2002 only one
robot could maintain a stabilized bipedal walk, since the eighth competition in 2006 a
number of robots have even had the ability to run. The continuing evolution of robots
physical abilities is most apparent in the improved quality of robot sports. Todays
robotic kickboxing has come a long way from the slow and clumsy movements of 2002.
In large cities such as Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Fukuoka, these Robo-One robot
builders form local groups and hold weekly meetings to exchange information. I
conducted fieldwork in two such groups from September 2005 to August 2007: one
based in Akihabara, Tokyo, the centre of Japanese consumer technology, and the other
at a robot museum in Fukuoka called Robosquare. I participated as a neophyte

In this study, informants were invited to choose whether to be identified by a pseudonym, a nickname,
or a real name. The names which appear below respect the informants expressed preference in each case.
See, for example, Nakayama, Kagakugijutsu no kokusai kyosoryoku.

The Robots Heart


robot-builder and experienced the processes of learning robot-making, joining the robot
builders community, building a robot, and taking part in the competitions held at
public venues such as industrial expositions, theme parks, local festivals, and hospitals.

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The Robots Heart

The phrase which serves as the title of this paper, a translation of the Japanese phrase
robotto no kokoro, might seem strange and contradictory to those who grew up outside of
Japanese society. For English speakers, heart is a uniquely human phenomenon, or is
at least limited to living beings with the capacity for emotional intelligence; furthermore,
it often said, in both English and Japanese, that through the heart we feel emotionally
touched by others. Robots do not have this capacity: for example, in the 1982
American film Blade Runner, the ability to feel empathy for anothers emotions
distinguishes humans from otherwise indistinguishable androids, or replicants, and
thus serves the ultimate litmus test of humanity. By stark contrast, the attribution of
heart to humanoid robots is pervasive in contemporary Japan.
Sugano Shigeki, a leading scholar in Japanese humanoid robotics at Waseda
University, addressed this issue in a 1997 paper. He writes, in order to make a
human-shaped robot truly useful for humans, it is ideal to establish a heart-to-heart
relationship [kokoro no fureai], which enables both the human and the robot to
understand each other like human beings. In this light, the robot needs its own heart.3
Although Suganos usage of kokoro sounds highly subjective and ambiguous, he clarifies
his position by enumerating the three types of robot heart: (1) the robot that affects
human kokoro; (2) the robot that can understand human kokoro; and (3) the robot with
its own kokoro. Suganos first category is exemplified by pet robots, designed to affect
the mental and emotional states of humans, including Sonys AIBO and AISTs Paro (as
mentioned in this issues introduction). This type of robot is the one that is most widely
commodified today. The robot in the second category is what Sherry Turkle calls
relational artifact, a sociable machine equipped with computational systems designed
to create a conduit for emotional touch with humans by actively facilitating smooth
communication.4 The majority of contemporary humanoid research in Japan is focused
on the development of this type of robot. The robot in the third category has its own
heart/mind. Currently, this type of robot is only being discussed experimentally in fields
such as philosophy and psychology.
Suganos close attention to the robot hearts of the first and second categories
represents the basic direction of Japanese humanoid robotics since the 1990s. The field
intends to define and develop the robots heart not as a freestanding entity but in the
relational context between humans and robots. In other words, kokoro is designed to
emerge through man-machine interactions. What matters here is, therefore, the issue of
human interface, as the title of Suganos paper suggests, which functions to increase
the sense of connectivity and intimacy between human and machine, developing their
heart-to-heart relationships.
How the field of Japanese humanoid robotics approaches the heart of the robot is in
clear contrast to the field of artificial intelligence (AI), which has since the 1970s
endeavoured to recreate the faculties of the mind in computer-simulated environments.

Sugano, Robotto to ningen no kokoro, 21; my translation.

Turkle, The Second Self.

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Hirofumi Katsuno

Developed primarily in the United States, this technological discipline has created
highly sophisticated knowledge processing systems within extremely specialized
environments.5 However, as the dominant trend of Western philosophy has long
regarded the body as merely mechanical, the developers of AI have neglected the
significance of the body in the formation of the mind. According to their metaphysical
narratives, mind is equated with intelligence, which is considered to be the simple
manipulation of symbols in a vacuum. This approach is clearly based upon Cartesian
dualism, treating mind as a pure, given, and autonomous entity that is immaterial and
wholly separable from the body. This assumes an objective, God-like view, from which
mind can be defined and controlled absolutely, like the objects of physical science.
In response to this dominant paradigm, there is an alternative behaviour-based
architecture proposed for mobile robots called the non-Cartesian system; instead of a
central controlling system like a human ego, this model employs fixed reactive behaviour
modules that are only loosely connected to each other.6 Still, these studies continue to
treat robotic bodies as merely the experimental grounds for the creation of artificial
mind or intelligence.
In contrast, Japanese humanoid robotics has employed a wholly opposite approach to
the relationship between minds and bodies. Japanese robotics has engaged in developing
the physicality and corporeality of humanoid robots, especially bipedal locomotion, since
the 1970s, leading to the rapid advancement of robotic bipedalism in the 1990s. Yet this
same period also saw the emergence of a powerful discourse on the robot heart. In other
words, robotic bodies and minds emerged concomitantly during the development of
humanoid robotics in Japan. Much of this parallel discourse can be traced to the 1996
appearance of P2, developed by the Japanese automobile company Honda. This robots
dynamic bipedal walking capability breathtaking and spectacular enough to represent a
manifestation of what Nye calls the technological sublime7 provoked a nation-wide
discussion in the governmental, industrial, and academic sectors calling for practical
applications of the human-shaped machine. Under the slogan living together with
robots (robotto to no kyosei), the Japanese government has encouraged and reinforced
cooperation between industry and academia, launching next-generation robot projects
that centre on the development of humanoid robots as welcome sources of social
interaction and emotional exchange. In this vision robots are expected to fill new roles as
intimate partners such as companions, caretakers, entertainers, and mediators between
humans and the increasingly complex socio-technical environments we live in. This
national concern with the robots human-like capabilities led to a flurry of robotics
exhibitions, including a highly visible Worlds Fair held in Aichi prefecture, the World
Expo 2005. In this robo-centric climate, the phrase robots heart (robotto no kokoro) is
not only used within the science and technology community, but has also become more
widely employed by the general public and mass media.
As a number of scholars in Japanese studies have asserted, kokoro forms the core of the
concept of humanity in Japanese socio-cultural discourses. According to Takie Lebra,
kokoro symbolizes the inner self, standing for sensation, feeling, emotion, desire, as well
as thinking and may be translated, unsatisfactorily, as the embodied mind or heart/

For instance, in May 1997, IBMs supercomputer Deep Blue became the first computer to defeat a
reigning world chess champion in an official match.
The idea of the non-Cartesian robot was first proposed by Rodney Brooks at the end of the 1980s.
Brooks is currently a professor of robotics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Nye, American Technological Sublime.

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The Robots Heart


mind.8 Simultaneously encompassing the heart, sentiment, spirit, will, and mind at the
centre of the inner self, kokoro has no exact translation in English.9 This translational
difficulty primarily stems from the multiple dimensions of Japanese selfhood.10 In
contrast to the Western notion of a unified, singular and integrated self and personhood,
which is central to the humanity of each biological individual, the socially contextualized
nature of Japanese selves corresponds to, according to Lebra, the linguistic absence of
the fixed I (or you) as well as the lexical variety of I substitutes.11
Especially noteworthy to our discussion is the holistic relationship between kokoro and
the body in the Japanese context. According to John Traphagan, because the Japanese
(shinshin mind/body) and
(shinshin-ichinyo mind/body unity)
incorporate the Chinese characters for kokoro and body, there is no single term that
describes the whole person without at least indexing this sort of duality between the two.
This is not to say that these ideas should be viewed in terms of a duality of mind and
body of the Cartesian variety.12 While the body is the social aspect of self, presented to
the outside world, kokoro is the internal, embodied aspect of self that animates a
body. . . The inner, uchi, kokoro contains the intimate elements of the person, which are
only exposed in limited ways usually at the discretion of the individual.13
As human-robot interaction takes increasingly complicated forms through technomaterial means, the concept of kokoro has been extended into the relationship between
human and the robot. During my fieldwork, robot builders frequently told me that they
feel intangible human qualities in humanoid robots tangible corporeality. This
phenomenological experience of kokoro in humans touchable and intimate interactions
with the robot is perceived as somewhat akin to their empathetic interactions with other
humans. It is ontologically subjective in that its existence is contingent on peoples lived
experience with robots but, as kokoro has mental and emotional reality, it is also
epistemologically objective. People experience the robots heart as real, and this
experience shapes both how they relate to inanimate robots and how they understand
themselves as human beings, allowing people to see both themselves and the robot as
integral to society.
The inclusion of robots inanimate machines as domestic partners in human
networks, capable of having intimacy and kokoro, transcends what Bruno Latour calls
the Great Divide: the modern distinction of the ontological zones between the
subjective human realm and the objective arena of non-human thing-ness.14 This
phenomenological experience of the robots heart can be best characterized by what
Berman calls participating consciousness.15 Drawing heavily from Gregory Batesons
model of holism, this concept denies any a priori distinction between the human and the
non-human, subject and object, the social and the technological; rather, it assumes an
embodied mode of consciousness.
Berman writes that participating consciousness involves merger, or identification,
with ones surroundings, and bespeaks a psychic wholeness that has long since passed

Lebra, The Japanese Self, 186.

Kokoro is, rather, roughly equivalent to the German concept of Geist or Greek psyche.
For discussion in English of Japanese selfhood, see (for example) Bachnik, The Two Faces; Kondo,
Crafting Selves; and Rosenberger, Dialectic Balance.
Lebra, Migawari, 107.
Traphagan, Taming Oblivion, 140.
Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, 97.
Berman, The Reenchantment of the World.

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Hirofumi Katsuno

from the scene.16 In this type of consciousness, the world appears as an enchanted place
of belonging, where an individual human is not an alienated observer of it but a direct
participant in its drama.17 In other words, to this mode of consciousness, the world
appears as an intermixing of the human and non-human. Social relations are always
processual, consisting of multiple opportunities for individual actors, whom Cartesian
perspectives would consider disparate agents, to mutually shape one another on the
phenomenal level.
Berman contrasted this participant consciousness with scientific consciousness,
which is intrinsic to the traditional, disembodied AI approach to mind. He calls the
scientific consciousness an alienated consciousness: there is no ecstatic merger with
nature, but rather total separation from it. Subject and object are always seen in
opposition to each other. I am not my experience, and thus not really a part of the world
around me.18 According to this view, all reality is ultimately describable in terms of
matter and motion . . . [Consequently,] the phenomena of the world remain the same
whether or not we are present to observe them; our minds in no way alter that bedrock
reality.19 Thus, this mode of consciousness can best be described as disenchantment,
nonparticipation, for it insists on a rigid distinction between observer and observed.20
Ostensibly, this disenchanted, scientific worldview that only characterized the
perceptions of a limited number of intellectuals at the beginning of the twentieth
century has largely replaced the participant consciousness, and currently dominates the
sensibilities of Euro-American society. Yet the phenomenological experience of the
robots heart that characterizes Japanese interactions with robots shows that, in this
technologically advanced society, the very consciousness that Berman assumes is
neglected is actually articulated by the Japanese concept kokoro. While scientific
consciousness is based upon removal of mind, or spirit, from phenomenal
appearances,21 the participant consciousness in the humanoid robotics re-embodies
the disembodied worldviews. In the following section, I explore the micro-processes of
Robo-One robot builders through which the robots kokoro emerges as an embodied
phenomenon inseparable from the machine itself, an interface mediating the ambiguous
and hybrid realm of human-robot interaction.

Tinkering with Humanity in Robot-Building

In millennial and post-millennial Japan, humanoid robots are not only being developed
by institutions of the state, industry, academia and science, but also by amateur
technologists. In this national race, robotic technologies are not merely means to specific
ends but, as they represent a field where individuals can play out their desires and
imaginations, they are ends in themselves. Initially working independently in different
places such as Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya, these passionate robot builders have
over time developed networks largely through the exchange of information over
the Internet.






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The Robots Heart


The genesis of these communities was instrumental in the creation of Robo-One, one
of the fastest-growing and most popular humanoid-robot entertainments in Japan.
Founded in 2002 by Nishimura Teruichi22 with the dual aims of raising robot awareness
and advancing robot technology, Robo-One now regularly draws several hundred
contestants mostly adult male engineers who compete with one another by
constructing semi-autonomous radio-controlled human-shaped robots, which are then
deployed in combat, soccer matches, and races with other robots.23 The primary RoboOne competitions take place twice a year. Nearly one hundred robots compete for a
championship title and a prize of one million yen (about $12,000).
Robot builders from Robo-One have continued to expand the field of humanoid
robotics. While most humanoid research projects in university and corporate settings are
still far from practical realization, new technologies conceived and realized by amateur
hobbyists have subsequently been commercialized, making possible a vibrant hobby
robot market. The success of such prominent companies within the hobby robot
industry as Kondo Kagaku and Kyosho is heavily dependent on the technologies that
have accumulated since the first generation of Robo-One, in which rough robots were
fashioned through an ongoing and painstaking process of self-education.24
In addition, Robo-One has spawned a number of smaller scale competitions across
Japan. As Robo-One has become more visible, similar humanoid robot spectacles have
been held in public spaces including science museums, industrial expositions, theme
parks, department stores, hospitals, and city halls, with the participation of Robo-Ones
more outstanding robot-builders. The growing popularity of robots and robot-building
has led to a Robo-One event called Partner Robot Project (Otetsudai Robotto Purojekuto),
started in 2007, where contestants debate on the subject of how humans and robots can
live together (kyosei). The government slogan for a union between the human and the
robotic is slowly becoming a reality.
The participants in Robo-One are technical experts, but their work is not motivated by
a bottom line. For these hobbyist engineers, the development of robots that convincingly

Nishimura Teruichi, the leading figure of Robo-One, is not only an active robot builder himself in his
leisure time, but also an executive of Isuzu Motor Co. He believes that robot competitions have the
practical potential to develop a new industry that might serve the same role in twenty-first century Japan
as the automobile industry serves today (personal communication, 30 June 2007).
2002 was a landmark year for the development of humanoid robot culture in Japan. Alongside the rise
of Robo-One, this year also witnessed the appearance of a humanoid league in RoboCup, the world
competition for soccer-playing robots that started in Japan. Additionally, this was when Hondas Asimo
robot began being equipped with the artificial intelligence emerging at the National Museum of
Emerging Science and Innovation. It was also when Asimo was made accessible to the public and made
its debut outside Japan, launching science education tours in North America. As Asimo is the product of
industry, RoboCup teams are built by university labs, and Robo-One entries are created by
nonprofessionals, these three robotic phenomena represent the essential components of todays
paradigm for Japanese humanoid robot culture. The emergence of these three events in 2002 the
international and public launch of Asimo, the introduction of a humanoid league in RoboCup, and the
first Robo-One competition was not insignificant. Rather, it marks the vanguard of robot culture, a
moment of technological, ideological, and psychological import.
For instance, Kondo Kagakus KHR series robot kit, which has sold more than 10,000 units to
electronic hobbyists and university and corporate laboratory researchers, was first developed by
Yoshimura Koichi, the winner of the first Robo-One competition. This robot won the Robot Award 2007
in Japan provided by the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI). Other competent robot
builders have signed contracts with Kyosho as advisors to promote Manoi, a robotics kit targeted to more
general consumers. Takahashi Tomotaka, whose Chroino was named by Time magazine one of the
coolest inventions of 2004, also drew upon his experiences in Robo-One.

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Hirofumi Katsuno

reproduce humanity is an end in itself. To understand the robot-builders passion for

and obsession with robot creation, we need to examine the micro-processes of humanrobot interactions, in which enthusiasm for robot-making is expressed through a
complicated web of discursive and sensual practices. By considering robot- building not
only as a symbolic practice but also as a sensual and emotional experience, we are able to
see the dialogue and dynamics of the humanrobot relationship.
Robot-building consists of designing bodies and planning motions. These two
processes are two sides of the same coin: neither can be neglected if one is to attain
smooth bipedal movement. Once the detailed nuances of individual movements have
been observed, these movements are then translated through kinematic descriptions and
numerical conversions on the computer. Many robot builders observed to me that the
profundity of motion planning is for them the prime source of pleasure in their work.
They frequently characterize this joy they take in building robots as endless (owari
ga nai).
For example, Yumae Y
usuke is a 42-year-old design engineer and robot builder who
has built radio-controlled model airplanes and automobiles as a hobby for more than 30
years. I asked him how building humanoid robots compared to model airplanes. He
When making the airplane, my goal was clear. It was simply to make my model
airplane look and perform as closely to the actual airplane as possible. Then,
once completed, I started to make a new one. This had kept going with one
after another until I made nearly 20 airplanes. But, assembling human-shaped
robots is a totally different kind of pleasure and experience . . . First and
foremost, we basically work with one robot for much longer, and this makes
me more emotionally involved. Since the model of the robot is the human
being, what we basically do is recreate human movements through the
robot . . . I have no idea how much longer it will take for me to be able to fully
appreciate its complexity. Its endless (owari ga nai) as broad as the
individuals imagination. . .
Yumaes narrative demonstrates how the relationship between the human being and the
technological object becomes intimate through repeated touch. I call this ongoing
practice tinkering. I define tinkering as a mode of creation through interaction with the
technological object and a process of exploration and play by trial-and-error. In contrast
to professional engineering, which is top-down, collective, linear, institutionalized,
abstract, theory-oriented, and goal-directed, tinkering is rather bottom-up, personal,
experimental, concrete, object-oriented, and potentially endless. This dialogic practice
is enacted through a complex web of bodily and emotional rituals.
Horinouchi Takashi, a 36-year-old male engineer working for a major electronics
company in Fukuoka, specifically described the close connection between the pleasure he
takes in tinkering with humanoid robots and the ability to replicate human movement
through the robot.25 While working on industrial robot development projects within the

Recognizing tinkering to be a prime source of their playful and pleasurable technological experiences in
robot-building, robot builders also consider it a primordially masculine experience. They grew up as
tinkerers in love with machinery and technology. The pleasure they took in tinkering is deeply embedded
in a gendered socialization that encourages men to tinker and regard engineering as an appropriate
career. Their fascination with technology has been integrated into their lives and Bourdieuan habitus as

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The Robots Heart


company, Horinouchi began designing and assembling small-scale humanoid robots as a

pastime in the spring of 2005. Horinouchi says, The reason why I am obsessed with
humanoid robots is that they are an expressive medium for me. Because they are humanshaped, they are directly connected to my self, senses, and creativity, like an alter ego.
For Horinouchi, the humanoid robot is an extension of the self: a mirror or, in his own
words, an alter ego in which he sees himself. Therefore, the robot is a site onto which his
imaginings are projected and thus materialized in a lived identity and subjectivity.
Having learned karate for over ten years, Horinouchi is constructing a robot modelled
upon an ideal karate master. When building or designing he always pays meticulous
attention to how closely his robot is able to replicate human movement particularly the
movements involved in karate. In addition, he claims that he has even deepened his
understanding of karate through the motion planning process. He comments:
Originally, I didnt intend to make a karate robot. However, once its body was
created and the bipedal walking was successful, the robot began to resemble
myself . . . My robot became my alter ego. I think the biggest reason is that
robots are not simply made, but also raised [in the sense that the robot
builder continues to develop the robots movements after the robots design
and construction is complete]. In this process of raising (sodateru) [my robot],
my self is projected onto the machine. . .
Here, the anthropomorphic, dialogic process of tinkering links the human creator and
the human-shaped robot in an endless hermeneutic circle. In the process of motion
planning, whatever movements builders intend their robots to achieve must first be
analysed through observation of analogous human movements: the builders themselves
serve as models for their robots. Robot builders sometimes find themselves confirming
complicated processes of weight-shifting and balancing though their own bodily
movements. The design and assembly of humanoid robots requires that robot builders
identify themselves as human beings. Robot builders understand their work in terms of
what is most familiar to them, their own everyday bodily experiences.
In this unique type of relationship, the body becomes a site of intervention by outside
forces, shaping selves, identities, pleasures, and emotions. Yet, as demonstrated by
Horinouchis karate alter ego, robot builders not only identify themselves as human
beings but also identify with the alternate, robotic bodies which they repeatedly touch.
This identification develops into the intimate relationships between robot builders and
their robots that culminate in the formation of kokoro in the machine: the beginnings of
the robots heart.

The Development of the Robots kokoro

The intimate relationship between robot builders and their robots is formed during the
micro, tinkering process of robot-building. This is an extremely personal space, in which
the robot becomes an almost narcissistic object of self-projection. However, the robot
does not merely represent the inner world of the robot builder, but also takes on social
men, so that technology and masculinity are equated through their embodied experiences. As the feel and
sensual appeal of robot-building is experienced through mens bodies, the objects of robots and the
practices of robot-building become links that tie men together in a homosocial community.

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Hirofumi Katsuno

meanings as it becomes a spectacle in settings such as the Robo-One competitions.

Participation in public events requires the robot builders to consider the entertainment
value of their robots performances. In this social process, audience reactions give
immediate feedback and mediate the process of robot-building. As a result, the robots
heart gradually separates from its creator and takes on a social aspect.
Robot builders recognize this process. While they describe the early development of
their robots as alter egos, they also notice that, at a certain point, public expectations of
the robot also play a role in the process of raising their robots. In other words, the
human-shaped corporeality of the robot affords an intersubjective mediation between
the creator and the audience. In this process, the way the robots heart develops in some
ways mirrors the development of a child. While their identities are initially formed in
dialogue with a familial, private Other, whether the robots builder or the childs parents,
during the process of socialization identity expands to take on new social meanings from
a broader, public Other. It is noteworthy that many robot builders express their
relationship with their robots through parent-child metaphors. They not only refer to
their robots as my child (uchi no ko), but also keep growth statistics and record the
moments at which their robots first stood up and walked. These metaphors are not
merely verbally expressed, they are physically lived perhaps especially for those who
have actual human children.26
Nagai Masahiko, an assistant professor of engineering at Kyushu Kyoritsu University
in Fukuoka and regular participant, along with his students, in humanoid robot events,
precisely described this dialectic process between the creator and the audience:
The robotic performance increasingly takes on a human scent (ningen kusaku
naru) through the constant interaction with the general public . . . Such humanlike elements close the psychological distance between the robot and the
human, shaping a sense of intimacy (shinkinkan) . . . Demonstrating the robot
in various events brought me to the idea that the most important condition for
the robot to be accepted in the domestic space is, perhaps, not merely the
function of the machine. Rather, more importantly, it is if people can have an
emotional attachment, a certain sense of intimacy with the robot.
Nagais perception of the human scent can be interpreted as animistic in that it
involves the projection of human attributes onto an inanimate object. Yet I find a more
appropriate analogy to be Walter Benjamins concept of aura, the evocative sense of an
objects uniqueness, authenticity, and sense of existence. Defining aura as a strange
weave of space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter
how close it may be,27 Benjamin suggests that the auratic experience is paradoxically
composed of intimacy premised on distance. The distance means an objects cult value,
shaped through mythic and ritualistic settings. In feeling the heart in the robot, as in

The parent-child metaphor also evokes a human desire for an illusory godhood as an omnipotent
creator through relationship with their creation. In fact, Yoshimura Koichi, the leading robot builder in
the Robo-One community, has long been called kami (God) respectfully by the robot builders.
Furthermore, given the homosocial character of this community, the successful creation of an artificial
human satisfies a gendered desire for power, mastery, and control, intimately associated with the
symbols, practices, and institutions of masculinity. Although the issue of gender is outside the primary
scope of this study, I emphasize that it is masculine subjectivity that shapes the contemporary Japanese
robot culture.
Benjamin, Little History of Photography, 518.

The Robots Heart


the quote that opens this paper, one is apprehending exactly this sense of distance and its
auratic evocations.
Crucial to our discussion here is that Benjamin conceives of aura as emergent from
humans having social relations with non-human objects. According to Benjamin:

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Experience of the aura thus rests on the transposition of a response common in

human relationships to the relationship between the inanimate or natural
object and man. The person we look at, or who feels he is being looked at,
looks at us in turn. To perceive the aura of an object we look at means to invest
it with the ability to look at us in return.28
In other words, aura is not fixed or inherent in the object per se, but emerges from the
relationship between the perceiver and the perceived. This notion is particularly useful
to understanding how the robots heart emerges in the long-term tinkering process of
robot-building. The auratic experience of the robots heart emerges through individuals
actual and personal relationships with the robot, in conjunction with the ritualized and
spectacular settings of robotic events and the discourse of living together with robots
pervading contemporary Japan. Far from being unchangeable and culturally essential to
Japanese society, the aura of the robots heart is constructed, contingent, and
inextricably linked to its socio-political context in millennial and post-millennial Japan.
Consequently, the robots heart emerges as the robot becomes an intimate partner in
Japanese society.
This highlights how important it is that humanoid robotics events are open to the
general public. Robo-Ones spectacular elements allow robots to develop within broader
socio-cultural and politico-economic spheres than the physically bounded environment
of amateur engineers. Sponsored by major toy and computer companies, including
Bandai, Sunrise and Microsoft, the contest consists of a complicated network of various
social actors. This not only includes the amateur hobbyists who actively take part in the
competitions but a host of peripheral actors including robotics scientists and engineers
from academic and commercial settings, mass media, educators, and robot watchers
ranging from the casual to the fanatic. Humanoid robots and their builders are highly
visible in Japanese society, as is clear from the many public channels through which I
was invited to display my own robot during my year of participant-observation,
including exhibitions as well as print media and television.
Through such constant public exposure, the amateur robot builder is inevitably
involved in the national phenomenon of humanoid robotics under the slogan of living
together with robots. To serve this goal, in 2007 Robo-One began to include the Partner
Robot Project in which, along with their robots, contestants demonstrate their
respective ideas for how kyosei (living together) can be made possible. Horinouchi, for
one, explained to me that he had never imagined the robots potential for entertainment
until he first demonstrated it on the public stage. When my robot stands up after falling
down or punches his opponents like a real karate master, the audience truly applauds
and cheers for it. Although I know their applause is directed primarily at my robot, I am
glad to be its creator.
This realization has changed his relationship with his robot. While his robot-building
project started as just technological play, the replication of human movements in


Benjamin, Illuminations, 188.


Hirofumi Katsuno

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robotic form, it has become, in his words, a personally experimental site of humanoid
robotics, which investigates how interaction between human and robot is made
possible. In this view, Horinouchi named his robot Automo, derived from a
combination of the English word automobile and the Japanese word otomo (partner).
In addition, participating in public robotics events prompted him to devote most of
his attentions to the motion planning process to make the robot look alive. He
remarked that:
The simple replication of human movement will merely result in dog-and-pony
shows . . . I think when people get excited by robot performances, they see
humanity in the robot. They might see something like individuality (kosei) or
heart (kokoro) in the robot. To build a robot that can give people a sense of
heart, I have to apply playful elements in the robots movement.
The application of playful elements here specifically means the implementation of the
subjective human realm, especially emotional expression, to the dry, objective arena of
nonhuman machinery. For instance, he directs his robot so that it waves to children in
the crowd, flounces off after losing a battle, or intentionally slips in comic fashion during
a soccer game. These exemplify the embodiment of kokoro in robotic movements and
the dialectic between the robot builder and the audience. Here, the expressivity of
human-shaped corporeality becomes the interface between the human and the machine,
making the humanoid robot into a site for welcome social interaction and emotional
Horinouchis association of the robots humanity with the concept of kokoro is by no
means a self-congratulatory commentary on his role as creator. Rather, I encountered
the phrase robots heart (robotto no kokoro) among a wide range of people on both sides
of the stage during my fieldwork at the Robo-One competition. Sunada Naoki, a 33-yearold male worker at a publishing company, is known as one of the most serious robot
watchers among Robo-One robot builders. Having graduated from university with a
degree in the humanities, he has no engineering background. In 2003, he first
encountered a Robo-One style robotic competition on television, and visited an actual
Robo-One event in 2004. Since then, he has visited most of the Robo-One-style robotics
events held in the Tokyo area, where he resides. Sunada says,
My first impression at the Robo-One competition was that many robots there
seemed as if they want to communicate with humans! I couldnt have gained
this feeling from watching the Robo-One show on TV, only at the actual
site . . . They are robots and, of course, could never become real humans,
but, if I were to exaggerate slightly, I sometimes feel the self (jiga) of the
robot during one of their routines at the event. Maybe not exactly self, but
something like kokoro in the robot. Its hard to put this feeling into words,
but this seems to happen when I feel as if they want to communicate with
me. Then I feel a kind of psychological connection . . . I know this is kind of
a weird story, though. . .
For Sunada, who lacks the technical expertise to fully comprehend the mechanics
animating the spectacle, robot entertainment is primarily about a fascination with the
made-ness of things. These narratives by both robot builders and robot watchers
indicate that robot performances serve as sites for the dialectic investigation of

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The Robots Heart


humanity, the synthesis of the robot builders efforts to instil humanity in the robot and
the audiences desires and expectations to touch that humanity.
Again, the inclusion of robots inanimate machines in the human network as
intimate domestic partners with kokoro defies Latours Great Divide between the
subjective human realm and the objective arena of non-human thing-ness. Latour writes
that this modern Constitution . . . invents a separation between the scientific power
charged with representing things and the political power charged with representing
subjects.29 This assertion overlooks the wide variety of shifting, negotiated, and
empirical associations between our postulated subjects and objects. Entities, both
human and non-human, are seen as what Latour calls hybrids or mediators, quasiobjects, or quasi-subjects. Underneath the opposition between objects and subjects,
Latour writes, there is the whirlwind of the mediators.30 As inanimate objects
possessing kokoro, robots can function as the hybrid mediators between the human and
the nonhuman.

The Robots Heart and Postmodern Sensibilities

Why do these Japanese robot builders and watchers pursue kokoro in humanoid robots? I
suggest this desire to feel robots hearts reflects a sense of loss, the inability to touch each
others hearts; the loss of authentic human-to-human or heart to heart (kokoro to
kokoro no) communication in contemporary Japan.31 It is no coincidence that the
humanoid robot became prominent in Japanese society at the end of the lost decade
(ushinawareta j
unen) of the 1990s. The development of personal robots with
communication skills can be understood as part of the iyashi (healing) boom that
has accompanied Japans long economic recession.
Iyashi became a popular term in writings about the spiritual world (seishin sekai) in
the early 1980s. Similar to the American New Age movement, the discourse of the
spiritual world rejected modern rationality predicated upon the mind/body dichotomy,
and instead argues for a holistic approach: relaxation of the body leads to relaxed
emotional states and vice versa. Iyashi became a major theme of social discourse in the
1990s and 2000s and is now a key marketing phrase in Japan. The Japanese consumer
market is flooded with commodities embodying nostalgic images of nature, spirituality,
and authentic human relationships.
Consumption-based healing practices have entered a new phase with the development
of pet and therapeutic robots, a trend which was initiated by the introduction of Sonys
AIBO to the consumer market. The Guinness Book of World Records has accepted the seal
robot Paro, developed by the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and
Technology (AIST) in Japan, as the worlds most therapeutic robot. Therapeutic
robots are intended for use in nursing homes, hospitals, and households where elderly
people live alone. The technological ability to synthesize life-like behaviour in
computers, machines, and other alternative media is now ironically being used to
produce spiritual and emotional healing: through touching the patient, both physically

Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, 29.

Ibid., 46.
Significantly, the motion planning software for the KHR humanoid robot released by Kondo Kagaku is
called Heart-to-Heart. KHRs goal is to establish a psychological connection between robots and their
creators through this software.


Hirofumi Katsuno

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and emotionally, concrete physiological benefits have been observed (see Introduction
to this issue).
Shinkawa Shinichi, the president of Robosquare, frequently conducted what he called
a therapeutic robot tour (robotto no iyashi tsu
a) with Sonys AIBO, Paro, and other robot
builders robots, to such places as childrens hospitals, elementary schools, and nursing
homes. One breezy April morning in 2007, as we were recalling our robot tour to a
childrens hospital the previous week, Shinkawa began to speak emotionally as he showed
me a photograph taken during a visit to a local elementary school for the purpose of
introducing children to Hondas humanoid robot, Asimo (Figure 1). He said,
I want to tour all over Japan with this robot, giving children dreams . . . I want to
use this robot to rescue children from suicide and social withdrawal. The robot
can do it. Look at the smiles in this picture. That says everything! Most children
nowadays in Japan dont smile like this, because they lack space in their hearts
(kokoro ni yoy
u ga nai) due to their academic mindsets focused on entrance
exams and the accompanying reduction in intimate, human relationships
(ningenkankei ga kihaku ni naru). In this condition, they dont have dreams to
sustain their lives . . . [But] when people actually see a robot with their own eyes,
they often say to me, The robot looks alive! They have a vision of something
that transcends our reality, something that lies beyond us . . . I think they feel the
heart in the robot (robotto ni kokoro wo kanjiteiru). And this means that they
restore and even develop imagination and sensitivities, heart and humanity in
their interactions with the robot. The robot has such amazing, magical power.
Shinkawas choice of words feeling the heart in the robot is striking not only due to
its insistent humanization of the mechanical but also in the suggestion of the robots

FIGURE 1. Asimos School Visit in Fukuoka City. (Courtesy of Shinkawa Shinichi.)

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The Robots Heart


power to fill their emotional and sensate voids by touching their hearts. Asimo is not
specifically designed as a therapeutic robot, but, as his narrative suggests, it appears as
an evocative object,32 evoking emotional responses from people and affecting how they
think about themselves and their own sense of human identity.
The seeming contradiction of recognizing therapeutic benefits of machines forces us
to consider the effects of emerging technology on the human body, subjectivity, self/
identity, the emotions, morality, sociality, and communications. Thus, the humantechnology relationship takes place not only on symbolic and discursive levels, but also
on affective and bodily levels as well. In this sense, humanoid robots may become
intimate partners with humans. The body becomes a site of intervention as new
technology creates new subjectivities, reshaping identities and emotions.
At the same time, many robot builders point out that an obsession with robots is often
combined with fear of new technologies. According to Horinouchi, recent technological
developments have produced black boxes whose systems cannot be fully understood,
even by mechanical engineers like himself. As a result, he sometimes feels that there is
no escape from pervasive and increasingly incomprehensible technologies. He
I believe that our humanity lies in the process by which we make our own
decisions vis-a`-vis external forces. But we are losing this space for autonomous
judgment in our relationship to todays cutting-edge technology, especially
entertainment technology. This relationship is primarily dominated by
reflection, not by agency. In this relationship, the boundary between humans
and technology is blurring . . . I have a fear of losing control, my initiative, to
technology. What I mean by control here is not only control over objects but
also myself. To maintain control, we need a sense of distance from technology;
a cushion or boundary must lie between technology and ourselves. I think
thats why I stick to robot-building, where my agency can still survive, because
the robot is a bounded entity.
Horinouchis comments are highly suggestive and express a sense of loss common in the
community of robot builders. Certainly, not all builders verbalize this fear and anxiety as
clearly and explicitly as Horinouchi does. Still, many of them frequently express such
feelings metaphorically, in reference to the post-bubble lost decade of the 1990s.
Horinouchis confusion over his changing sense of existence, identity, and humanity
suggests what Marita Sturken describes as the tensions of living with both the
heightened qualities of modernity and the shifting worldview of postmodernism.33
Robot builders find that investing their creations with human characteristics allows them
to search for a link between who we are and what we have made, between who we are
and what we might create, between who we are and what, through our intimacy with our
own creations, we might become,34 thus helping them to live with this tension.
These amateur technologists are sufficiently self-reflexive to consider the philosophical implications of the ontological shifts caused by the recombination of the human and
the state-of-the-art technology that they themselves produce. Their practices of robotbuilding literally construct blank bodies that reify the nameless anxiety pervading

Turkle, Introduction: The Things That Matter, 5.

Sturken, Mobilities of Time and Space, 72.
Turkle, The Second Self, 12.

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Hirofumi Katsuno

Japan. Building robots becomes an action to counter the unbridled disembodiment

processes of postmodernity, allowing builders to reclaim their sense of humanity. As an
ambivalent quasi-subject bridging humanity and technology, the robot in Japan
appears to reconcile the tensions between modernity and the postmodern worldview. It
promotes a nostalgic return from disembodiment to re-embodiment, and from virtual to
physically touchable existence.
In saying this, however, I do not mean that contemporary Japan has entered into a
new socio-historical phase: a sense of loss and feeling of rootlessness are already
entrenched modern themes. The question is, rather, how new modes of technology
intensify the experience of modernity. Here, the object sought to reconcile the tension
between modernity and postmodernity is ironically not a premodern traditional object
but a robot, an icon representative of humanitys future. One of Japanese modernitys
ultimate paradoxes is that it sees societys re-enchantment and concomitant rehumanization as achievable through scientific technology.

The emergence of humanoid robotics has become a site of intense affective and
psychological investment. Under the slogan living together with robots, the field of
contemporary robotics in Japan is characterized by the development of humanoid robots
as intimate, communicative partners, welcome sources of social interaction and
emotional exchange. Will people in Japan continue to seek out kokoro in robots? What
motivates this desire for intimate relationships with inanimate technology?
The issue of kokoro came to prominence in the Japanese humanoid robot culture at
the very end of the lost decade of the 1990s. While this phrase is often used to refer to
the effects of the collapse of Japans economic bubble on labour and consumer patterns,
it can also be understood as the loss of other aspects of everyday life. Hypertechnologized Japanese society has widely accepted technological means of communication and touch, which has decreased human-to-human communication and
intimacy as represented by one of the latest buzzwords in Japan, muen shakai (a society
without relationships).
Given the social panic that is accompanying rapid human-technology hybridisation,
the sense that contemporary Japan is losing its humanity has become a critical public
issue. For the robot builders and robot watchers described in this paper, engagement
with humanoid robots has helped to obtain a recuperated humanity, reconnecting
themselves and others, establishing intimate relationships and reasserting their own
humanity. In an age of text messaging, computer-generated communication, and
hikikomori (agoraphobic shut-ins), the robots heart merges nostalgia and the neohuman, representing both the frontier of technology and reifying a sense that something
of our humanity has been lost.

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