From Atomu to Asimo

The Rise of Anime and the Inspiration of Humanoid Robotics in Japan, 1963–2003

ロボットお国 is a phrase the Japanese people have become quite familiar with over the course of the past few decades.  Pronounced robotto okoku, the term literally means “the Robot Kingdom,” and is a colloquialism often used to refer to the nation of Japan.  The expression stems from the vast population of robots, employed industrially and otherwise, that dwell throughout the country.[1]  From the time the very first industrial robots were put to use in Japanese factories during the early 1970’s, their number has grown exponentially over the years.  Home to roughly half of the world’s robot population, today Japan stands as the modern robotics capital of the world.[2]

Honda's first industrial robot

This unique reliance on robotic technologies emanates from a national ethos that dates back to the post-WWII era of Japan.  In the ruin of the mass destruction wrought by American bombs toward the end of the war, the people of Japan recognized that it was time for a movement of scientific progress.  The catastrophic onslaught of the atomic bombings opened the nation’s eyes to the fact that it lagged behind the rest of the world in the technological arena.  At the end of the war, in a letter to the crown prince, Emperor Hirohito lamented his admission of defeat and professed his humiliation as leader of the technologically outmoded nation.  “Our armed forces put too much emphasis on the spiritual side,” he wrote, “and forgot science.”[3]  Thus, throughout the postwar recovery process, the Japanese adopted a new appreciation for the advancement of technology that would promote a rapid, peaceful rebirth of the nation.

It only makes sense, then, that the great influx of cutting-edge robotics years down the line would be considered a manifestation of this national identity.  Commercially efficient industrial robots have been a large driving factor of Japan’s economic growth since this postwar period, and therefore a progressive investment in robotics research and development efforts seems to be a natural course of action for the nation to have taken in recent years.  What might not make so much sense upon first consideration, however, is the large amounts of capital that have been poured into one very specific branch of robotics in Japan – namely, bipedal humanoid robotics.  The creation of a robot in the image of a human being is seen by many of the world’s scientific communities as somewhat of a frivolous endeavor.[4]  Once thought of only as an archetype of science fiction, the realization of such an anthropomorphic machine has shown relatively little immediate practical application for the amount of resources invested in it.  All the same, the history of the Robot Kingdom is marked by a strong tradition of commitment to constructing a humanoid robot with the ability to walk on two legs.  Today bipedal humanoid robotics exists in Japan as a multi-million dollar venture dominated by the corporate sector.  But why invest such an enormous amount in such an eccentric undertaking, especially given its lack of practicality within the near future?  A look back to the postwar optimism toward technology will shed some light on the question.

Sony's QRIO Humanoid Robot

            Representations of this new hope of science began to inundate Japanese popular culture in the years following the war, and perhaps the most common imagery of this ideal came in the form humanoid robots.  Amidst the sweeping social reforms brought by the American occupation under Douglas MacArthur, the Japanese enjoyed a new freedom of expression in popular media after years of censorship, and their new attitude toward technology shone through.[5]  The humanoid robot, man’s creation of a being in his own likeness, came to symbolize an embodiment of the apex of scientific progress.  Unlike the frequently ominous portrayals of robots in Western media, the harmonious interface between humans and humanoid robots of Japanese lore has historically epitomized the nation’s affinity for technology.  With the rise of anime, or Japanese animation, during the 1960’s, this representation would come to permeate the national ideology on a much deeper level.  The Japanese would come to regard this new form of mass media not only as an effective vehicle by which to disseminate popular culture, but moreover, as a powerful mode of communication to the general public. This widespread acceptance of anime as a cogent art form eventually led Japan to dominate the world market of animation, just as it did in the field of robotics.  The eminence of the anime industry ushered popular themes of humanoid robotics into the public eye.  In fact, the very foundation of the industry was defined by such themes.  Thus, as we will see, the rise of anime in postwar Japan largely shaped a cultural fascination with humanoid robots, and this obsession would later manifest itself through a prodigious national investment in research efforts focused on developing a true-to-life humanoid robot.

            This essay examines the process by which this phenomenon of humanoid robotics developed in Japan over the course of the latter half of the twentieth century.  It begins with an assessment of the origins of the anime industry in the 1960’s and the founding motifs of the first anime series to be broadcast on television.  The broader cultural significance of anime in Japan is then established through an analysis of the Japanese conception of animation as a legitimate art form.  From here, the essay turns to take a look at the earliest humanoid robotics research conducted at a university and the impetus behind this pursuit.  After a connection is drawn between the objectives of this research and a growing cultural fixation on humanoid robots, an examination of the rapid growth of anime during the 1970’s and the pandemic proliferation of humanoid robots in popular culture that accompanied it follows.  Here we also see the beginnings of a gradual movement toward realism in robot anime.  The climax and subsequent decline of both robot anime and university research by the mid-1980’s is then contrasted with the rise of the role of big industry in the field of robotics, as the fiction of a humanoid robot is gradually realized.  In response to the success of corporate investments in humanoid robotics, we then see the Japanese government establish its own humanoid robotics project.  The essay concludes with a view of the modern industry of humanoid robotics in Japan, providing a look at the particularly ostensible influence of the anime on the field.

The Birth of A National Icon: The Mighty Atom 

The great progenitor of all anime is none other than the boyish humanoid robot known by the Japanese as Tetsuwan Atomu, or “The Mighty Atom.”  The star of the legendary show which bore his name[6], the first-ever serialized anime to be broadcast on television, Atom is known best in the English-speaking world by the adapted name “Astro Boy.”  The inaugural airing of Tetsuwan Atomu in Japan in 1963 heralded the rise of a new art form of storytelling, a mass medium that would forever change the face of Japanese popular culture.  Over the years, Atom would prove himself a smash hit of this newfangled anime media and eventually rise to the status of a national icon of Japan.  He was regarded dearly by the public as a symbol of scientific progress to which the country’s ambitions began to turn in the wake of the Second World War.  Atom came to stand for a new hope of technological advancement for a war-torn Japan during these years, and today still widely represents the nation’s aspirations and dreams of modern science.

Tetsuwan Atomu or The Mighty Atom

Indeed, Atom is much more to the country of Japan than any Mickey Mouse is or has ever been to America.  These oft-made comparisons are simply understatements of the legacy of “The Mighty Atom.”  That is, given the medium and historical context in which the character was first introduced to Japan, Atom has had a much more profound, wide-reaching impact as an iconic “cartoon character” (as he would be labeled by Western standards) in shaping the ideals of the contemporary culture and society of his home country than arguably any other animated celebrity in the world.

The mastermind behind Atom, the late Osamu Tezuka, lives on in the hearts of the people of Japan as somewhat of a national icon himself.  He has been christened the “God of Manga,” the “Father of Anime,” and even the “Walt Disney” of the East.[7]  Yet, none of these titles does justice to the true cultural significance of Tezuka’s lifework to modern Japan.  It would be difficult to capture the essence of his contribution in a single denomination.

Osamu Tezuka

Atom’s character was born of Tezuka’s imagination, not on the small screen during the early 1960’s, but in fact much earlier on the pages of a serialized comic strip or manga (literally “whimsical pictures”), over a decade prior to the television debut of the anime series Testsuwan Atomu.  And a whimsical genesis it was.  As monumental of a character as Atom would later become, Tezuka put relatively little thought into the creation of Atom.[8]  He surely would have never dreamt that this rather incidental boy robot character would grow up to be national hero at the time he first started writing Atom into the panels of his early experimental manga. 

Tezuka began drawing published manga while studying to become a physician at the Osaka University medical school.  He made his debut as a mangaka, or cartoonist, in 1946 in several local publications known as akahon[9], but it was not until after graduating and receiving his physician’s license in 1951 that he gained any sort of notable recognition for his work.  During his internship, Tezuka was exposed to the extreme postwar poverty of the nation.  The majority of patients he encountered during this time suffered primarily from malnutrition.  “I realized very clearly,” he once said in retrospect, “that Japan lost the war because of science and technology.  While the U.S. was dropping atomic bombs, the Japanese military were trying to light forest fires in America by sending incendiary balloons made of bamboo and paper over on jet streams.  We developed an inferiority complex about science.”[10]  Tezuka harbored a strong sense of commitment to surmounting this complex and it was reflected in much of his manga thereafter.  As a doctor in training, he incorporated many scientific ideas into his work and frequently played with themes related to technological progress such as artificial intelligence and “mechatronics,” an amalgamation of electronic, mechanical, and software engineering that was a budding field of science in Japan at the time. 

One of these manga of his that was rooted in such themes of science fiction was Atomu Taishi, or “Ambassador Atom.”  Written shortly after Tezuka’s graduation, the manga featured a small boy robot that went by the name of Atomu, a clear reference to the new age of scientific progress that Japan had been so cataclysmically introduced to by the United States, yet still aspired to all the same.  Atomu was by no means a shining star of the strip, though.  As a matter of fact, the character was not even introduced until the fourth installment.  While the plotline of the manga incorporated many elements of Atom’s eventual birth story, each progressive chapter of Atomu Taishi was populated what audiences found to be an overabundance of other characters, each with his or her own convoluted back-story.  Picked up in 1951 by Shonen (“Boys”), one of the most popular monthly magazines marketed to children and adolescents at the time, Atomu Taishi was serialized in short episodes for just under a year until it proved too complex and too hard for young readers to follow.[11]  The editors of Shonen quickly lost interest in the series, as did its target audience, and it was thus summarily dropped not long after it was picked up.

While not yet a national figure, Osamu Tezuka was indeed a rising name in the comparatively small world of manga by this time.  Naturally, then, the failure of Atomu Taishi and the then minor character of Atom along with it seemed of relatively little consequence to Tezuka.  At twenty-three years old, he continued to produce original stories for a number of other regular publications (including both Shonen and its rivals, oddly enough) and began to enjoy an increasing amount success with each new title.  By the time he completed his internship, rather than adopt the title of Dr. Tezuka and pursue a practice, he decided to don his signature beret and carry on as the promising mangaka Osamu,[12] a persona that the entire nation of Japan would come to know and love.

If there was one revolutionary element that Osamu Tezuka brought to the world of manga, it was his unique perspective as an educated scientist with a creative imagination.  If there were two, though, the second would have to be his tremendous productivity.  Over the course of his relatively short lifetime, Osamu is said to have written over one hundred and fifty thousand pages of manga.  Of the more than one thousand distinct characters Osamu created, Atom was without doubt his unlikely hero.  Once described by Osamu as his own “worst work,” Atom’s stardom came almost out of the blue.[13] 

After the collapse of Atomu Taishi, Osamu was encouraged by friends at Shonen to give the manga a second shot.  As the magazine had long been searching to publish the chronicle of a lone hero character that Japanese boys could look up to, Osamu was approached by several editors and persuaded to rework the promising story of Atomu Taishi with a focus on the character of Atom.  And so Tezuka went to work to devise a world that revolved around Atom.  In 1952, the manga Testuwan Atomu was published in Shonen for the first time, and just as those at Shonen had hoped, it was an instant smash hit.  It seemed Japanese boys everywhere could not get enough of it.  Copies of the magazine flew of the presses in record numbers and the publication of Atom’s story continued in Shonen throughout the better part of the 1950’s.[14] 

Before long numerous Tokyo publishers began to seek out Tezuka’s work.  It was during the years following this success of Atom’s that Osamu really refined his distinctive style, producing the bulk of his career’s total manga output.  Churning out classic after classic, Osamu popularized the extended story-based form of manga he first introduced and thus effectively gave rise to the massive manga industry that exists in Japan today.  By the end of the decade he sat atop this new the world of manga he created and was idolized nationally as the “God of Manga.”[15]

Less than a year after the introduction of Tetsuwan Atomu, the very first television broadcasting in Japan began.  At the time the nation’s earliest stations went on air, though, many Japanese were too poor from the financial strain brought on by the war to own a set.  However, in a matter of a few years, with the rapid rebound of the economy by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry’s (MITI) postwar “miracle,” television quickly became mass media in Japan.[16]  By this time Osamu was already well acquainted with America’s cartoon exports that were now making it over foreign airwaves to all of Japan.  He especially adored the works of Max Fleischer and Walt Disney from an early age.  In fact, this obsession with Fleischer and Disney often reveals itself through stylistic mimicry in Tezuka’s own works (one cannot help but notice the aesthetic parallels between Atom and characters such as Fleischer’s Betty Boop or Disney’s Mickey Mouse).  With the dawn of this new art form in the land of the rising sun, Osamu sought to capitalize on the vast new possibilities television broadcasting offered.  As Atomu was already a household name in Japan by now, Tezuka decided to make him the pioneer of his endeavors in television. 

By 1957, Tezuka had already cut a deal with Tokyo TV to run a modern day sort of kami-shibai, or “paper-play” style version of Tetsuwan Atomu.  This was comprised of a short series of still illustrations accompanied by narration.  A live action adaptation of Tetsuwan Atomu also premiered two years later on the new Fuji TV channel, featuring a somewhat awkward dramatization of the manga story by a cast of costumed actors.  Both of these introductions of Atom to television fell far short of Osamu’s true vision, though.  Indeed, he had much grander plans for Atom that entailed the sort of fluid animation developed by American artists that he held in such high regard.[17]

Tezuka’s first real involvement in producing commercial animation came in 1958 when he signed with Toei Doga, the primary theatrical animation studio at the time and historically the largest and most prolific in Japan.  Toei entreated the world’s most famous mangaka to apply his creativity in helping to write and direct several of their feature length films.  So fledging was the animation industry in Japan by then that the term anime had not even been coined yet.[18]  This, however, would soon change. 

In June of 1961, Osamu branched off from his work at Toei to form his very own studio called Tezuka Osamu Production.  The forerunner to Mushi Productions, Tezuka’s eventual mega studio, Tezuka Osamu Production began as a small company staffed by 6 people working out of Tezuka’s home.  The first year and a half of the studio’s existence was spent primarily securing financial backing for Tezuka’s objectives, during which time the name was changed to Mushi Productions.[19]  Shortly thereafter it would burgeon to a large-scale operation of over 400 employees.  The first work to come from Mushi Productions was a 38-minute, largely experimental film called Aru Machikado no Monogatari, or “The Story of a Certain Street Corner.”[20]  With no dialogue and highly artistic visuals, the piece was meant to be more of an exploratory demonstration of the studio’s capabilities rather than a cohesive narrative to market to market to a broad audience.  Around the same time Aru Machikado no Monogatari was finished, Tezuka decided to green-light the company’s first profit-making venture on the suggestion of close friend and employee.  This new project involved a serialized animated version of Tetsuwan Atomu to be broadcast on television in regular installments.  As daunting of a task as this seemed given the magnitude production costs, Tezuka and his animators went straight to work on a pilot episode. 

In November of 1962, Mushi Productions held a special showing of Aru Machikado no Monogatari in the Ginza district of Tokyo, which was accompanied by the pilot episode of the new Tetsuwan Atomu series.  This exhibition of the studio’s potential wowed the audience, which included several executives from Fuji TV, and secured Tezuka a deal with the station to put Atom on the air.  A few weeks later, on New Year’s Day of 1963, the first episode of Tetsuwan Atomu was broadcast on Fuji TV to all of Japan, featuring the Mighty Atom as the star of the first serialized television anime in history.[21]

Today there exist many different slight variations of the mythology of Atom, but the core plotline laid out in the first episode of the original anime series, titled Atomu tanjo or “The Birth of Atom,” tends to be the most widely accepted version of his story.  The tale is set in a futuristic Tokyo,[22] complete with space-age skyscrapers and whizzing flocks of hover car traffic.  At the outset of the first episode we find Dr. Tenma Hakase, the Director of the Ministry of Science’s prestigious Department of Precision Machinery, in a state of exasperation over his most recent failure in a series of unsuccessful attempts at creating a humanoid robot.  Amidst this desperation, he discovers that his only son, Tobio, has died in tragic hover car accident.  The forlorn and now somewhat deranged Dr. Tenma takes it upon himself to create an advanced boy-sized robot that would take the place of Tobio.  In the process, he incorporates the “cream of Japanese technology” into the construction of the robot, granting it a number of superhuman abilities, as well as a humanlike quality of empathy and a capability of learning and understanding emotions.  Dr. Tenma’s endeavors prove a success for the first time, and the robot is brought to life with the stature and demeanor of an adolescent boy.  Yet, while the boy robot is successfully imbued with state-of-the-art technologies, Dr. Tenma’s satisfaction with his surrogate son fades.  The robot is not humanlike enough for Tenma – it cannot grow up as a real boy would and thus, still maddened by his true son’s death, the doctor sells the robot to a “robot circus” in a bout of rage.  There the boy robot is forced to fight in a sort of gladiatorial arena and proves his worth to the other, more primitive machines, earning the title Atomu, or “Atom.”  One day Atom is found by Professor Ochanozimu, Dr. Tenma’s successor at the Ministry of Science.  Ochanozimu, a much more compassionate roboticist than Dr. Tenma, manages to free Atom from the circus and takes the boy robot under his wing.  As Atom’s new caretaker, Ochanozimu works to help integrate him into human society, sending him to school and teaching him the idiosyncrasies of humankind so that he might blend in with the other boys.[23]  Outside of these lessons of civility, Atom is time and again forced to employ his super powers to save the day from multitudinous villains that appear throughout the series to wreak havoc.  At the end of the day, though, Atom always seems to return to be assimilated into the ways of the human society that created him.

Osamu was confident that the show would eventually prove a success from the time production on it first went underway in 1963, but he never would have predicted the phenomenal level of response it received from the moment Atom soared across the nation’s television screens for the first time.  The first episode generated ratings of 27.4 percent, a considerably large figure by the standards of Japanese television ratings systems.[24]  Over the next four years, Fuji TV would run a total of 193 episodes of Tetsuwan Atomu, reaching a national ratings record of 40.1 percent the week of the eighty-fourth episode, Iruka Bunmei or “Dolphin Civilization.”[25]  The translation of Tetsuwan Atomu from the panels of a manga to the widely available, vivified television format seemed to validate the story to a larger portion of the Japanese populace.  As an anime that was regularly broadcast throughout the archipelago, Testuwan Atomu garnered the respect of an audience much broader than the schoolboys who read the early manga printed in Shonen.  It was during the 1960’s, through the first domestic serialized animated show to be broadcast on television, that Atom became an icon of national pride, an avatar of Japan’s new faith in technology.

While the themes of scientific advancement that Osamu incorporated into Tetsuwan Atomu (particularly the relationship between human and humanoid robot that the series was founded upon) were an outgrowth of his own imagination and personal experience, the world of the Mighty Atom was by no means a singular example of such motifs in anime.  In truth, Tetsuwan Atomu set a strong precedent in this regard for all future generations of anime production.  The focus that Tezuka fixed on the promise of technology resonated with the people of Japan during the postwar era, and would eventually pervade the art form throughout its prodigious growth over the years.

In the Footsteps of Atom: Iron Man No. 28

The aftershock of Tezuka’s success with Tetsuwan Atomu saw the rise of several new competitors to Mushi Productions.  Atom’s New Year’s Day launch in 1963 was such a reverberating triumph that a wave of new studios, large and small, all seeking to ride Osamu’s coattails, sprung up over the course of that year.  The Television Corporation of Japan (TCJ) Animation Center, a now extinct animation studio, was one such company that rushed to capitalize on the newfound popularity of anime.  In October of 1963, just ten short months after the debut of Tetsuwan Atomu, it became the second animation studio ever to broadcast a serialized anime on national television.[26] By no coincidence at all, this second founding father of anime, Tetsujin Ni-ju-hachi-go humanoid robot that served as the protector and companion of his human keeper.

Tetsujin Ni-ju-hachi-go or Iron Man No. 28

The Iron Man, a giant remote-controlled humanoid robot endowed with incredible brute strength and the ability to fly, followed in the footsteps of Atom in many respects.  Like Atom, he was first constructed in a manga.  In fact, Tetsujin Ni-ju-hachi-go­ was printed alongside Tetsuwan Atomu in Shonen magazine, rivaling its popularity throughout the latter half of the 1950’s.  Mitsuteru Yokoyama, the legendary mangaka behind the metal colossus, even worked at Tezuka’s elbow on Tetsuwan Atomu at one point.  Before it became a full-fledged anime, Tetsujin Ni-ju-hachi-go also made its network television debut as an equally clumsy live-action drama.  The short-lived series appeared for the first time in 1960 on Japan Television, a competing network of Fuji TV.[27]  Tacky as it may have been, it nonetheless attracted the attention of the suits at Fuji TV, and less than three years later the station was broadcasting TCJ’s serialized Tetsujin Ni-ju-hachi-go anime.

It would be unfair to characterize Tetsujin Ni-ju-hachi-go simply as a response to Tetsuwan Atomu, though.  While the history behind the rise of the anime (not to mention the elements of the anime’s story itself) parallels that of Testuwan Atomu, it was much more than a cheap commercial replication.  To be sure, Tetsujin Ni-ju-hachi-go introduced a number of innovative concepts that left a lasting impact on the world of anime, making the series a classic in its own right.

The first episode of the series paints a backdrop of Tokyo ten years after World War II, a setting much more pertinent for the audience at the time than was the distant future of Atom’s realm.  Yokoyama does well here in illustrating the capital just after American occupation of the mainland has drawn to a close, as the nation’s economy is in its early stages of recovery.  Amidst this new promise, however, we find the city in a state of crisis at the outset of the episode, as an obscure group of criminal gangs begin to terrorize the citizens of Tokyo by employing two giant robots, dubbed “No. 26” and “No. 27,” in a series of major heists.  In the process, the gangs use the gigantic automatons to break into the house of Dr. Kaneda, a scientist who allegedly headed a top-secret robotics project of the military during the war, and while searching the house for his research plans, No. 26 and No. 27 brutally murder the doctor.  When Dr. Kaneda’s only son Shotaro discovers this, he vows to hunt the culprits down and avenge the death of his father.  From this moment forward, Shotaro takes on the role of boy detective and sets out to expose the motives behind this atrocity.  Through his investigation, he uncovers evidence that suggests the robots No. 26 and No. 27 were in fact two failed prototypes of his father’s project with the government during the war.  The two were originally designed by Dr. Kaneda and his research partner, Dr. Shikashima, as part of an undertaking to build a war machine that would be used to fight against the Allied forces.  Years after the final days of the war, though, the last two prototypes completed in the project were unearthed and stolen by these gangs of criminals.  As No. 26 and No. 27 were somewhat defective from the time of their inception, the gangs put them to use to track down a rumored No. 28 robot that was said to be much more powerful than its predecessors.  Upon learning of Dr. Kaneda’s death, Dr. Shikashima goes into hiding so as to avoid the same fate.  During this time he decides to resume work on No. 28 that it may be put to use to fight crime later on.  When his work is complete and the robot is ready, Shikashima  bequeaths the weapon to Shotaru, endowing him with a new power to serve justice.[28]  Unlike Atom, an autonomous, anthropomorphic being with the capacity to reason for himself, No. 28 is simply a stolid piece of machinery whose actions are controlled entirely by a small transmitter box.  Thus, the hero of the anime is not the giant robot itself, but rather Shotaro, the boy with this box who steers the metallic monster throughout the series, battling different criminals around the world with each new episode.

Over the course of the eighty-three episodes aired in Japan from 1963 to 1965 (fifty-two of which were dubbed in English and broadcast in the United States under the title Gigantor), the anime grew to be a gargantuan success, nearly overshadowing the popularity of Tetsuwan Atomu.  What set Tetsujin Ni-ju-hachi-go apart from the work of Tezuka was the comparatively direct manner by which it dealt with contemporary issues.  Whereas the appeal of Tetsuwan Atomu laid largely in its fanciful representations of what the future might hold for the technologically bound nation of Japan, Yokoyama played much more candidly upon the postbellum sentiment of the day, providing a sense of immediacy that Atom’s story lacked.  Furthermore, the greater plausibility of Shotaro’s giant, which resembles a modern robot much more closely than humanlike Atom, presented a realism that many preferred.  In fact, this giant robot construct devised by Yokoyama served as an early model that was built upon by many anime to come, which, as we will see, followed a movement toward increasing verisimilitude as the new art form engulfed the nation.

The Rise of Anime 

Thus was born the now enormous anime industry of Japan.  The inception of the market was paralleled by the rise of  these two new robot heroes, and while a nine-month period separated the release of Tetsujin Ni-ju-hachi-go from that of Tetsuwan Atomu, the industry would gather considerable momentum thereafter.  Less than ten anime series were on air during the year following Atom and the Iron Man, but by 1965 fourteen different programs from seven different studios took prime time slots.  These figures boomed exponentially in ensuing years.[29]  Today there exist over 430 different animation studios across Japan.[30]  Between television broadcasts, home VHS and DVD sales, and theatrical releases, animation production is today Japan’s third largest industry, accounting for roughly ten percent of its GDP.[31]  Moreover, the nation is far and away the world’s animation capital, today occupying over 60 percent of the global market.[32]

This tremendous popularity of anime in Japan stems from a basic cultural conception of animation in television and film as a much more legitimate medium of storytelling than in most Western cultures around the world.  Whereas animation in the Western world has come to be a medium reserved almost exclusively for children’s cartoons, anime appeals to a much broader viewership in Japan.  Target market demographics for most anime shows in Japan typically comprise much wider-ranging age groups than in Western nations.  Almost all anime programs are thus designed for primetime viewing – the Saturday morning “ghetto,” a traditionally undesirable hour of programming to which most American cartoons are banished in order to fill airtime, is nonexistent in Japan.  While a few glaring exceptions to this general trend in the history of American broadcasting do exist (The Flintstones and The Simpsons, for instance, were both very successful primetime cartoons geared toward a somewhat older audience), these have all tended to be lighthearted comedies which rarely touch on profound issues for any significant duration of time.[33]  Many anime, on the other hand, are rooted in much more intricate and weightier themes intended for more mature audiences.  Furthermore, a much higher degree of realism is considered appropriate for children in Japan than in the United States, thus allowing for greater breadth in storytelling through anime.  When Atom was first exported to the United States and aired as “Astro Boy,” a daytime children’s show, it went largely unnoticed.  Meanwhile, the boy robot was breaking primetime viewership records in his own homeland across the Pacific.[34]  

As such a compelling new mass medium, anime helped bring the aspiration of scientific progress to the front of the national consciousness.  The forebears of the industry saturated the earliest anime with themes related to new technology, using this newfound conduit to the masses as a means by which to convey a value placed on the potential of science.  At the very heart of this new cultural affinity for technological progress seemed to be a fascination with the human-humanoid robot relationship, a closer sort of interface between man and machine.  The societal shift toward an adulation of science in the years following the war manifested itself in the popularity of this personal bond between man and the embodiment of the pinnacle of technology in anime.  Tezuka and Yokoyama took advantage of exploring the vast new possibilities that animation offered by constructing representations of this fellowship that would be emulated in many generations of the history of the art form to come.  Thus, the earliest anime series broadcast left a mark not only on the future of the art form, but more importantly on the future of Japanese society.

Such overarching themes of science that quickly suffused through the popular culture of Japan have surely had an impact over the years on the direction of the nation’s research and development endeavors.  The most direct manifestation of this influence, though, has been in the field of bipedal humanoid robotics, today a multi-million dollar enterprise of science and industry in Japan.  Seen by most other scientific communities around the world as a rather bizarre, even capricious investment, the quest to build a robot in the image of a man is today avidly pursued by some of Japan’s top researchers.  This curious obsession of the modern architects of the Robot Kingdom is linked closely to the origins of the anime industry.  Indeed, Atom is a true poster boy of the effort, as many of the field’s top research will affirm.  “I’ve wanted to be in the robot business since I was a high-school boy,” Norio Kodaira, an industrial-robot designer of Mitsubishi, recently said in an interview.  He continues, “My dream was to make Testuwan Atomu.”[35]  In a 2000 interview, Hiroaki Kitano, a top robotics researcher for Sony, stated, “2003 is a very special year for the Japanese…2003 is the year when Tetsuwan Atomu was created.  Everyone working on humanoids in Japan is working toward 2003.”[36]  A third distinguished researcher in the field, Yuji Hosoda, once stated, “I have always created robots in the belief that someday they should be more like Tetsuwan Atomu,” on a panel discussion with Tezuka himself.[37]  It seems that just as Osamu foretold, the ultimate purpose of all robotics in Japan, the very dream of countless Japanese scientists, seems to be to one day bring to life a true Mighty Atom.

Realizing the Dream: Turning Science Fiction into Science Fact

The very same year that the final episodes of both Tetsuwan Atomu and Tetsujin Ni-ju-hachi-go were broadcast, true humanoid robotics research in Japan was born.  Its beginnings were rather humble in comparison to the fantastical portrayals of the field in its anime roots, though.  The first institute devoted to the construction of a humanoid, a small robotics laboratory at Waseda University’s School of Science and Engineering, was a far cry from the expansive technological centers laden with space-age gizmos operated by Dr. Tenma and Dr. Kaneda.  The Waseda lab was more of a cramped dormitory in the center of Tokyo where a limited staff of assistants would camp out.  Yet, there is no question that the nativity scene of the Mighty Atom was an inspiration for Dr. Ichiro Kato, the leader of the first humanoid robotics research at Waseda and most celebrated roboticist in Japanese history.  Like Osamu Tezuka, Kato’s background was in medicine – before devoting himself to creating a robot in the image of a human, his early studies focused on medical engineering.  Also like Tezuka, he was highly celebrated for his forward thinking.  “The emphasis in my laboratory has always been on developing robotics with a target 20 to 30 years hence in mind,” writes Kato in a Waseda publication of the lab’s history.  

Ichiro Kato

Sometimes called “Professor Ochanomizu” in jest by his colleagues, many revered him as somewhat of an artist of the human form within the field of robotics.  As a dean at the Waseda School of Science and Engineering and the Chairman of the Robotics Society of Japan, he made the university an epicenter of the field during the 1970’s.  Beginning with the Waseda Bipedal Humanoid (WABIAN) Project in 1970, Kato described the efforts of his team as a work in “biomechatronics,” an interdisciplinary science aimed at replicating the organic functions of animals with machines.  Yet, as Kato stated in a 1988 interview, “My research is not just in function, but in shape.  In thirty years, in the twenty-first century, I think that human form will be essential in robots.  In factories, which are for work, robots can be of any shape, but the personal robot…will have to exist in a regular human environment and be able to adjust to humans.”[38]

            Humanoid construction at Waseda started from the ground up.  The lab’s initial objective in the WABIAN Project was to engineer two viable lower limbs that would be able to support and convey the rest of a body by way of a natural, human-like system of bipedal locomotion.  However, understanding and accurately replicating the exact mechanism of human mobility has proven an extremely delicate balance for researchers to find over the years.  Perfecting a reproduction of this oddity of bipedal locomotion, widely referred to in the world of mechanical physics as “a series of controlled falls,”[39] lies at the very foundation of the field of humanoid robotics.  The earliest full humanoids constructed at Waseda built upon a series of lower-limb prototypes developed over the course of the preceding half-decade.  The first of these models was the Waseda Leg 1 (WL-1).  

Waseda's WL-1 Model

Completed in 1967, this was primarily an endeavor in reverse engineering.  It was nothing more than a single artificial lower limb constructed to explore the basis of the mechanism behind a human leg.  In 1969, the project took one step further with the WL-3 model.[40]  

Waseda's WL-3 Model

This was a pair of two mechanical lower-limbs that was able to perform a very rudimentary walking motion.  Driven by an electrohydraulic motor, the model was the first with the ability to slowly carry itself by placing one foot in front the other.  Additionally, the pair of legs was able to perform standing and sitting motions.  While the WL-3 was a relatively primitive demonstration by modern robotics standards, its success propelled research efforts to a new pace.  That same year Kato and his team launched the “WAP” series, Waseda’s “anthropomorphic pneumatically-activated pedipulators.”  These models, developed in yearly succession from 1969 to 1972, began to emulate human walking, each with an increasing degree of veracity.  The first of these models, the WAP-1, achieved a basic planar bipedal locomotion.[41]  

Waseda's WAP-1 Model

In 1970, the WAP-2 model demonstrated an advancement in stability by employing, among other additions, a posture control system based on pressure sensors implanted under the soles of each foot.  

Waseda's WAP-2 Model

A year later, the WAP-3 was able to slowly ascend and descend stairs thanks to modifications that allowed it to change its center of gravity on its frontal plane, performing three-dimensional automatic biped walking for the first time ever.[42]

Waseda's WAP-3 Model

The last of these early lower-limb models, the WL-5 was able to change direction, traversing the tiny lab with as much freedom as the tight space allowed for.[43]  

Waseda's WL-5 Model

By 1972, Kato was confident that his team had conquered the very fundamentals of bipedal locomotion.  All the same, there was still much progress to be made before a humanlike gait would be successfully reproduced.  While the WL-5 model began to approach this form, it still lacked fluidity, taking an average 45 seconds for every step.  Nonetheless, the foundation had been established, and before long the world’s first humanoid robot would be taking its very first steps around the cramped laboratory.

            This groundbreaking machine, the WABOT I, was assembled in Kato’s laboratory in 1973 and is today considered to be the world’s first full-scale anthropomorphic robot.  Building upon the hitherto success of their lower-limb prototypes, the team added a trunk that incorporated several other systems developed at three separate labs of the School of Engineering and Science.[44]  The WABOT I consisted essentially of a torso and head with a postural control system to provide the tall frame with a new faculty of balance, a vision system, a conversation system and two WAM-4 arms (a robotic arm prototype developed at Waseda about a year earlier), all secured atop the WL-5.  

Waseda's WABOT-1

As the sum of these combined parts, the WABOT-1 was reported to have “the mental faculty of a one-and-half-year-old child.”  With the help of tactile sensors installed in the WAM-4 units, WABOT-1 could grip and transport objects, as well as measure their respective distance and direction using multiple external receptors throughout the upper body.  It was even able to communicate in Japanese at a very elementary level through speech synthesis.  Though revolutionary in its day, the WABOT-1 was somewhat of a metal Frankenstein, an odd amalgamation of several distinct technologies that lurched about in a very jerky fashion.  Still, the groundwork had been laid for future manifestations of Japan’s growing cultural fixation on creating a humanoid robot.

The New Robot Army: The Proliferation of Humanoids in the Anime Renaissance

            In the sphere of the anime industry, the forefathers of the art form were forced to pass the torch by the end of the 1960’s to new generation of artists.  After Tetsuwan Atomu and Tetsujin Ni-ju-hachi-go broke new ground, a few other notable animes were broadcast in the 1960’s, including Tezuka’s second television release, Janguru Taitei, and the world famous Mach Go Go Go (known in English speaking nations respectively as “Kimba the White Lion,” and “Speed Racer”).[45]  Yet the early 1970’s saw the decline of several large-scale studios, and the rise of a new breed of smaller studio in their place.  Toei Doga, still a leader in film production as it had been since its founding in 1948, began to face competition from the success of studios devoted to the new popularity broadcast anime, and lost many artists to these other studios.  By 1973, Mushi Productions was also forced to cut costs to keep up with the pace of the growing industry.  This meant laying off employees, and Osamu, being the kindhearted character that he was, refused to do so.[46]  Thus, the company went bankrupt that year.  Mushi’s former employees went on to found several smaller studios such as Madhouse Productions and Sunrise.   These studios brought in a new generation of young talent with a fresh outlook.  While the postwar era in Japan was now fading into the distant past, the themes which were manifested in its anime surely did not.  Science fiction still remained a fundamental tenet of the art, as did the human-humanoid robot bond.  Representations of this partnership would evolve to take on a new form that soon became a definitive element of anime.

            The man who was perhaps single-handedly responsible for this lasting imprint, Go Nagai, was raised on Tetsuwan Atomu and Tetsujin Ni-ju-hachi-go.  Born in 1945 just after the end of the war, Nagai was fascinated by the postwar manga of Tezuka and Yokoyama during the 1950’s, and drew his own manga constantly while growing up.[47]  At the age of twenty-two, he broke into the manga industry with a short comedy called Meakashi Porikichi in the November 1967 issue of Bokura magazine.  The following year he published twenty-three different titles.  He was rapidly recognized for the unconventional themes he included in his work, pioneering outrageous shock-value fantasy comedies aimed at older audiences.  During this time he also gained somewhat of a reputation as a “bad boy” within the manga industry for the levels of eroticism he incorporated into his children’s manga as well.[48]

Go Nagai

In 1969, though, his focus shifted toward science fiction.  He began developing a concept for a new robot anime that would diverge from the standards he grew up with.  A year later, in 1970, he founded Dynamic Productions with his brothers to produce manga and anime series concepts.[49]  Nagai hoped to take after Tetsuwan Atomu and Tetsujin Ni-ju-hachi-go, two anime series of his childhood that he had always been fascinated by.  At the same time, however, he also sought to contribute a new, eccentric element blossoming field of anime. With his brothers on the business end of things, Go steered the creative staff of Dynamic Productions toward the anime industry.  This decision proved fortuitous, as the very first concepts for anime shows from the company were snatched up immediately by the thirsty Toei.

            As the story goes, Nagai was in a traffic jam and imagined a massive robot that could be piloted just like a car in order to get through the gridlock.  In this moment, the revolutionary new paradigm of the anime Mazinger Z was conceived.  This new twist of a piloted giant humanoid solved the dilemma faced by early robot anime.  Atom, as a highly advanced autonomous robot capable of understanding and showing emotion, lost his mechanical identity.  Tetsujin Ni-ju-hachi-go committed the exact opposite error – the hero of the story with which audiences connected was Shotaro Kaneda, not the actual robot in the anime.  However, with this new concept of Nagai’s, the machine was now personified without the loss of its mechanical singularity.  Toei Doga was so confident in this new idea, it jumped to produce it when it was first presented.  The studio went to work straight away to produce first few episodes of an anime series based on Nagai’s design.  Mazinger Z made its first appearance as a manga strip later that year in the October issue of Shonen Jump.  The anime premiered few months later on Fuji TV on December 3, 1972.[50]

The storyline of Mazinger Z features Dr. Hell, a mad scientist set out to conquer Earth with the help of a legion of robot monsters, each with a distinct destructive power. In defense of the human race, Professor Juzo Kabuto, a lead scientist at the Photon Institute, a laboratory on the outskirts of Tokyo, constructs a giant robot out of a rare indestructible alloy known as Chogokin he discovered.  The robot, named Mazinger is piloted by the professor’s grandson, Koji Kabuto.  Koji, from the cockpit in Mazinger’s head, battles Dr. Hell’s evil forces over the course of the series.[51]

The initial confidence of Toei Doga in Go Nagai’s creation was well merited – the show proved an instant hit.  It ran to a total of 92 episodes from 1972 to 1974 and regularly broke ratings records.[52]  Peaking at 30.4%, Mazinger Z became one of the highest rated anime series of all time.[53]  After the introduction of this new model of robot anime, the concept of human-humanoid symbiosis gained so much popularity through Nagai’s Mazinger Z that it would soon be so rampantly emulated as to become a staple of the industry over the next decade.  In fact, an entire subgenre of anime that surrounded this idea, known as “Mecha” or giant robot anime, was coined.  This new formula of a giant robot that was piloted by a human being set an enduring trend of anime.  In the decade following Mazinger Z’s run, almost every major animation studio would release a new Mecha series each year (often several back to back in the same year), seemingly filling a template that Nagai constructed with slightly varied plot elements and new characters.  Television broadcasting on the whole was now overrun by robots, and the concept of giant robots became a popular culture phenomenon.  At any given time of the day, on any given channel one might turn on a television set to find an anime featuring a giant humanoid robot with a human at its helm.[54]

Mazinger Z and Koji Kabuto

            In 1979, Sunrise released an anime that operated within this standardized framework, but also brought a new important element. The new series, Kido Senshi Gandamu or “Mobile Suit Gundam” in English, departed from the new algorithm on several fronts.  Its creator, Yoshiyuki Tomino was somewhat frustrated with the lack of creativity he felt began to plague the anime industry during these years.  Working as a director at Sunrise, he was forced by the company to adhere to the very regimented, predictable structure that proved commercially successful.  Acquiescing, he directed several run-the-mill giant robot animes during his time at Sunrise.  Still playing by these rules, he decided to take a different route in 1979, which led him to create what would become by far the most influential anime of the era.[55]  

"RX-78" Mobile Suit Gundam

With Kido Senshi Gandamu, Tomino essentially eliminated all far-fetched elements of fantasy that were so common in the robot anime of the day (e.g. space monsters, bent laws of physics, etc.) and brought a high degree of realism to the concept.  The mobile suits that defined the series were viable weapons developed in the future that were used by the military population of a distant colony in a rebellion against forces stationed on Earth.[56]  Tomino was sure to include a high degree of specific mechanical detail in the composition of the suits, as well as a greater realism in character development of their human pilots.  A cast complex characters blurred the lines between good and evil, and heroes as well as enemies often died throughout the series.  Thus, the believability of the show brought it an audience that was comprised of a broad range of ages.

            While the series Kido Senshi Gandamu itself was not that popular among the general public (it was cancelled very early on, airing only 43 of the intended 52 episodes), it was brought back to life in a host of Gundamu sequels and spin-offs over the course of years to come.  These successors, however, saw a considerable amount of success.  As the longest running anime series ever, the Sunrise today continues to release Gundamu shows – the latest series, Kido Senshi Gandamu 00, in 2007.[57]

In the 1980’s, Ichiro Kato, his trusty team of assistants, and the robots they built all trudged on.  In order to begin approximating natural human locomotion, though, a new sort of perspective needed to be adopted.  In the papers he published, Kato began to incorporate a concept called the “zero-moment point,” a term first coined by a Yugoslavian researcher named Miomir Vukobratovich.[58]  Essentially a dynamic center of gravity of a body that could be calculated and observed, applying this new understanding of the zero-moment point to his robots, Kato was now able to work toward producing a robot that was capable of “dynamic walking,” a more fluid motion than the “static walking” of earlier models.  The process of dynamic walking is marked by a sort of series of constantly interrupted falls, and emulates more closely the manner by which the human body by naturally gets around on two legs.  The concept of zero-moment point would later prove to be a control mechanism widely adopted by roboticists concerned with bipedal locomotion.  Thanks to the innovation of Kato, today zero moment point control is a standard in the field.

The earliest application of this new approach was manifested with the release of Waseda’s WL-9DR model in 1980.  The WL-9DR achieved quasi-dynamic walking for the first time ever.  A number of other new adjustments, such as the incorporation of a microcomputer to allow for more versatile control, as well as an increase in the number of points on the WL-9DR's soles that touched the floor, provided for a much more efficient motility.  The walking speed of the WL-9DR was drastically upped to an average 10 seconds per step.  

Waseda's WL-9DR Model

Subsequent models saw even greater improvements in speed and fluency.  In 1983, the streamlined WL-10R model walked at 4.4 seconds per step, and now, with an added degree of freedom at the hip joint, was able to turn, side-step, and backpedal.[59]  

Waseda's WL-10R Model

Two years later, though, the efforts of the lab culminated in a groundbreaking acheivement.  Complete dynamic walking was realized for the first time with the WL-10RD on a flat surface at a remarkable new speed of 1.3 seconds.[60] 

Waseda's WL-10RD Model

Once the mechanism of dynamic walking had been apprehended, the team worked to surmount further hurdles of human walking.  During the latter half of the 1980’s the lab integrated several new technologies into its WL-12 family of prototypes. Using a newly devised balance control algorithm in 1989, the WL-12RIII was capable of dynamic walking while overcoming various obstacles set in its path.[61]  In addition to ascending and descending stairs, the WL-12RIII could traverse flooring with a slightly positive or negative slope. Furthermore, the model was able to maintain dynamic walking when a considerable force (100 N) was applied to its back.[62]  

By this time, however, the university setting was no longer the center of humanoid robotics.  As we will see, these relatively small institutions could not keep up with the resources of humanoid robotics institutes of big industry.

The End of an Era: The Peak of Robot Anime and the Rise of Industry-Based Research

The mid-1980’s also saw the peak of the age of the Mecha in anime.  After 1985, the industry saw a general decline in the mass production of the formulaic giant humanoid robot epic.  The glory days of robot anime had drawn to a close by the late 1980’s.  This is not to say, however, that the cultural obsession was dead by any means.  Much of the anime produced during this time, while not as wildly popular or influential as that of earlier generations, continued the tradition of verisimilitude that the Gundam series pioneered.  Interestingly enough, many of these seem to be an emulation of the real-world goals of roboticists of the day such as Hirose and Kato.  Baburugamu Kuraishisu or “Bubblegum Crisis,” for instance, released in 1987, dealt with the immersion of life-sized humanoid worker robots in a post-apocolyptic Tokyo.[63]  Patlabor, another popular title released in 1988, incorporated police and construction robots within society.  Anime began to paint a picture of what may be the not-so-distant future.[64]

Bubblegum Crisis    and    Patlabor

In 1986, the innovators at Waseda faced new competition.  At the time, however, they would have hardly known it.  At the Honda Motor Corporation’s Wako Research and Development Laboratory, just outside of Tokyo (not unlike the Photon Institute of Go Nagai’s creation), a team of researchers under Masato Hirose operated in complete secrecy for the next decade on developing their own humanoid robot.  Hirose first joined Honda in July of 1986 with a background in designing automated drafting instruments.  On his second day on the job, he was approached by the managing director of the corporation and told he would be working on developing a robot.[65]  Somewhat dumbfounded at this assignment, he took to the Wako Research and Development Laboratory along with a limited number of other researchers set up shop, and within four years he was head of the project.  While Hirose was initially a bit surprised by the idea that Honda, a company normally known for producing automobiles, left him up to conducting research on humanoid robots, he soon learned the company’s aim was simply to develop another form of mobility technology.[66]   Honda initially envisioned a robot that could be integrated into human home life, just as Atomu was integrated by Ochanozimu.  Backed by funds from a hefty corporate investment that a university like Waseda could not compete with, Honda became the new leader of humanoid robotics.  Nobuhiko Kawamoto, the President and CEO of Honda from 1990 through to 1998, specifically made sure Hirose would not have to concern himself with any sort of financial limitation in developing a humanoid. “To this end,” said Hirose in an interview, “the company would only give us the proposition to develop Tetsuwan Atomu and freely let us work out all other tasks by our own will.  Looking back, I think they gave the name probably to set distinctions to what they wanted me to develop was a humanoid robot and not a robot for industrial use.”[67]

With the seemingly unlimited resources and clean slate that the company provided, the researchers at the Wako laboratory became integrators of research, gathering knowledge from academia and building upon it with the potential brought by a greater accessibility of funding.  The researchers acknowledged the feats already accomplished at Waseda, and even appropriated many of Kato’s findings in their own research.  However, the team sought to create an unprecedented robot that would walk with the speed and agility of a human and eventually be put to some practical application.  The first attempts began with an experimental series of prototypes, known collectively as the E Series.  The first of these models, E0, was very simple pair of lower limbs with actuators in each joint.  Taking nearly five seconds between steps, it walked relatively slowly in a straight line and never needed to shift center of gravity.[68]  In order to achieve to progress, the team turned to studying closely the quick-walking mechanisms of several human subjects.  The next three models in the series incorporated these findings.  With the addition of a basic joint structure, the E1 model was able to walk statically at pace of 0.25 km per hour.[69]  Yet, this model walked statically and did not incorporate the fluid dynamic walking that Waseda had developed by then.  In 1989, however, the E2 model achieved dynamic movement for the first time at Honda.  The model reached a speed of about 1.2 km per hour, just under the normal human walking speed, and could walk up and down stairs.[70]  With E3 in 1991, the team was able to increase the walking speed up to 3 km per hour, the average human walking speed.  It could also carry a payload of 70 kg.[71]

With a lifelike speed now achieved, research efforts shifted toward a focus a closer simulation of the minutiae human movement.  In 1991, the E4 model’s knee length was increased to 40 cm, allowing it to imitate the quick human step speed of 4.7 km per hour.[72]  That same year, the E5 model became the first-ever autonomous bipedal locomotor.[73]  With a large head cover and no wires, the model’s two legs carried it free from any sort of tethering.  The E6 model, the final robot in the E series, benefited from the integration of all the autonomous walking functions developed thus far into one self-contained system.

            In 1993 the Honda team began work on the P series, the world’s first completely independent humanoids.  The first prototype, the P1 model, was Honda’s first model with a torso and upper limbs.  Building on the functions achieved in the E6 model, the wireless body measured 1.91 m tall, and weighed 175 kg.[74]  The robot was able to remotely turn external electrical and computer switches on and off, grab doorknobs and pick up and carry various objects.  The P2 model broke new ground as the world’s the first self-regulating humanoid.[75]  Using wireless technologies, the torso contained a built-in computer, 32 motors, a battery, a wireless radio and several other supplementary devices.  With the incorporation of new sensing technologies, the P2 model also benefited from an ability to compensate against external forces (when it was pushed slightly, it would resist) and avoid collisions (it would sense when its path was crossed, stop autonomously, and then continue when the path was clear).  The amalgamation of technologies in the P2 model represented a never-before-seen potential of a humanoid robot.  Yet, the model was far too large and heavy to be of any convenience in a home setting. Furthermore, it had an operational time of only 15 minutes, and exhibited problematic issues of reliability and maintenance.[76]  Honda’s last prototype of the P series, the P3 model, marked an evolution in size, weight, efficiency and reliability.

Honda's Humanoids

By the time the P3 prototype was completed, Honda decided it was time to finally let the secret out. With the release of the P2 model in 1996 and the P3 model a year later, Honda astounded the public.  Many leading robotics researchers of the day were caught off guard, as most had been under the general assumption that a two-legged walking robot of this caliber would come years later.  The release of these two models marked a turning point for the field of humanoid robotics, establishing it as a viable enterprise that would produce results with the proper corporate backing. 

The promise of a future application by Honda’s release of the P2 and P3 models sparked the interest of the Japanese government.  In 1998, Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry launched its own program, the Humanoid Robotics Project (HRP) under the leadership of Hirochika Inoue, former professor and researcher at the University of Tokyo.[77]  The government project was designed to galvanize a movement toward a more immediate application of humanoid robotics.  The mission of the Humanoid Robotics Project encompasses two major objectives.  First, by finding a promising application of humanoid robots, the project sought to incite a movement mass industrial production of humanoid robots.  Five specific areas of the practical application in which to hopefully integrate humanoid robots were decided upon based on the proposals from several users and industries.  These include maintenance tasks of industrial plants, security services of the home and office, human care, tele-operations of construction machines, and “cooperative works in the open air” (e.g. helping to lift and transport objects).[78]  The second aim of the project was to develop an open software platform.  With such a platform, researchers and engineers of any institution aiming to develop new functions of a humanoid robot would be able to conduct its own software research.  While MITI relegated these tasks to several private firms it would subsidize over the course of the five-year project, most of the work was assigned to the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST). 

The earliest research done by the Humanoid Robotics Project was based closely on Honda’s P3 model.[79]  In fact, the first two models of project, HRP-1 and HRP-1S were essentially replications of the P3 model.  The very software that operated the HRP-1 model was produced by Honda.  By 2003, though, the AIST had developed its own humanoid, the HRP-2 model.  Standing 154 cm high and weighing 58 kg, the model was a significant improvement on Honda’s efforts.[80]  Apart from its increased mobility, the arms of the HRP-2 model were considerably stronger than any other humanoid robot in the past.  If it fell on its back, could be programmed to stand up again on its own.  It could also climb into a heavy-duty vehicle by itself and with the proper programming, operate the machine to a certain degree.  The HRP-2 began to exhibit the ability to play a role in human society that the realistic robot anime of the day depicted.  In fact, the external chassis of HRP-2 was designed by Yutaka Izubuchi, an animator famous for his robot designs that appear in several Japanese including Gundam and Patlabor.[81]

In 2000, three years before the release of the HRP-2 model, Honda revealed its now world-famous ASIMO (Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility).  This model today stands as a paradigm of the modern humanoid robotics industry.  Standing just 120 cm tall and weighing 43 kg, a new version of ASIMO is now released yearly, integrating a number of updates of mobility and intelligence technologies into its sleek design.  ASIMO is capable of maneuvering complex environments with moving obstacles in real time, matching the speed of human companion that remains in physical contact, and is even able to run at a rate 3 km per hour.[82]  ASIMO has truly come to epitomize the modern state of humanoid robotics in Japan.

This success of Honda’s has set a trend that has been followed by a number of other large corporations in recent years.  On April 7, 2003, a massive robotics trade show was held to celebrate the birthday of Tetsuwan Atomu.  Companies such as TMSUK, Toyota, and Sony appeared to present their very own bipedal humanoids after several years spent in development.[83] This large-scale exhibition marked the arrival of the industry of humanoid robots, rooted in the early origins of the rise of anime, and was presided over by none other than the birthday boy himself, Tetsuwan Atomu, a real humanoid robot version of the Mighty Atom.


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[1] Schodt, Frederick.  Inside the Robot Kingdom. New York, NY: Harper and Row Publishers, Inc., 1988.

[2] United Nation Economic Commision for Europe. “The Boom in Robot InvestmentContinues – 900,000 Industrial Robots by 2003.” Geneva, 17 October 2000.

[3] Schodt, Frederick. The Astro Boy Essays. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2007.

[4] Menzel, Peter and D’Aluisio, Faith. Robo Sapiens: Evolution of a New Species. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000.

[5] Schodt, Frederick. The Astro Boy Essays. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2007.

[6] Tetsuwan, literally meaning “Iron Arm,” has been translated best as “Mighty,” and Atomu is simply a Japanized form of the English word “Atom.”

[7] Schodt, Frederick. The Astro Boy Essays. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2007.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Literally “red books,” these were small, cheap booklets of manga typically published and sold from kiosks en masse.

[10]Schodt, Frederick. The Astro Boy Essays. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2007.

[11] Ibid.

[12] A pseudonym he adopted from “Osamushi,” a species of beetle that used to fascinate him as a child.

[13] Schodt, Frederick. The Astro Boy Essays. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2007.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Films that employed animation techniques were still widely referred to as manga eigaliterally manga “movies,” or sometimes animeshon by those in the business

[19] Mushi, meaning bug, was a play on his pseudonym.

[20] Schodt, Frederick. The Astro Boy Essays. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2007.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Despite early variations, Atom’s date of birth has generally been understood to be April 7, 2003.

[23] Tetsuwan Atomu. Episode no. 1, “The Birth of the Mighty Atom,” first broadcast 1 January 1963 by Fuji TV.  Directed by Osamu Tezuka and written by Yoshiyuki Tomino.

[24] Traditional Japanese television ratings systems are based upon a percentage calculated by viewership over an estimated target market.

[25] Schodt, Frederick. The Astro Boy Essays. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2007.

[26] Patten, Fred. Watching Anime, Reading Manga: 25 Years of Essays and Reviews. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2004.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Tetsujin Ni-ju-hachi-go.  Episode no. 1, “The Resurrection of Shotaro,” first broadcast 20 October 1963 by Fuji TV. Directed by Yonehiko Watanabe and written by Yoshikazu Okamoto.

[29] Patten, Fred. Watching Anime, Reading Manga: 25 Years of Essays and Reviews. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2004.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Japanese Economy Division. “Japan Animation Industry Trends.” Japan Economic Monthly, June 2005.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Patten, Fred. Watching Anime, Reading Manga: 25 Years of Essays and Reviews. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2004.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Schodt, Frederick. The Astro Boy Essays. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2007.

[36] Menzel, Peter and D’Aluisio, Faith. Robo Sapiens: Evolution of a New Species. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000.

[37] Schodt, Frederick.  Inside the Robot Kingdom. New York, NY: Harper and Row Publishers, Inc., 1988.

[38] Kato, Ichiro, et al. 1985. Development of Waseda Robot: The study of Biomechanisms at Kato Laboratory. Humanoid Robotics Institute, Waseda University.

[39] Kato, Ichiro, et al. 1972. Pneumatically Powered Artificial Legs Walking Automatically Under Various Circumstances.  Proceedings of the 4th International Symposium in External Control of Human Extremities.

[40] Lim, Hun-ok and Takanishi, Atsuo. 2007. Biped Walking Robots Created at Waseda University: WL and WABIAN Family. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences Volume 365, no. 1850, pp. 3-9.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Kato, Ichiro, et al. 1985. Development of Waseda Robot: The study of Biomechanisms  at Kato Laboratory. Humanoid Robotics Institute, Waseda University.

[45] Patten, Fred. Watching Anime, Reading Manga: 25 Years of Essays and Reviews. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2004.

[46] Schodt, Frederick. The Astro Boy Essays. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2007.

[47] Patten, Fred. Watching Anime, Reading Manga: 25 Years of Essays and Reviews. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2004.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Patten, Fred. Watching Anime, Reading Manga: 25 Years of Essays and Reviews. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2004.

[51] Mazinger Z. Episode no. 1, “Birth of the Wondrous Robot,” first broadcast 3 December 1972 by Fuji TV. Directed by Bonjin Nagaki and written by Susumu Takahisa.

[52] Clements, Jonathan and McCarthy, Helen. The Anime Encyclopedia. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2006.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Mazinger Z. Episode no. 1, “Birth of the Wondrous Robot,” first broadcast 3 December 1972 by Fuji TV. Directed by Bonjin Nagaki and written by Susumu Takahisa.

[55] Schodt, Frederick.  Inside the Robot Kingdom. New York, NY: Harper and Row Publishers, Inc., 1988.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Clements, Jonathan and McCarthy, Helen. The Anime Encyclopedia. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2006.

[58] Menzel, Peter and D’Aluisio, Faith. Robo Sapiens: Evolution of a New Species. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000.

[59] Kato, Ichiro, et al. 1972. Pneumatically Powered Artificial Legs Walking Automatically Under Various Circumstances.  Proceedings of the 4th International Symposium in External Control of Human Extremities.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Patten, Fred. Watching Anime, Reading Manga: 25 Years of Essays and Reviews Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2004.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Hirose, Masato. Falling Down, Getting Up, and Walking On.  Nikkei Business Publications, Inc., 4 September, 2001.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Hirai, Kazuo, et al. 1998. The Development of Honda Humanoid Robot. Proceedings of the 1998 IEEE Conference on Robotics and Automation, pp. 1321-1326.

[69] Ibid.

[70] Ibid.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Ibid.

[73] Ibid.

[74] Ibid.

[75] Ibid.

[76] Ibid.

[77] Inoue, H., et al. 2001.  Overview of Humanoid Robotics Project of METI. Proceedings of the 32nd International Symposium on Robotics, pp. 1478-1482.

[78] Ibid.

[79] Ibid.

[80] Ibid.

[81] Inoue, H., et al. 2001.  Overview of Humanoid Robotics Project of METI. Proceedings of the 32nd International Symposium on Robotics, pp. 1478-1482.

[82] Hirai, Kazuo, et al. 1998. The Development of Honda Humanoid Robot. Proceedings of the 1998 IEEE Conference on Robotics and Automation, pp. 1321-1326.

[83] Schodt, Frederick. The Astro Boy Essays. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2007.