Page last updated at 11:27 GMT, Wednesday, 8 July 2009 12:27 UK

Giant Gundam robot stalks Japan

By Ben Sutherland
BBC World Service

Giant Gundam in Tokyo
The giant Gundam dominates the waterfront in Tokyo

Nothing better sums up the relationship between the Japanese and robotics than a giant robot model - 18 metres high and weighing 35 tonnes - that has taken pride of place in the centre of Tokyo.

The robot is one from the Gundam TV series, which began in the late 1970s. It towers over the capital's Odaiba Island as a representation of what a "real life" robot would look like if it existed.

Japan has been obsessed with the idea of giant robots. They are the stars of shows such as Macross and Getter Robo. The original Transformer toys, known as Diaclone, were made here before being turned into a global phenomenon by the US toymaker Hasbro.

But according to Patrick Galbraith, ethnographer at the University of Tokyo and author of The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider's Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan, "no series is more beloved" than Gundam.

"In Japan, they skipped all that negativity after the industrial revolution, and really, what they have is technology and mechanics as the hope for the future," he told BBC World Service's Digital Planet programme.

"In Gundam, you see a young man get on board a giant robot, he reads a tech manual and he says, 'I can fly this thing and save the world' - and in fact, he does.

"I think that hopefulness is what the Japanese see in robots."

Intense obsession

The Gundam story is about a war between space colonies and Earth. It first launched as an animated TV series in 1979 - one set in what was called the "Universal Century," in which human-controlled robots were used to protect their pilots against enemies.

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This idea of machines being positive forces was in contrast to much of the Hollywood science fiction of the period - such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which the ship's computer tries to kill its pilot.

Mr Galbraith said that it was this positivity that had gripped the Japanese - in some cases, so much that they became "otaku" - or in Mr Galbraith's term, "obsessive geeks".

"Gundam is a flashpoint in otaku. These guys were so interested in this world that they started making their own encyclopaedias, their own model figures, their own world here. They took a cartoon on television and fleshed out an entire universe around it.

"That kind of intensity is really what it means to be an otaku in Japan."

He explained that among the otaku, Gundam's creator, Yoshiyuki Tomino, is "considered a god".

"Otaku people are people who have an ideal of the future, who have an ideal of technology that's so strong and so important to them that they've moved far away from the bounds of reality," he added.

Test-bed Japan

This obsession with technology has meant the country is the ideal place to test new innovation - with people comfortable with it as part of their everyday lives.

This has meant that a visit to Japan can give an intriguing glimpse at the global future.

"Technology is everywhere. A very interesting man once told me that right now we have computers on our desks and a car in our parking lot - and actually, we'll have a computer robot by our side in the next five years," Mr Galbraith said.

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"That kind of outlook - of 'I'm not afraid to have a robot helper by my side every day of the week' - that kind of view of technology is very Japanese.

"The Japanese are so savvy, and so comfortable with technology, that you not only have a test bed, you have a living, breathing culture that will develop the technology for you... you can then harvest that information and spread it on the internet.

"It's that creativity that you find that makes it a great test-bed."

Digital Planet is broadcast on BBC World Service every Tuesday. You can listen online or download the podcast .

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