Kenji Ito

Before Astroboy: Robot discourse, nuke talks, and cultural meanings of science and technology in mid-20th century Japan

Astroboy, the main robotic character in Tezuka Osamu's comic, has been one of the most dominant cultural icons in Japan since the 1950s. Astroboy, a benevolent robot with superhuman abilities and an appearance of a lovely boy, represented an extreme optimism about science and technology in postwar Japan, reflecting a vision of future Japan as a technological utopia. As his Japanese name that translates as “mighty atom” suggests, such visions of Japan’s technological future as well as optimism toward science and technology were closely tied to the power of atom, namely atomic energy. While Astroboy as a cultural icon continues to be predominant in Japan’s socio-cultural landscape, and it begins to be known even outside Japan, much less known are robot characters in Japanese culture before him since the 1930s. With the emergence of a literary genre of science fiction in the 1930s, Japanese modernist writers began to produce various images of robots. In the postwar period, comic authors and writers of juvenile literature expressed visions of science and technology, anticipating Astroboy. This paper examines these images of robots to explore cultural meanings of science and technology in Japan from the prewar period to the occupation period. Rather than depicting dominant representations of science and technology of the time, I aim to excavate seminal visions of science and technology in little known works in relatively marginalized genres, and I discuss their significance within socio-cultural contexts.