What Japan's Friendly Robots Told Our Kids

RON TANNER

January 29, 1992|By RON TANNER

When George Bush and his entourage of CEOs flew to Japan to preach that Japan should ''play fair,'' it was another way of saying that it should play by our rules. The suggestion, sometimes stated baldly, is that Japan has done nothing for us over the years except glut our markets with inexpensive appliances and reliable automobiles.

The sad irony, however, is that Japan has been giving us plenty for years -- we simply haven't been receptive to its good example. Or, I should say, grown-ups haven't been receptive. The current generation of American children, with a nearly innumerable selection of sci-fi toys to stir their imaginations and to encourage their participation in the high-tech future, may owe great thanks to Japan. And so may American manufacturers who will hire these children some years from now.

Toys, Japanese-designed toys of the Fifties and Sixties, truly made a difference in America, for they nurtured among my generation, the baby boomers, a healthy regard for technology and the future -- something, I regret to say, our own parents and our own culture were incapable of nurturing.

We children who grew up watching Japanese sci-fi on TV and playing with Japanese-made sci-fi toys, have known a Japan very different from the one George Bush, Lee Iacocca and our own parents knew. The Japan they knew was, after its near annihilation by atom bombs, our humble country cousin who tried his best to be like us.

In a 1960 picture book on Japan, published by Life, there is a photo of an assembly line in a Japanese toy factory. The caption reads, ''Deft hands in the Kosuge factory (left) use Detroit methods to make toy cars,'' as if this were as close as the Japanese would ever come to our own achievements. In those days, Japan's efforts were touching and somehow pathetic. This is the Japan Messrs. Bush and Iacocca remember. It is the Japan they want to preserve, which is why they cannot accommodate the new Japan, an aggressive world power.

On the other hand, we -- the children of the Bushes and the Iacoccas -- saw Japan as highly imaginative, technologically innovative and wholly unafraid of the future. Nowhere was this better expressed than in their manufacture of tin toy robots. Imported to the U.S. by the hundreds of thousands from 1955 to 1975, such toys were delicate pieces of machinery, often with antennae, spindly appendages, spring-loaded doors, and well-articulated body armor (very much in the tradition of kozaiku, the highly-regarded workmanship of small, delicate objects), which is why so few Japanese tin toy robots exist today.

One may wonder what the Japanese manufacturers were thinking when they designed these things for children. Apparently, they set out only to make the most of the idea of a robot, and this they did; the variations they invented over the years are innumerable and remarkable. And now, in the world community of collectors, these toys are considered some of the most ingenious and well-wrought inventions of 20th-century manufacture.

Most were no taller than 12 inches, made of brightly lithographed tin, and nearly all of them were made to look and act benign: robots carrying crescent wrenches, say, or pushing wheelbarrows, as if to help rebuild Japan -- which was the idea, after all. Over the years, as Japanese electronics grew more sophisticated, so did the toys. Some were remote-controlled and capable of walking forward, bending at the waist and picking up objects.

By 1961, 60 percent of all toys manufactured in Japan were battery-operated. It was as if the technological aspirations of the toy makers could hardly be contained by the inconsequential gewgaws they had to manufacture for a living. And surely this was the case.

What I'm pointing to here is an attitude, and it's not a matter of work ethic only. Rather it has to do with Japan's enthusiasm for technology, especially robots, and Japan's accommodation of the future. In the 1950s, while American children were watching ''Roy Rogers'' and ''Sky King'' on TV, Japanese children were watching ''Astroboy'' and ''Tetsujin 28 Go,'' cartoons whose heroes were robots. And while we Americans may have had an occasional space hero such as Tom Corbett or Buck Rogers, we rarely if ever saw humans working with robots for the good of the world, which was (and is) the Japanese model. Indeed, our culture and its traditions have been antagonistic to the machine at every turn.

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