Infiniti Brand Journey: Flower Robotics pre-interview


As part of the Infiniti Brand Journey, we visited the Daikanyama offices of Flower Robotics yesterday where we had an hour-long chat with charismatic founder Tatsuya Matsui. The company is a bit notorious for having everything in the office — including the workers’ wardrobes — limited to simple monotones. This being the most chic part of Tokyo though, it was hard to discern the idiosyncrasy. Matsui was wearing a slim navy blue suit, white shirt and navy silk tie. His robots — including Posy and Palette — are molded in white and black. I do not recommend wearing patchwork madras on an official visit — you will not just scorch the atmosphere but look like a dweeb.

Off the bat, I mentioned common criticisms of Japanese robots: the creations are mere “puppets,” karakuri ningyo that move on their own but require human beings to pull the strings. And many high-profile robots — cough, Asimov-minus-the-v, cough — seem more about fulfilling PR roles than functional needs.

Matsui’s approach takes both of these issues into account. Flower Robotics is first and foremost a business, so the company’s aim is to create robots that cater to particular demands. The robots also utilize a certain amount of artificial intelligence to make decisions on their own. The best example of this is the aforementioned “moving mannequin” Palette, who stands in fashion brand display windows and remembers which poses most appeal to onlookers.

In the comment section of the last post, we talked about Japanese craftsmanship quickly descending into “Orientalist discourse,” in the sense that using the Japanese word “shokunin” (職人) suddenly religates the universal human desire of creation to a mystical, Eastern framework transcending Western rational understanding. There is also the issue of self-Orientalization, where Japanese designers work to explain their unique philosophies and decision-making in the context of unchanging Japanese traditions.

From my brief time with him, Matsui sounds as if he is more influenced by modernity (and Steve Jobs!) than karakuri, but there are particular parts of the Japanese design mindset that do seem to be culturally-bound. He and the other craftsmen are very interested in concrete objects — i.e., hardware. There are many economic-structuralist explanations for the failure of Japanese companies to master software, web design, E-books, net culture and user interfaces, but without going full-blown cultural-essentialist, can we not say at this point that there is very “Japanese” predilection for creating actual objects rather than virtual ones? We do not necessarily have to explain this through animism — there are kami everywhere, even in your Walkman — but we can probably safely say, people who love the concept of physical objects tend to be extremely detailed-oriented and obsessive when it comes to making them. This probably can be said for Steve Jobs and James Dyson too, but that way of thinking has a particularly large number of adherents in Japan.

In the case of Flower Robotics, the point is never about raw materialism — the cult of R2-D2 — but the human interaction with the robot. As Japan moves into a post-materialist era — whether due to economic collapse or the Internet age — robots can no longer just be geeky gadgets we lust over. To become a true industrial field, they must be machines seamlessly weaved into our daily lives. On this measure, at least in Japan, Matsui is way ahead of the pack.

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W. David MARX
May 8, 2010

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

19 Responses

  1. M-Bone Says:

    “there are kami everywhere, even in your Walkman”

    I hear there are kami in Toyota accelerator pedals.

  2. Chuckles Says:

    […can we not say at this point that there is very “Japanese” predilection for creating actual objects rather than virtual ones?…]

    Not to preempt the interview – but this is a hard one to sell: My suspicion is that Japanese abstract values, to the extent that they exist – are more readily incarnated in physical objects than virtual ones but not universally: do Japanese predilict toward physical objects or towards abstractions like kawaii, kakoii, sugoi, etc – if so, what need for seamlessly weaved robots? Matsui sounds like a very cool chap.

  3. M-Bone Says:

    And what about video games and 非実在青少年?

  4. W. David MARX Says:

    towards abstractions like kawaii, kakoii, sugoi,

    I am not claiming that cultures could have NO abstractions but that the idea of “creativity” may be more bound up in the creation of physical objects than in other places. I think this is an issue of degree rather than strict dichotomy.

    And what about video games and 非実在青少年?

    Yes, good counterpoint, although Japan was the biggest makers of gaming CONSOLES rather than just going PC gaming like in Korea. And the “I am in love with a 2D girl” thing is relatively recent as a (somewhat) widespread phenomena, having to do more with the breakdown of relations between men and women than Japanese tradition. These are guys who have to redefine their sexual predilections because it’s too painful to deal with the idea that they will never be able to acquire an actual real-life partner.

  5. M-Bone Says:

    “biggest makers of gaming CONSOLES rather than just going PC gaming like in Korea”

    And Korea has (to the best of my knowledge) failed to export those games on a large scale because they more or less faithfully follow J-game or Western MMORPG patterns… and just aren’t very good (Lineage, Ragnarok, etc.). For Japan, far more significant than hardware is the period of creativity in level design, character, and fun factor between Space Invaders and Wii (and the Wii and DS stand out here as inferior on every conceivable level apart from software and interface – and ended up owning the competition). That’s nearly 30 years of among the top of the industry, much of that time completely uncontested apart from niche American PC titles. There is a story that can be told here of Japan being a software powerhouse – which just makes the failure in other areas (MP3, web design, keitai interfaces) that much more gobsmacking.

    “And the “I am in love with a 2D girl” thing is relatively recent….”

    I mentioned 非実在青少年 partly in jest because of its current interest. However, I think that the anime/manga industry presents an interesting case to consider here. Honestly, compared to American animation, Japanese has never been able to measure up as pure “craft” – one needs look no further than the angst ridden writings on the subject of Japanese (limited by budget) vs. American (full) animation by Tezuka and Miyazaki. It has made hay, however, through intangibles – creative energy and visual inventiveness where the obsession with detail has failed. In short, the empire of anime and manga content was built on a whole lot of “good enough” shortcuts. Miyazaki and Takahata, after becoming sacrosanct in the Japanese market, have conjured up a 職人 myth for themselves but it wasn’t true of their formative years (think the stop cuts in Horus) and isn’t at all representative of the industries that have probably more than any other become the face of Japanese pop culture internationally.

    Related to this are also some past and present huge earners internationally – Kitty (minimal as material – a blank slate for kawaii identification and industrial production – I’m sure you know Otsuka Eiji’s “monogatari shohi” idea – that the crafting of final products has given way to providing open imaginative contexts to consumers, a sort of anti-職人 idea), Pokemon (the virtual pet), etc.

    The 職人 thing is, of course, very important, but I think that it is worthwhile to talk about cultureS of production in Japan rather than going the “actual objects” route.

  6. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    As a tea ceremony student, I think “love of hardware” is a good description of the tea ceremony. Someone has called it “an excuse to be meticulous”, but one could just as easily call it an excuse to love things—physical, tangible things that you love in a most physical way by touching and hearing and smelling.

    > everything in the office […] limited to simple monotones

    Oh, so much better than my time at Google. All those primary colors everywhere. Bright red floor, bright green walls, ew.

  7. Chuckles Says:

    It is not obvious that creativity for the Japanese is in fact more bound up in physical objects. MBone presents anime as a rather interesting counter example: Japanese creativity is today, so widely overidentified with anime and manga – an empire of signs: recognized as such by abstractions on cuteness, coolness, etc – but even this apparent colonization of signs by anime and manga has not precluded the signifying of Japanese creativity by Mario, Zelda, and the whole shebang of Japanese gaming mascots. If we rule out modern JMusic as a fount of creativity, and demur at the notion that export oriented Japanese engineering is indicative of autochtonous, supply side creativity (emphasis on the use of talent is production for a foreign, mostly occidental market): we are left virtually with the world of pictorial signs – which predilicts towards the virtual. This is very appealing to me: as autochtonous revolutions in Japanese pictorial signifying precede the entire rise of Japanese superengineering mythology. The more I think about it, the more I say, No, in fact we cannot say that there is a Japanese predilection toward the actually tactile – and in reality, we must affirm that the reverse is the case: physically tactile objects are so against anything we have theorized in the past about a Japanese geist – so against mono no aware (insisting on non transience), so against notions of a floating world, against Ukiyo, impermanence, evanescence, fleetingness, etc – against utsusemi – the world, the emptiness, the shell: there is no emptiness in hard tactile objects, no impermanence or transience – how then can we claim a prediliction for productions that are against every crystallization of Japanese thought and sense that we have – and are in favor of the hoarding, accumulationist, tactileal at this point? At this point, there are still many productions which bespeak Japanese sense: we must favor these in any discourse concerning predilection: Japan isnt dead yet: Its ghost still roams free of any engineering shell, the occidental shell, the present dominant civilization, the present world: I really didnt want to go here, but I might as well preempt: in the end it all boils down to this. For the West, which prided itself on its engineering superiority (steam engine,locomotive, space travel, cars etc), now projecting such on its fav oriental alter – is really too much to bear. WRT this essay, and this particular analysis, at this point, there simply is no such predilection.

  8. W. David MARX Says:

    I don’t know what happened to your return key. (I also have wondered if there aren’t multiple people posting as a co-op under Chuckles’ anonymous handle judging by the wide range of opinions/typing styles/references to various academic fields over the years.)

    this particular analysis, at this point, there simply is no such predilection.

    This is also too extreme of a statement. Japanese people themselves believe deeply that the “kodawari” idea of being very detailed oriented is a specific Japanese trait, and while it can apply to virtual/abstract things, it’s mostly seen in the realm of physical creation.

    I also think you can argue that manga and uyikoe are physical in that you see them on a true printed page or in scroll form or whatever. They are signs, yes, but they have ultimately been physical objects. This gets semantic, but this is the point recently that was echoed by some Japanese pundits who said, “Japanese don’t like E-books because they have a kodawari for the paper.”

    how then can we claim a prediliction for productions that are against every crystallization of Japanese thought and sense that we have – and are in favor of the hoarding, accumulationist, tactileal at this point?

    Because Japan isn’t one or the other: it’s a dialectical battle between various philosophical modes that have been popular at different times over the last 2,000 years. Yes, people love the impermanence of cherry blossoms, but they also love hoarding stuff. And out of that conflict, interesting things arise. Japanese love simple, rustic aesthetics (zen, wabisabi) but they also love flash. The predilection for physical objects may not be the sole predilection but there is no way it’s a giant hallucination that I am having.

    So I don’t think the idea that Japan values the physical is exactly a Western conspiracy against Japan or an outrageous claim. M-Bone makes a good point that Japanese software can be excellent but it seems to always FOLLOW the hardware innovation: the DS, the Wii, the NES, etc. In other words, the software is there to sell the hardware. I think in Nintendo’s case — where they have made brilliant software — it can be said that it’s always been a “hardware > software” company. They do both well but one drives the other. And they surely would not have made Gundam etc. without the backing of toy makers.

  9. M-Bone Says:

    “the software is there to sell the hardware”

    That is certainly one way of looking at for one part of game history, but it does not tell a complete story.

    Sony, for example, has lost enormous amounts on every PS3 sold (a strategy), and since the mid 1990s, systems have typically been a “loss leader” for first party games (Nintendo’s magic bullet) and licensing fees. Hardware alone is not profitable for game companies (hence the eternal debate on game sites – is system sales the determinant of success, or “attach rate” – games sold per system). Nintendo (like Mac and arguably in the same way) is evidently the company that has found the right balance. Is it any surprise that they have been one of Japan’s most successful companies through the 2000s?

    “And they surely would not have made Gundam etc. without the backing of toy makers.”

    Not GUNDAM maybe, but Galaxy Express 999? Also, if you take this back historically, Tetsuwan Atomu / Astroy Boy came first and the toy business developed around it.

    Now manga is certainly something tangible, but it really doesn’t fit well with 職人 arguments. It has always struck me as interesting how the big digests like Jump will periodically include color pages for lead titles and advertise / splash it all over the cover. While I love manga B&W aesthetics, I think that this is a tacit admission that color adds something to a series that takes us back to an important side of the history of the medium – cost cutting, individuals like Tezuka leaving things to the last night and having to be handcuffed to their desk by editors, etc. It is hard to apply a meticulous craft / joy in the materiality argument to manga (and anime) given how cutting artistic corners in favor of consistent narrative bulk (good when a master like Tezuka was farming out a classic a month, bad now that average shonen titles have begun to creep past 50 volumes – way more than the hits of the 90s) has defined the entire course of the medium.

    That Japan values the physical is by no means an outrageous claim. It is one, however, that needs to make room for other Japanese strengths.

  10. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    For me, the main characteristic of anime as well as ukiyoe and manga (in the old, pre-comics sense) was aptly defined by Takashi Murakami as flatness – “super”flatness, as he’d say. They are so flat, they’re like beings from some 2D universe. So I can understand the argument for anime being physical, because it makes me feel a surface.

    Nonetheless, the flatness can easily be turned into an abstracted thing – and thus things like anime figures, which manage to be really existing 3D objects and still be flat, still transmit that “superflat” feeling (thanks to the translation of flat shading and other stylized features).

  11. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    > so against mono no aware (insisting on non transience), so against notions of a floating world, against Ukiyo, impermanence, evanescence, fleetingness, etc

    Whoa, whoa, can’t say I agree with you there. Actually, in my humble opinion it works in the opposite way – you love things/fabrics/food/ceramics/flowers/kettles/geisha because they are floating, impermanent, transient &c. And further – it’s because you love them that you feel sad; thus, mono no aware. No love, no sadness. The point of sakura is not simply that they are things that die, but that they are beautiful things that die.

    The suchness of stuff-that-you-touch is right at the heart of wabi; you build simple grass huts to acknowledge the graciousness of imperfection and the sobriety of impermanence; but you do NOT do it because you despise the dirty physical world and want to escape to some Platonic world of pure abstraction. Wabi æsthetic is still an æsthetic, and a very concrete one at that; it’s not a rejection of æsthetic pleasure. These Japanese who could make an elaborate art out of appreciating incense of all things must rank highly in the history of sensory connoisseurship.

    Even zen in its buddhist quasi-asceticism was still focused on the “really existing”, on dirty dishes and firewood and sticks, on this stick right here hitting your back. As Blyth would put it,

    > Moral elements are also rejected as being generalties. Thus haiku has nothing to do with the Good, the True or the Beautiful. There is nothing good, true, or beautiful about the sound of the water of the pond which this frog jumps into.

    And—aversion to the tactile? Handling such touch-oriented objects as raku tea bowls has forever ruined the experience of museums for me, because now I feel the only proper way to experience an object of art is with your fingers. As the ad campaign for the Nintendo DS said, touching is good – and I’d be hard pressed to find a culture with such a longstanding history of touch luxury as the Japanese.

    Well, ok, I’m probably orientalizing a bit.

  12. M-Bone Says:

    The problem with Murakami in this discussion is that his “superflat” also involves a flattening of historical hierarchies of production – thus no 職人. Murakami loves contradictions, however, and is still likely to bust out the 職人 thing when he needs to be mystically Japanese for a Western audience (someone needs to photoshop up a picture of Murakami with a “Will Self-Orientalize for Food” t-shirt on) and then turn right around and bust out the magical anime simulacrum pomodern thing for the right audience. He’s Japanese art’s most entertaining (or infuriating) chameleon.

  13. Chuckles Says:

    1. Chuckles isnt a group handle so far as I know. I post mostly on acad / quasi-acad blogs, Marmot, Coming Anarchy, etc – I dont know if theres anyone else out there using this handle on this kinda sites: If youre worried, I could always Typekey in. That would introduce some consistent ID.

    2. If Ukiyo-e and stuff are physical, then everything is physical: but you know this isnt what we are referring to, so this is something of a hasty dodge. Even abstractions like “love” or “red” dont exist independent of empirics. But this isnt the point. Of course Ukiyo-e is physical: But it isnt physical in the way Asimo is physical. And Asimo isnt physical in the same way Mario is physical (who after all, is only a bunch of electrons) etc. This wide definition of physicality basically overrides any coherent meaning of “virtual”.

    3. In the case of kodawari, you basically prove my point: the predilection for an abstract something: A sense of detail conveyed by the paper and not for the paper itself. In the case of Ukiyo-e, the predilection is for something, a sensation conveyed and not for the actual material: I think the argument is that while the Japanese do create physical objects – these objects convey something else: found not within the objects but in other realms of the Japanese experience.

    4. Never claimed there was a giant Western conspiracy – just pointing out that folks cant claim on one hand certain unique Japanese abstractions which permeate into several realms of Japanese thought, and then on the other, deny that modern Japanese craftsmanship isnt meant to convey these sensations. This isnt a dialectical battle: The problem is that your definition of virtual is loose: True, the Japanese dont like ebooks, but could you imagine them liking foldable holdable electronic newspapers?

    5. […you love things/fabrics/food/ceramics/flowers/kettles/geisha because they are floating, impermanent, transient &c…]

    Yes, but not in production cultures. The natural world is anterior to impermanence, and impermanence is anterior to production cultures. Marxy’s essay is about production cultures. My claim is that abstractions from the natural world in Japanese thought are conveyed through production cultures. And that Japanese predilections in these production cultures are to replicate these abstractions. To claim a predilection for physicality as is is actually against the primacy of Japanese sense: The problem here is that you conflate the world of nature and that of production cultures: One can love sakura because of impermanence (as you say correctly), come to venerate impermanence and then seek to reproduce impermanence in production. This is completely different from what I think Marxy is trying to suggest. Notice, there is almost no mention of any abstract values in the first post. In this context, there does seem to be an aversion to becoming engrossed in the tactile because it encroaches on the abstract sense. What do you think?

    6. Look, knew it was gonna get hairy pretty quickly. But Marxy asked a rhetorical question to which I pretty much supplied an answer:

    can we not say at this point that there is very “Japanese” predilection for creating actual objects rather than virtual ones?

    The answer is pretty much no. Both actual and virtual objects can convey the abstractions which drive the production culture. The problem is the “rather”. I dont think there’s a rather. I’d like to see some evidence to the contrary. Note that I am not claiming that the Japanese have no sense of touch or feeling or etc – but that a preference for the physical object simply isnt central to “creating”.

  14. M-Bone Says:

    I’ve mainly stuck to considering anime/manga as materially shoddy in some ways and only really significant when considered outside of the 職人 tradition. That, and video games where I think we can find evidence of Japanese software and interface genius in a certain context.

    Chuckles raises some more complex ontological concerns. The major danger here, I think, is starting with a vision of the present (Japan lags in internet and interface) and organizing the Japanese tradition into a teleology that produces this present rather than seeing it as a field of fragmented dialectics blasting everything around like Benjamin’s angel. Ever seen a Shinto statue?

    Still, from comments above, Marxy is already up on all this. It is a matter of degree but also a matter, I think, of approach – do you start from the present and work backward or from the past and work forward?

  15. W. David MARX Says:

    Economic-structuralist counterargument to my original claim of a “Japanese” disposition to physical objects:

    Japanese economic/power system is relatively closed/stable, firms from the previous paradigm still control power in Japan, that particular paradigm happened to be based on physical manufacturing, newer software paradigm cannot get a foothold and values are still set with old production paradigm.

    I do think that certain people in Japan are very much obsessed with the production of physical objects, but that is likely a historical byproduct rather than a eternal Japanese trait.

  16. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    By the way: not enough people have praised the illustration for this post, so allow me to say it’s great.

  17. M-Bone Says:

    “By the way: not enough people have praised the illustration for this post, so allow me to say it’s great.”

    We’ve been taking the images for granted – always excellent so it doesn’t hurt to write it from time to time.

  18. Chuckles Says:

    Does Marxy do the graphics as well?

  19. Chuckles Says:

    Does Marxy do the graphics as well?