Current Institutional Affiliation
Professor Emerita/ Affiliate Professor, Anthropology & History of Art /Anthropology and Japan Studies, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Jennifer Robertson is professor of anthropology and the history of art at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She has non-budgeted appointments as professor of art & design and professor of women’s studies, and is a faculty associate in the Anthropology/History program. Robertson is a former director and member of the Center for Japanese Studies, and an associate in the Science, Society and Technology Program, Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies, and Center for South Asian Studies. She is also on the faculty of the Robotics Institute. She earned her PhD in anthropology from Cornell University in 1985, where she also earned a BA in the history of art in 1975. The recipient of many fellowships and awards, Robertson was an invited fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (1996-1997) and a fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (2011-2012). ACLS, SSRC, NEH, Japan Foundation, Wenner Gren, and Fulbright are among her other fellowships. 

Robertson is the originator and general editor of COLONIALISMS, a (now closed) book series from the University of California Press. Books in the series explore the historical realities, current significance, and future ramifications of imperialist practices with origins and boundaries outside of “the West.” She is also a co-editor of Critical Asian Studies ( Her seven books and over eighty articles and chapters address a wide spectrum of subjects ranging from the 17th century to the present, including nativist and social rectification movements, agrarianism, sex and gender systems and ideologies, mass and popular culture, nostalgia and internationalization, urbanism, the place of Japan in Anthropology, sexuality and suicide, theater and performance, votive and folk art, imperialism and colonialism, eugenics and bioethics, and robotics. Her publications have been translated into German, Finnish, French, Hebrew and Japanese. Robertson is currently researching, writing, and editing articles on the cultural history of Japanese colonialism, eugenics, bio-art and contemporary art, ideologies of “blood,” and service robots in Japan and elsewhere. Her newest book is Robo sapiens japanicus: Robots, Gender, Family and the Japanese Nation (University of California Press, 2018).

Award Information

Abe Fellowship 2010
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
Professor, Anthropology and History of Art, University of Michigan
Safety, Security, Convenience: The Political Economy of Service Robots in Japan

The field of robotics is nowhere more enthusiastically and openly pursued than in Japan. Japan is home to about 70% of the global share of the one million industrial robots in use, followed by Singapore, South Korea, Germany and Italy. There are hundreds of robot companies in Japan and domestic market alone for robots is estimated to grow to ¥6.2 trillion by 2025, twelve times the 2009 market. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) forecasts that Japan’s robot industry and spin-offs will eventually dominate this century’s global marketplace. Japanese roboticists and major companies (like Mitsubishi, Toyota, Honda, NEC) are far ahead of their international counterparts in designing, manufacturing and marketing intelligent, autonomous robots to care for children and especially for the growing numbers of senior citizens, provide entertainment and companionship, and perform domestic tasks. Government officials estimate that by 2016, each of the nearly 19 million Japanese households is likely to own at least one such robot. In 2007, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe introduced Innovation 25, a visionary blueprint for revitalizing the Japanese economy, civil society and “traditional” household by 2025. Innovation 25, which has weathered several successive regime changes, promotes a robot-dependent society and lifestyle that prioritizes the values of safety (anzen), security (anshin), and convenience (benri) ( Under its auspices, $26 billion is earmarked for investment in the public and private sectors to advance “next generation robot” technology, which is deemed to be the industry that will rescue Japan from recession. Innovation 25 also provides a framework for drafting new domestic and foreign policies, from immigration to housing and health-care policies. In addition, “next generation robots” interacting autonomously in the home and workplace with humans call for new guidelines and policies that predict and address intertwined technological and legal issues, and especially safety and security issues. Like Innovation 25 itself, virtually all of the literature on service robots remains theoretical and laboratory based, although robots are already employed in a wide variety of environments and social institutions. I envision my project as a pioneering effort to assess the real time, real world feasibility of Innovation 25. At the heart of my interdisciplinary proposal is an ethnography of Japan’s emergent culture of human-robot co-existence outside of the Diet and robotics laboratories. Sited in technology-savvy Kodaira City in the center of Tokyo Prefecture, my research will investigate the local-level processes through which new municipal and national policies addressing and mediating a robot-dependent society are debated and implemented, or not. Finally, because Japan’s robotics industry is situated in a globalized economy it is important for me to investigate, on a much lesser scale, the design, production and consumption of humanoid robots elsewhere, in this case, South Korea and Italy. I will also make comparisons to the American robot industry when relevant. Like Japan, South Korea and Italy are also dealing with a demographic crisis and, in addition to being a growth industry, robot technology is perceived as a stabilizing force on many fronts.