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Japan is arguably the first postindustrial society to embrace the prospect of human-robot coexistence. Over the past decade, Japanese humanoid robots designed for use in homes, hospitals, offices, and schools have become celebrated in mass and social media throughout the world. In Robo sapiens japanicus: Robots, Gender, Family, and the Japanese Nation (University of California Press, 2018), Jennifer Robertson casts a critical eye on press releases and public relations videos that misrepresent robots as being as versatile and agile as their science fiction counterparts. An ethnography and sociocultural history of governmental and academic discourse of human-robot relations in Japan, this book explores how actual robots—humanoids, androids, and animaloids—are “imagineered” in ways that reinforce the conventional sex/gender system and political-economic status quo. She traces the early 20th century and wartime backstories informing the images, applications, and receptions of robots today. In addition, Robertson interrogates the notion of human exceptionalism as she considers whether “civil rights” should be granted to robots. How robots and robotic exoskeletons reinforce a conception of the “normal body” (gotai manzoku 五体満足) is discussed together with a critique of Mori Masahiro’s much-invoked but misconstrued concept of bukimi no tani (不気味の谷), or “uncanny valley”.


Jennifer Robertson
Professor, Anthropology and the History of Art, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor