The Japanese have a long history with automatons and robots, of course–the Chahakobi Ningyo, the "tea-serving doll," was created circa 1750, and the haiku master Kobayashi Issa even wrote a haiku to it:
Such coolness by the gate
as the tea-serving doll
brings another cup.
But Japanese robots really began with Tanaka Hisashige, a.k.a. "Japan’s Edison." Tanaka did a lot (as you’d expect with the Edison comparison) and created, among other things, the famous Yumihikidoji "boy archer" robot. But, more interestingly, he also created this:
That is the Mojikaki-ningyo, the "Writing Doll." Created by Tanaka sometime in the 1840s, it’s built without a single nail and can write four Chinese characters, including kotobuki, or "longevity." It’s a marvel of Edo craftsmanship and technology.
Naturally, it got stolen. Nobody knows how or when, exactly, but the Mojikaki-ningyo did turn up in 2003 in the collection of Harry Kellar, the "Dean of American Magicians," and Kellar did tour Japan in 1875/1876, so you can draw your own conclusions about just what happened.
Japan’s first modern robot was created in 1928 by Makoto Nishimura, as part of the formal celebration of Emperor Showa’s (a.k.a. Hirohito) ascension to the Chrysanthemum Throne.
The robot, Gakutensoku (or "learning from natural law"), was 7'8" tall, painted gold, could open and close its eyes, could smile, could puff out its cheeks, and at the beginning of each performance would touch its mace to its head and then begin to write. A novelist described one audience’s reaction:
"It started to write characters smoothly in a flowing hand. As if to express the agony of creation, it slowly shook his head from left to right. The movement was so natural it didn’t look like it was a machine. Unconsciously, the spectators began naturally imitating this movement, shaking their heads from left to right. This was funny because the humans looked like they were being controlled by the robot like marionettes."
Gakutensoku was exhibited in Kyoto in 1928 and then sent on tour to Germany. When it disappeared.
One of the starting points of the American otaku craze can be traced to the 1990 English translation of the three Yoshiyuki Tomino "Mobile Suit Gundam" novels.
What do all these things have in common?
Mojikaki-ningyo gets stolen by a white American in 1875. Japan shifts from undoing the unequal treaties forced on it by the white powers in the 1850s and 1860s to trying to make its military the equal of the white powers’. Japan begins sending spies into the Western countries. Japanese ultranationalism begins. The Black Ocean and Black Dragon Societies are founded. Meanwhile, Mojikaki-ningyo is brought to the U.S. in 1875 or 1876. The American management/labor clashes of the mid-1870s end shortly thereafter, as does the Panic of 1873. The U.S. lays the groundwork for its ascension as a world power in the 20th century.
Gakutensoku gets stolen by a white German in 1928. What follows in Japan is a domestic economic crisis, the lose of civilian power over the government, and the rise in power of the military.
The three "Mobile Suit Gundam" novels are translated into English in 1990s and snapped up by crazed American otakus. The Japanese bubble economy collapses soon thereafter, leading to the ushinawareta jūnen, the Japanese "lost decade." Meanwhile, the U.S. begins consuming Power Rangers, Pokemon, and a variety of J-Pop offerings. The English translation of the Gundam novels was one of the first official, licensed J-Pop products, which gave the imprimatur to the American otakus, who helped create the American craze for J-Pop, manga, and anime, so that there are more American consumers (numerically) of the latter than there are Japanese consumers. In other words, America, not Japan, is now the audience for J-Pop–it’s made for us, not its native audience. America has co-opted J-Pop.
It’s clear, isn’t it? When Japan makes a new robot, a white person steals it, and bad things happen to Japan. Japan, beware the white man! He will steal your best stuff and ruin your country!