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Nov 21, 2011
Japan's modern innovations reflect the 17th century Edo period
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Japan, which became an innovative powerhouse following World War II, owes much of its technological inspiration to 17th century inventions. A recent exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, held this year from May 20th to October 10th, focused on the connection between Japanese tradition and innovation.


Travel, robotics, social status, consumer culture, and entertainment were the common themes for the exhibit that focused on the similarities between contemporary Japan (1945-2011) and its Edo period (1603-1868). The extended period of peace after World War II parallels the unification of the country during the isolationist Edo period. During the 17th and 18th century, Japan was a hotbed of percolating homegrown ideas that utilized western sciences gleaned from limited interaction and trade with the Dutch.

The foundation for agile and lifelike robotic machines like Honda's Asimo can be traced back to the 17th century zashiki karakuri, mechanized dolls designed to serve tea. The dolls, which were activated whenever a cup of tea was placed on the plate it held in its hands, were even capable of moving a set distance and performing a bowing motion to those receiving the tea. Now merely artistic treasures of the past, they show the beginnings of the robotic advancements that we associate with Japan today.

Given the looming threat of an aging society and the simultaneous decline in the national birthrate, Japan has been looking for ways to care for a rapidly growing elderly population. Robots provide a viable solution to fill the gap created by the lack of available manpower within their population. Companies like Honda and Toyota have introduced pivotal creations to the personal-care robot field that could potentially be a major part of the health care industry.

As Japan matured under the shogunate of the Edo period, travel across the country increased among the common people. Before shinkansen trains crisscrossed the country in record time, a national highway system was established to help facilitate movement of the masses across the land.
Today with highly fuel-efficient compact vehicles form Japan zipping throughout cities around the globe, the inspiration for these cozy creations comes from the kago taxicabs that carried people over the Edo highways. Kago were created in varying styles of luxury, but all were modeled on a wheeless vehicle platform that relied on manpower to move people instead of horses. The heavy need for land and constant keep in maintaining horses was reduced with the efficiency of manpower. 

Japan continues to address domestic and global issues by reinventing centuries-old ideas with breakthrough technology. 
Comment (2) Favorite (1)
Rory Dolan Gene,
Thank you for taking the time to read my article and thank you for your comment. I agree that Dr. W. Edwards Deming had a major influence on the post-war reconstruction of Japan's industrial economy. I'm sure that there were many people before and after him that have made significant impressions on the country. Hopefully I can create a piece on him at a later date.

Thanks again.
Nov 29, 2011
Gene Smar What you write certainly is interesting but let us not forget the significant contributions of a more contemporary American who was instrumental in rebuilding post-War Japan's industrial economy. Dr. W. Edwards Deming ( )was instrumental in America's manufacturing success during WWII and later guided Japanese government officials and industrialists in that country's transition from producer of "cheap, shoddy products", to quote from the above citation, to a powerhouse that is admired to this date.

Centuries-old robotics are of archeological and anthropological value and worth serious interest. However, any study of Japanese leadership in the fields of manufacturing - consumer goods as well as heavy industrial machinery - must truly acknowledge the contributions of a talented American.
Nov 25, 2011