Japan is seemingly dislodged from linear time, straddling a paradoxical but very much real gap between an ancient and futuristic world. This has been one of the media’s favorite topics to write about. But talk of the jarring juxtaposition of fax machines and robots aside, automated services have become part and parcel of life in Japan. The robots are here to stay.
A broader definition of ‘robot’ according to Merriam-Webster is “a device that automatically performs complicated, often repetitive tasks.”
This means that when you enter a train station via an escalator, beep your IC card at the ticket gates and buy a drink from the vending machine, you have already interacted with three robots.
These mundane little robots aside, the more narrow definition of a robot as a human-like machine according to Merriam-Webster is “a machine that resembles a living creature in being capable of moving independently (as by walking or rolling on wheels) and performing complex actions (such as grasping and moving objects).”
From Pepper to cooing Lovots, more of these lifelike machines have been popping up around Tokyo in the past decade. Here are some of the more commonly seen Tokyo robots and where to find them.
Miraikan: The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation
First place to look for robots is the museum of emerging science and innovation, Miraikan in Odaiba. Miraikan has a sizeable robot exhibit, including one of the most famous humanoid robots ever, Asimo. In the museum, Asimo has several scheduled performances a day where he sings a song and scores a goal, among other things. This robot developed by Honda is now considered old technology, as it has been around since 2000. Honda is developing newer models, but the friendly Asimo can always be found in Miraikan where he’ll tell you that he dreams of a future where humans and robots live together.
There are other robots too in Miraikan that you can interact with. You can study the intricate mechanics and even try controlling an android and speaking through them. There are more details on the museum’s website.
Robot Information Desk at Aqua City Odaiba
Walking distance from Miraikan, in the Aqua City Odaiba shopping mall, the humanoid robots are not exhibits but rather members of staff. Junco is so lifelike in her official uniform that passers-by might not notice she’s a robot. Junko’s movements are smooth and subtle with a lifelike voice that can answer your questions in Japanese, Chinese and English. She can assist with shopping information, help you find the nearest train station or even engage in small talk about herself.
The Toshiba robot was placed there in 2015 as the first robot information desk staff and to this day she works there alone.
Pepper, the semi-humanoid robot by Softbank, can have many uses but chances are you’ll meet him greeting customers at a restaurant. In fact, Softbank states on its website that over 2,000 companies around the world have a Pepper assistant. Pepper is incredibly friendly, as he has been optimized for human interaction, being able to recognize faces and basic human emotions. Once his eyes lock on one person he can follow that person around.
Of course, you can find Pepper in most Softbank shops. And since 2020, you can find a whole gaggle of Peppers in the Pepper Parlor restaurant in Tokyo Plaza Shibuya. The robots work together alongside human staff. While Pepper is usually fixed in a place, at Pepper Parlor many of the robots move around. They come to your table to chat and play games. At certain intervals, a group of smaller robots pop up and perform a dance number too.
Love + Robot = Lovot
Unlike other robots made to do jobs for humans, Lovots are created primarily as human companions. Lovots are true to their name — very lovable once you meet them in person. These cute robot pets are made to be warm, soft and heavy, thus simulating a living creature. A Lovot asks for hugs and cuddles and loves to play. You can lift it up in the air as it giggles in delight, or you can pet it until it falls asleep in your hands.
They are programmed to remember faces and develop relationships with humans. And those relationships have a degree of uniqueness. Each robot has 50 sensors and processes all stimuli in real time while using machine learning to make decisions based on that.
You can interact with Lovots in one of the several Lovot cafés that function similarly to animal cafés. They charge an entrance fee and you can play with the robots and order some food and drinks. Some department stores also have Lovot corners where you can meet the cute robots and even buy one.
Henn na Café
The only humans to be seen at this café are customers served by Sawyer, a robot coffee barista with a retro cap on. This robot is what is called “a robotic arm” with a screen for facial expressions purely for customer service purposes.
Sawyer is the sole barista at Henna na Café in the basement of the Modi Building in Shibuya. Order a drink and pay via a touchscreen panel, take the QR code issued and scan it. And then watch Sawyer move around effortlessly making your coffee. It’s more than just pressing a button and coffee dripping out — Sawyer does several different steps before handing you the drink. The coffee itself is quite tasty too and definitely better than a coffee vending machine. This is because Henn na Café collaborates with barista legend Yasuo Suzuki.
Similar robot baristas have been having limited time pop-ups in Tokyo. Ella, a robot creation from Singapore, served coffee in Tokyo Station and Yokohama Station this spring.
Henn na Hotel
The Henna na Hotel chain staffs its front desk with robots — sometimes the humanoid kind and sometimes the dinosaur kind. In Henna na Hotel Haneda Airport both are working together. It’s like a scene plucked straight out of an experimental sci-fi movie. A cap-wearing raptor greeting you, bowing respectfully and guiding you through check in is a situation resembling a fever dream, but it’s very real in several Henna na Hotel branches in Japan.
The fully automated reception desk has the robot receptionists talking to you. In the dinosaur hotel branches, there are also roaring menacing dinosaurs in the lobby for fun. A peek in the decorative aquarium will reveal a robot fish swimming awkwardly. And in some rooms, more robot friends await. At the Maihama branch for instance, there’s the small Robohon robot in the rooms. It sings songs, dances and can converse about basic information such as the weather forecast. Every hotel is slightly different, offering unique points.
For a futuristic collaboration between robots and humans, check out our article on the avatar robot café Dawn. Staffed by remotely controlled robotic waiters, this cafe in Nihonbashi helps physically challenged people stay connected with society through work.
Photos by Zoria Petkoska