Five Places to Meet a Robot in Tokyo

Aaron Baggett

If growing up with anime, video games, kaiju flicks and other interests of the like that are suddenly mainstream now but would have made you a social pariah in high school has taught me anything, it’s that Japan has the monopoly on robots. That being said, where the heck are the robots in Tokyo? I mean schoolgirls, Pikachu, vending machines and strange appropriations of English? Sure. You can’t turn around without bumping into those Japanese staples. But where are the rock ’em, sock ’ems? Where can a cheapo shake hands with a real-life future mechanical overlord? Here are five featured ‘bots in the big city—and a few bonuses besides.

1. Pepper

Pepper Robot
A slightly forlorn looking Pepper | Photo by Chris Kirkland

What the hell is that? It looks like Johnny Five re-engineered by Care Bears. Its name is Pepper? Jesus, Chappie wasn’t this cute. Pepper comes to us from mobile phone megacorp SoftBank. It can analyze your facial expressions, guess your current mood, and just be an overall cool dude to talk to when you’re feeling bummed out. SoftBank claims Pepper isn’t technically a fully functional robot, and that Pepper’s purpose is to “enhance lives, facilitate relationships and connect people with the outside world.” All for the low, low price of 198,000 yen (plus 36 x monthly usage fees). If only there was already some kind of technology that could “inter-connect” people with one another to the outside world. A “net” if you will.

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Regardless, you can check out Pepper for free at flagship Softbank shops in Ginza and Omotesando, as well as occasionally rolling around Labi Department stores and random other places. We even saw one outside a travel agency in Shibuya Station.

 2. Asimo

Photo by MsSaraKelly used under CC

Remember this little guy? It’s been 17 years since Asimo was unveiled to the public, and I got to say, I’m beginning to lose my interest. Back in 2000 we were all flipping out over the thought of having our own little robot butler astronauts walking around, but now it’s 2017. I’m jaded from Call of Duty and iPhones. What can Asimo possibly do now that could—holy crap he can open bottles! Well, I’m sold. Bring on retirement if it means mini-cosmonaut here making trips to the fridge for me.

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Asimo can be found showing off for free at the Honda Welcome Plaza in Aoyama, and according to online reviews the Go-bot is a technological wonder to witness. Demos and picture ops are normally 13:30 and 15:00 on weekdays, and 11:00, 13:30 and 15:00 on Saturdays (with just the 11:00 show on Sundays), but you should check the calendar of events just to be safe.

 3. The Miraikan National Museum of Science and Innovation

Photo by Harry Vale used under CC

The Miraikan National Science Museum in Odaiba boasts a number of fantastic exhibitions dealing in robotic and earth sciences. The aptly named Robot World features the aforementioned Asimo, robotic vehicles, interactive humanoids, and even a robotic baby seal because of course Japan has a cute baby robotic seal. After comforting your new mechanical pinniped friend, you can experience the horrors of uncanny valley in Android: What is Human? To which I answer, who even knows anymore? We just stepped out of Wall-E and straight into West World.

The exhibit features advanced robotic androids so lifelike that they would make Deckard nervous. Kodomoroid is a robot resembling a human child having escaped from a mental ward, which continuously recites world news in multiple languages with a “detached voice.” Which is really what you want to look for in murderbots. Another is Otonaroid, an android that can be operated by visitors while other guests attempt small talk. This is “free conversation mode.” The museum calls the mode in which she silently stares at you making subtle facial expressions “normal” mode.

Finally, complete your nightmare by caressing an emotionless and limbless baby crash test dummy named Telenoid, whose neutral appearance “enables people who communicate with it to feel that they are with anyone they wish.”

Telenoid R1 was developed by Osaka University and ATR Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratory.
Telenoid R1 was developed by Osaka University and ATR Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratory.

I am of course being completely facetious in my automatonophobia. The Miraikan offers visitors a unique opportunity to learn and interact with real-life robots (as well as dedicated earth science exhibits). The exhibits do seem to be aimed at kids, but I don’t want to even meet the guy that doesn’t turn seven the moment he comes face to face with a robot. Plus for just 620 yen admission, a cheapo really can’t go wrong. Also, I really feel like we’re just a few years off in technology from marrying meeting my boyhood crush.

My girlfriend keeps asking why I buy her big Russian hats...
My girlfriend keeps asking why I buy her big Russian hats …

4. Gundam (Fall 2017 onwards)

Photo by Moyan Brenn used under CC

Until March 5th 2017, an 18-meter tall, 1/1 scale RX-78 V2 Gundam towered over the entrance to Odaiba’s Diver City. You don’t need to understand that specific string of numbers and letters to know that the Gundam series is kind of a big deal. You didn’t even need to particularly care about robots to marvel at the thing. It was massive! Why are we rambling about a giant robot that no longer exists? Because in fall this year, an even bigger one will be going up in its place. The newcomer is a 24-meter Unicorn Gundam, and you should be excited.

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If you don’t think the non-mobile suit will do it for you, then there is only one robotic menace that can match the raw power of a Gundam …

5. International Robot Exhibition (December 2017)

Dead or alive, you're playing with me.
Dead or alive, you’re playing with me. | Photo by Humanrobo

The International Robot Exhibition (IREX) is the largest robot convention in the world. State-of-the-art service and industry robots from all over will be on the showroom floor of Tokyo Big Sight to amaze and inspire hope and innovation in mankind for the years to come, or maybe just enslave us all. I can’t be sure. It’s definitely one of the two. The expo sees tens of thousands of consumers and creators alike converge for four days, and in case you’re picturing something like your high school science fair, the last event that took place in 2013 attracted over 100,000 attendees. There’s a good chance that anything from the robotics world that will make headlines in the future will probably be seen here first.

The next IREX will take place in late November/early December 2017, and entry is free if you pre-register, otherwise it’s 1,000 yen at the door. IREX is the real deal for hardcore robotics enthusiasts, but casuals will surely find the experience worthwhile too. Let’s just hope some robot doesn’t kill everybody. Or read that line.

(If you aren’t around in 2017, you can check out the smaller Japan Robot Show—which alternates each year with IREX—taking place in mid-October, 2018.)

Robots in Tokyo
A 2D representation of a robot welcomes visitors to Akihabara, Tokyo. | Photo by Luis Villa del Campo used under CC

Bonus content: 3.5 other places you can see robots in Tokyo

Narita Airport

To see robots in Tokyo, you might not need to do anything more than step off the plane. Narita Airport (in Chiba, to be accurate) occasionally trots out robots to make the passenger experience smoother—and presumably to liven things up. In spring 2016, Asimo was a meet-and-greet feature, and in January 2017 Narita trialed Panasonic’s HOSPI robots to help bus tables. You can buy insurance or get information from a lady-like ‘bot called Kokoro in Terminal 1 till May 8. Further robot assistants are expected to make an appearance in the run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Haneda Airport

Similarly, you might be able to spot a ‘bot at Haneda Airport (in Tokyo proper). In a bid to combat labor shortages during the Olympics, Haneda is looking into the viability of robot assistants. They have a whole project going on in the form of Haneda Robotics Lab, and have already tested cleaning, porting and info-providing robots. Keep an eye on their Facebook page to see what’s currently roaming the terminals.

Henn-na Hotel

You could always crash at a hotel staffed by robots. A branch of Nagasaki’s popular Henn-na Hotel (literally “strange hotel”) opened in Chiba in March 2017, and it offers quite the quirky (and quintessentially Japanese) experience. Hat-sporting dinosaur robots will check you in, and then your bags will be taken to your room by a porter robot. There are apparently 140 robots on the premises, with seven human staff on site to assist, should it be necessary. The hotel is just around the corner from Tokyo Disney Resort, and you can book a room for around US$100.

Robot Restaurant Tokyo
A different type of robot experience awaits at the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku (bring sunglasses). | Photo by Nick Turner used under CC

Robot Restaurant 

You might have heard of the “Robot Restaurant” in Shinjuku and be wondering why it’s not a big, shiny feature of this article. That’s because a) tickets are priced high, and b) it’s in a robot league of its own—one that includes scantily-clad women and eye-popping neon lights. Follow the link to read more about the Robot Restaurant and how to scoop discount tickets.

Special Bonus Content: Robotic Humans

(Apologies for this one as it’s completely not robots! But it’s still a fascinating artifact of Japanese culture so thought we’d tack it on the end)
Japan which pride’s itself on its very high standards of omotenashi (a concept roughly translated to hospitality) has some fascinating examples of highly choreographed customer service routines. The Japanese concept of hospitality can differ somewhat to western expectations, which usually seems highly polished and can at times seem robotic in its perfection. Generally high-end department stores are the best spots to catch a glimpse, but here’s some examples:

  • The ritual of lift operators, e.g. at Mistukoshi department store, Tokyo metropolitan Tower
  • Department store staff greeting chorus, e,g, try arriving at any high-end department store at opening time Mistukoshi, Isetan, Seibu.
  • Elegant bowing, e.g. find the information centre at the basement of Tokyo Midtown and watch the elegance of their regular bowing. Also the staff on the Shinkansen train bow delicately when leaving a carriage
  • Japanese Airline cabin attendants

This article was updated in April 2017 by Carey Finn.

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