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Why Are Robots Part of Religion in Japan?

Declining population is only one factor. Ancient cultural beliefs are another.

An android of the Buddhist deity Kannon recently gave a sermon at the historic Kodaiji Buddhist temple in Kyoto. Why an android? First, there’s a history.

The Kannon deity transforms itself into various forms to help people.

“This time, Kannon changed into an android,” according to the temple.

Jiro Omura, “Kyoto temple enlists Android Buddhist deity to help people” at The Asahi Shimbun

Japan Visitor explains that Kannon Boddhisattva (in other languages called Guanyin or Avalokiteshvara) “is not a Buddha, but a Bodhisattva, a being who is able to achieve Nirvana but delays doing so through compassion for suffering beings, but many in Japan do not make that distinction.” – Japan Visitor

Why now? The Kannon android project is a form of evangelism, to “explain the teachings of the Buddha in plain speech and attract a new and younger audience” in the face of falling numbers:

Although about 67 per cent of Japan’s 127 million people identify as Buddhists, most seldom see the inside of a temple except for during traditional ceremonies to mark the New Year and funeral rites for deceased family members. Buddhism may be approaching something of a crisis point in Japan, with 27,000 of the country’s 77,000 Buddhist temples expected to close over the next 25 years, reflecting shrinking populations in small rural communities and a loss of faith in organized religion among the country’s population as a whole. Anne Wisman, “Kyoto Temple Unveils Android Version of Kannon Bodhisattva” at Global Buddhist Door

The android, known as Mindar, is aluminum but its face, shoulders, and hands are covered in silicone “designed to look like human skin, allowing for a more “human” appearance, especially when robed. The head, arms, and torso have see-through mechanical parts. A camera installed in its left eye enables visual connection with audiences. It is programmed to preach the Heart Sutra sermon in Japanese, with translations into English and Chinese projected onto a screen.

Two questions come naturally to mind: Why do Japanese people achieve so much in robotics and what connection is seen between robotics and religion? Mindar is not an AI cult-of-the-decade steaming out of Silicon Valley. She is intended to blend in with age-old traditions, not replace them.

First, necessity is the mother of invention. Japan is a quickly greying society; by 2040 more than one Japanese in three will be over 65. Faced with a choice, Japan prefers automation to immigration. Given that the workforce has shrunk by 13% since 2000, the jobs robots eliminate were not going to be filled by humans anyway. Meanwhile, the burgeoning old age industry looks to robotic nurses to bridge the gap.

Robotics has been popular in Japan since the 17th century; one example is the clockwork-driven karakuri ningyô, mechanical dolls that serve tea or write. The tradition has some elements in common with the Mechanical Turk, a chess-playing automaton popular in western Europe in roughly the same era.

But deeper cultural factors play a role as well. The Finland-based METESE Project (“MEaningful TEchnology for Seniors,” ), a collaborative project between research institutes AIST in JAPAN and VTT in Finland, tackled this question: In much of Japanese culture, robots are not seen as mere things:

The main Japanese religion is Shintoism, which has the worldview of animism to the external world. Plants, animals, rocks, as well as artificial devices and the environment possess a spiritual essence. So robots, especially social, animal or human-like robots can easily be imagined to have a soul. This is something strange to European Christian religions, which find immortal soul only in human beings, and often have only instrumental attitude to non-human entities. Marketta Niemela, “Why do the Japanese like robots?” at METESE

A Shinto writer at Wired sees the Japanese as leading the way in these matters:

The Western concept of “humanity” is limited, and I think it’s time to seriously question whether we have the right to exploit the environment, animals, tools, or robots simply because we’re human and they are not. Joi Ito, “Why Westerners Fear Robots and the Japanese Do Not” at Wired

He recalls participating in a meeting organized by the Honda Foundation where the case was made that the Japanese found it easier to integrate robots, not only because of Shinto, which is the major religion of Japan, but also Buddhism:

Osamu Tezuka, the Japanese cartoonist and the creator of Atom Boy noted the relationship between Buddhism and robots, saying, ”Japanese don’t make a distinction between man, the superior creature, and the world about him. Everything is fused together, and we accept robots easily along with the wide world about us, the insects, the rocks—it’s all one. We have none of the doubting attitude toward robots, as pseudohumans, that you find in the West. So here you find no resistance, simply quiet acceptance.” And while the Japanese did of course become agrarian and then industrial, Shinto and Buddhist influences have caused Japan to retain many of the rituals and sensibilities of a more pre-humanist period. Joi Ito, “Why Westerners Fear Robots and the Japanese Do Not” at Wired

Ito sees our problems as originating in the idea that humans are special and urges that we “develop a respect for, and emotional and spiritual dialogue with, all things.”

Illustrating this approach to life, in 2018, a 450-year-old Buddhist temple in Isumi held a funeral ceremony for 114 first-generation Aibo robotic dogs (“with priests in traditional robes chanting sutras and offering prayers for the departed plastic puppies.”), prior to recycling them. Production of the model had stopped in 2006 and the repair service was discontinued in 2014.

The little robots often arrive at the temple with notes or letters from their owners that state the name they gave to their mechanical companion and how they spent their time together. “Please help other Aibos. Tears rose in my eyes when I decided to say goodbye,” reads one such note, while another states: “I feel relieved to know there will be a prayer for my Aibo.” (The Japan Times) Craig Lewis, “Japanese Buddhist Temple Holds Funerals for Defunct Robot Dogs” at Buddhist Door.net

Lewis explains, “Recognizing the impermanence of all compounded phenomena is one of the fundamental tenets of Buddhism, and that of course includes cybernetic canines,” or, as head priest Bungen Oi puts it, “All things have a bit of soul.”

This approach to robotics obviates questions many of us ask, like whether the robot is or can ever be a thinking or feeling being. Inanimateness and unconsciousness are not seen as causes of natural inequality.1 Robot rights, for example, might not depend on whether robots achieve benchmarks for humanity. Time will tell if this perspective takes root in cultures not formed by the same influences as Japan.

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1The approach has some affinities with panpsychism, the view that everything is, in some sense, conscious.

See also: The virtual bride The answer to relationship problems: Your new spouse is a hologram. So far, only in Japan

Can machines be persons?

and

And you thought “robotic religion” was just a pointed criticism You know, rote prayers, mindless gestures… Is that the way of the future for some?


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Why Are Robots Part of Religion in Japan?