Human and Non-human Entities in Japanese Stories

by Dylan Yamada-Rice, Royal College of Art

In Japan there is an affinity with non-human entities. Of course this includes other living creatures and nature but it also extends to machines and an otherworldly-ness of spirits and gods that according to Shintoism reside in many things. In the Barbican AI exhibition ‘More than Human’, a whole section is dedicated to Shintoism and the connection between human and non-human things in Japan. This is used as a framework for thinking about the connection between people and machines in an era of rapid AI development.

“In the Japanese religion of Shinto, Kami are Devine forces or spirits of nature that surpass human intelligence. There are more than 8 million kami that live in natural forms including the sun, oceans, mountains, trees, rocks and animals. They are also believed to live in tools, technologies and extraordinary people. According to Shinto beliefs, all these entities respect each other and live in harmony.”

“In Japanese culture and art, life breathes in people, living creatures and artificial objects alike. This perspective is reflected in animation, games and technology.”

Wall writing from More than Human, Barbican

The exhibition continued from this starting point, to draw on objects from popular culture and show how such ideas have been integrated into other aspects of Japanese life. For example, the Manga and Anime series entitled Doremon, which is the name given to a robot-cat that travels back from the 22nd Century to help a boy. The exhibition states that Doremon has ‘had tremendous influence on Japanese robotic philosophy and technological developments’.

Doremon artefacts at the Barbican

“In fiction, characters can be humans, animals, machines or artificial objects with human emotions. From early childhood, most Japanese people are accustomed to stories where non-human entities co exist with people. This has greatly influenced Japanese attitudes towards technology” (More than Human, the Barbican).

On a visit to the Kyoto International Manga Museum during the network field trip, an exhibition highlighted how stories from manga cross into other platforms such as toys:

The final paragraph of the above description shows how in a similar way to Manga, toys are reflections of wider social, cultural and historic practices. Theo Van Leeuwen, in relation to his work on semiotic and multimodal practices, has also shown how Western toys such as Lego are also a reflection of wider social patterns.

Artefacts displayed at the Kyoto International Manga Exhibition

For the past few years, I have been an avid collector of gachagacha (also known as gachapon). These are plastic capsules delivered from a vending machine. Each capsule forms a lucky dip of one small toy from a series. I have been documenting these on an Instagram account and tagging themes. These themes show many are a combination of a living and non-living entity such as animal combined with food:

Animals brought up by foods

The connection between humans and fish in Japan is another area that appears both in gachagacha but also in other areas too:

Fish people

After the Robot Show, in which we watched a live performance filled with fictional characters based on Japanese historical stories and mashed together with robots, Angus mentioned that the show reminded him of children playing in front of a TV show, bashing toys together as they reenacted the story. To some extent this is exactly what it was but those narratives have evolved from layers and layers of stories that have been re-hashed and added to throughout Japanese history:

Above on the right, is an image of the fish fight sequence of the Robot Show and on the left a Kaiju monster toy from the TV show Ultraman. Perhaps these are both a reflection of the wider connection between Japan and the Ocean:

Japanese fisherman (image from)
Close-up of a fisherman’s flag (Image via Pinterest)
Festival in Kyushu (image via Shutterstock)

What does all this mean for understanding site-specific VR experiences? For me, it questions whether in an era in which VR, XR and AI are emerging together, perhaps there are other cultural histories that can allow us to theorise the connection between human and non-human entities including machines and robots to think about how we design for these evolving technologies.

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