Probably David

Japan’s Labyrinth

by on Jun.29, 2010, under Blog

[The following is a “brief” travelogue from my trip to Japan back in March, written over the course of several plane flights where my battery didn’t quite last long enough to finish. You might find it interesting, but like many things I post, its mainly so I’ll remember what happened when I’m 50]

There was a weird meta-moment on my flight to Japan. Flying high above Canada, on my way from Chicago to Tokyo, I had the pleasure of watching a movie from 2009 that I hadn’t seen yet, Up in the Air. Bunches of it were filmed in St. Louis, and I really enjoyed the other two films Jason Reitman had directed. But watching a film about a guy who spends the film flying around in American Airlines flights while on an American Airlines flight was a little surreal.

At the end of last year, after transferring to the robotics lab, Bill and I started formulating plans to go to HRI2010 (Human Robot Interaction), in Osaka, Japan. In addition to the conference, the original plan was for me to go to the workshop that Bill was organizing about collaborations with the arts, but I ended up going for HRI Pioneers instead. And of course, this was a very tantalizing opportunity for Elise, for all her years studying Japanese history and never actually having been there. So in December we bought tickets, and at 6:15am, 2/27 we were off.

This was my first really long flight, with the previous record probably being NYC->Atlanta or Austin-> Cincinnati. I enjoy flying, and try to press my face to the window as much as possible. This is sometimes interesting and sometimes not. I’ve seen all the major places I’ve lived from the air, including New Paltz, UR, NYC, and St. Louis. On the way back from Japan, I got to see St. Louis up close at night! Seeing the Rockies going from Denver->Boise was cool too. The flight from Chicago to Tokyo was a bit less interesting, given that it mainly gave me the impression of how desolate Canada/Siberia is. Fortunately, the inflight entertainment system was top notch, which I’d never gotten before. I ended up watching Up in the Air almost twice, The Men Who Stare at Goats, half of An Education, most of Star Trek, an episode of the Office, two episodes of 30 Rock and an episode of Extras.

And then boom, in Japan. In another weird meta-moment, the book I’ve been reading for the past couple weeks is Eric Liu’s The Accidental Asian. Much like certain Onion articles or XKCD comics seem to be written specifically about me, this book put into focus a lot of my feelings about my Asian-ness, right as I descended into the very continent. He discusses dealing with “Asian hair”, interracial marriage, model minority status and a lot of other issues that resonated with me, but the one thing that made me give pause was his description of wanting to fit in. Specifically, how, growing up as an ABC (American Born Chinese), he always felt the need to be cool and fit in.

As I approached adolescence, though, things shifted. Suddenly, I could no longer subsume the public world under my private concept of self. Suddenly, the public world was more complicated than just a parade of smiling teachers and a few affirming friends. Now I had to contend with the unstated, inchoate, but inescapable standards of cool. The essence of cool was the ability to conform. The essence of conformity was the ability to anticipate what was cool. And I wasn’t so good at that. For the first time, I had found something that did not come effortlessly to me. No one had warned me about this transition from happy amoeboid to social animal; no one had prepared me for the great labors of fitting in.

And while none of that is particularly “Asian”, it seemed to be exactly what I was subconsciously thinking. That strong feeling of not fitting in, and a desire to change it, is something I’ve grown up with as well. Best example: going to NYC, I make every effort to look like a native New Yorker, and not the bumbling Midwesterner I’ve become. (Haha that’s not true…I still am an obnoxious New Yorker here in Missouri.)

But the more relevant bit is, it also makes it very hard for me to go to a foreign country where I have very little experience with most manners and customs. It was culture shock, plain and simple. The claim that everyone in Japan speaks enough English to help you is not quite true. As Elise put it, they know enough to say that they know “a little” English (while making a hand gesture) and then to apologize for not being more helpful. Elise and I found this very troubling when neither of managed to write down the address of the hotel we were staying in the first night. So after flying to Tokyo, catching a train to Tokyo station, and then taking the Bullet train to Osaka, we groped around on the subways until we got vaguely near where we needed to be, then finally walked around enough until we found SOMEONE who could help us. And thankfully, the hotel had late check in.

In some ways, Osaka is not the best place for tourism, in that there’s not a ton of tourist sites there. However, it is good for tourism in the sense that its smack dab in the middle of a couple better cities for tourism. So on Monday, we ventured out for Kyoto. Elise, being the wonderful planner that she is, booked us a morning bus tour around Kyoto, in English, no less. We saw the Golden Palace, the Imperial Palace and Nijo Castle. These sites all had pretty impressive architecture, and were just wonderfully serene. It was nice finally having arrived to just be able to walk around these beautiful temples next lakes and waterfalls. After the tour, we picked up the obligatory kimonos from a shop and headed back to Osaka. There, we walked around Osaka Castle. The sites we had seen in the morning were also impressive since they were largely original, having been built in centuries long ago. Osaka Castle was destroyed in a fire in the 1800s and then bombed a bit in World War II, only to be rebuilt out of concrete in the 1990s. So its not so much a historic castle as a museum built in the shape of a castle. If nothing else, the walls around the castle were impressive. I decided it would be pretty tough to actually invade the place, that is, if it weren’t now a major tourist destination. Once inside, there were some cool exhibits and best of all, so lovely views of Osaka at the top.

That night, we were supposed to meet up with Bill and Anna (professor from the performing arts department who we are collaborating with). However, they played the same game of not being able to find the hotel that we did, so Elise and I ended up going to a restaurant by our hotel. It had a machine up front where you put money in, selected a dish, and then got a receipt. Then you’d sit down, and they’d take your receipt and bring you your food. Not a bad system, really. I kinda think that that’s how McDonalds should work. It wasn’t the culinary highlight of our trip, but interesting nonetheless for the new retail experience. Elise also had the foresight to bring some food from home (cereal, mac and cheese), which did make a bunch of meals easier. Still reeling from the flight and late night excitement, Elise and I turned in about 9.

Tuesday brought the beginning of the “work” portion of the trip. I would say that the workshop I attended was quite successful on a number of fronts. A) I successfully met a bunch of people in my field. I just realized that some of these people will likely review my papers in the future. Anyway, there were a lot of interesting folks from around the world. Mostly from the U.S., a few from Asia and Europe, at least one from Australia. I met some potential people to collaborate with. Plus, it gave me people to talk to during the conference itself. I walked in there not knowing anyone, and by the end had a number of different people I could chat with. B) I got a better idea of what people are doing in HRI (which I could also say about the conference as a whole). C) Also learned a bit about experimental technique, which is bound to be useful in the near future. D) I got a chance to present my work, which went over moderately well, considering I only started putting the slides together a week before.

The most unexpected bit was the career panel, which featured two of the more…colorful characters at HRI. First, Hiroshi Ishiguro, the famed roboticist mostly known for creating Geminoid, a robot that looks just like him. He gave the first talk at the career panel, which at its core, said do good research and nothing else matters. That in itself is not bad advice, but I felt he took it to its lengthy extreme. Teaching is only good so that you can find good students to research. Department service is something for other professors. The second career panelist was Christoph Bartneck, who likely gave an accurate picture of academic life, but calling it cynical is an understatement. You might not have a job in a year. Everything comes down to money and politics. Not everyone will become a full professor. And then he ends his talk with a rousing “Well, we’re all going to die anyway.” The other two speakers had to follow these two, but even once the career panel was over, we still weren’t done with this flavor of color.

Day 1 of the actual conference. I’ll spare you the blow by blow of talks at the conference. The most fascinating idea at this conference (which probably didn’t originate it, but its the first place I saw it) was the poster teaser session. At some conferences ,you have to read all the proceedings to figure out which posters you want to see during the poster sessions. Instead, HRI has each of the 60 posters give a one minute talk. Pretty ingenious if you ask me. There was one particular poster that got a lot of attention: Christoph Bartneck’s. Entitled, “Make babies, not robots,” asserting that today’s young academics are spending too much time programming robots, and not enough time procreating. After all, academics have the lowest rates of reproduction.[citation needed.]

Day 2: another day, another bento box. A few words about Japanese food. For each of the first three days, we got Bento boxes for lunch. To paraphrase Forrest Gump, a bento box is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get. But while Forrest got to meet presidents unexpectedly, I got things with tentacles on them. Over the past years, I’ve lost a lot of my picky eater habits. However, there were a number of the things in those boxes that I just would not try. I am quite thankful for the large pad of white rice that also came in these boxes.

Day 2 probably had the most interesting content of all three days. First: a robotic ballroom dance partner. And you thought Dancing with the Stars was awkward. Turns out to be an interesting study of compliant robot architectures. Also, an ethics discussion which I found really interesting, but apparently this was nothing compared to the roboticists vs. the military industrial complex skirmish that happened at the last HRI. Also, there was one session which had robots that could apologize, blame others for its mistakes and cheat. However, for me, all this was just prelude to the most interesting event of the day, the robot drama.

So I had actually heard about this before; I didn’t realize that it was actually the same thing until we started watching it. Our pal, Hiroshi Ishiguro, who works in Osaka, put on a short play using two robot actors and two human actors. The plot explored the nature of work, with the male human character being unemployed, and thus he does not have anything to do, since the two robots do all of the work around the house. It was an interesting idea, because the play has legitimate robot characters, and it explores issues dealing with robot specific problems. However, my collaborators and I came out of the play underwhelmed. This particular production was not helped by the fact that it was performed in Japanese with subtitles projected on a wall, with the projector breaking for a little bit. However, even with that, nothing really happened on stage. Characters came in, talked, and left. The robots made some gestures but not a ton. Other than the inherent novelty of seeing robots actually up there, there was no real difference between seeing the play and reading the play.

This all was not helped by the Q&A session that followed the play. Hiroshi, the playright and the actors came out to answer questions, but only HIroshi spoke English. All the questions were answered with the same sort of flippant, overly short response that didn’t really answer the question. Someone asked the actors if the experience working with the robot was different than working with other actors. Obviously there is a difference, but asking such a question would normally get the actors to say something interesting. Nope. “It’s exactly the same. ” Really? No difference at all? Perhaps mistakenly, I asked Hiroshi a philosophical question that he completely whiffed at. “Do you think the robots are acting, or are they merely props?” It’s something I’m very interested in, because robots doing human things always raises interesting questions. It’s not so much a strong AI question, like “Can robots/computers actually think” but rather a question of whether the robot is filling the same role in the theatre as an actor, or as a prop. This question did not go over horribly well with Hiroshi, who first, did not know the meaning of the word prop, but then also said “Well, of course they’re acting!”, waving his hands at the stage broadly. He tried to get me to clarify a couple times, which I tried to do. Eventually he said “Well, they’re just computer programs,” which completely didn’t answer the question. The next questioner put my question in a slightly better way, since there was a tape player used in the production as well. While the tape player didn’t move, it did produce the desired sound at the time when it was prompted to do so, which is essentially what the robot was doing. However, that didn’t help either, and I still don’t know what he thinks.

If I had to ask Hiroshi one question now, it would be why he did this. He’s got plenty of other avenues for research. Was he doing it to show of impressive robotics technology? If so, there’s a long way to go for his lab. If it was for art’s sake, then why did he not have any good answers for the philosophical place of the robots? Putting actual robots in the piece is a choice, and unless its justified, its bad theatre.

Anyway, after the robot theatre, Bill, Anna and Elise and I went out to dinner to vent. Bill had found a great place with a bunch of small little dishes, of which we ordered a ton. It was delicious and fulfilled my expectations of what Japanese food was going to be. It also was the first time Elise had met either Bill or Anna (and she only had to travel to Japan to do it!).

I actually skipped the morning session of Day 3 in order to go to the Osaka Peace Museum with Elise. It was rather sobering. It is simple platitude to say war is hell and destructive. But it was another thing entirely to see what modern warfare can actually do to a country. There is nowhere in the United States, save for Pearl Harbor that has seen a widespread attack in the last century. [I’m not counting 9/11 and other similar terrorist incidents because they are limited to isolated sites, with attacks only happening once.] I saw maps of Osaka that was overlaid with the rubble that was created after the bombings in World War II, and it was devastating to see the wide-spread destruction of entire neighborhoods over months of attacks. The museum as a whole had an interesting narrative, starting with how Japan had suffered in WWII, then moving on to how Japan had caused others to suffer, then ending with a complete timeline of the state of world peace complete with Doomsday clock. My Japanese history studying wife would point out that its quite rare to have the atrocities Japan committed to be such a large part of the curriculum, as it was just untaught before. I appreciated the fact that it ended on an hopeful upnote. There was also a note in the lobby that explained how Obama was working for nuclear proliferation, and how they fully supported that.

After a calm stroll through the rest of the park, we managed to find our way into a little hole-in-the-wall sushi place for lunch. I call it a hole-in-the-wall based on size, not quality. We (read Elise) somehow managed to order two of the lunch specials through the language barrier. The soup and the sushi were delicious. We left satisfied, able to check “eat authentic Japanese sushi” off of our bucket lists. A few more talks, a little more socializing, a delightful video montage, and the conference officially wrapped up. Afterward, there was an after party at a nearby hotel, where there was more delicious food, and I was able to meet a couple some more people whose work is highly related to mine.

As the hotel was kicking us out, a bunch of the grad students/young people started making after-after-party plans, which ended up splitting between the karaoke/cosplay group, and the sushi group. Elise and I ended up in the sushi group, which took us down to the hip downtown part of Osaka. More importantly, it was the part that Anthony Bourdain went to on No Reservations. Elise was able to get okonomiyaki, an Osaka delicacy of bite-sized fried squid. We also saw a giant animatronic crab, video arcades (PACHINKO), two ladies of the night and a drunk businessman being carried home by similarly besuited businessmen. The atmosphere was crazy. The streets were narrow, with mainly pedestrians and lots of street vendors cooking and selling food. Each alley seemed to contain another whole row of shops. Then we ventured underground to find a whole underground mall beneath all the shops we were just at. Ultimately, it was very cool to see a different side of Japan than the all-business part of Osaka where the conference was.

Now we get to the long slog Saturday into Sunday where Elise and I travelled a lot. A lot a lot. Saturday morning we get up, walk to the subway, take the subway to the bullet train, and make our way to Himeji, home to the largest remaining original Japanese castle. It’s also where all the Samurai movies are filmed. Himeji is a nice cool tourist town, smaller than Osaka and Kyoto, which made it seem much more accessible. The castle itself was, shockingly, huge. Approaching it from the train station again made me think of Lord of the Rings and how best to storm said castle, or at least how intimidating it would be. Walking in through all the different layers and gates definitely gave the place a Minas Tirith feel. (I pause here to reflect how ridiculous it is that my point of comparison for a real historic site is a fictional movie.) Then, we actually got to enter the castle proper, and climb up to the top. It gave me a cool feel for how the actual architecture of something that large is accomplished, climbing up ladder after ladder, with each successive story being a little bit smaller. The view from the top was gorgeous, but we couldn’t stay long, because we had to make our way back to the train. On the way out, there was a guy in full Samurai dress, blowing a conch shell, just wandering around the gate. There may have also been a stop at a store called Mr. Donut.

Then, we bulleted back to Osaka, took the subway back to our hotel, picked up our bags, dragged them back into the subway and headed for the bullet train station. I resisted the urge to buy some Japanese McDonalds food, and instead opted for some delicious delicious pork buns. We then boarded the bullet train headed for Tokyo. One disappointment in this trip was going past Mount Fuji on the bullet train twice, and missing it both times because I was too tired to stay awake on the train. Then, once arriving in Tokyo, we hopped two separate subways to our new hotel, where we finally got to sleep.

The next(last) day, we got to see some sights, but I’m fairly certain we didn’t see Tokyo in its fullest. It’s too big of a city to see in a tired stupor in walking distance from the train station. We did manage to see the original Kabuki theatre from the outside and Edo Castle, plus the underground mall that’s connected to Tokyo station. However, someday it warrants a less dazed and confused visit.

With our energy levels riding as high as they were, we ended up with a lot of extra time in Tokyo’s finest travel hubs. We wandered around the train station mall complex, searching futilely for somewhere to get adequate souvenirs and food. We wandered around, not finding what we were looking for for the longest time, until we found one of the last things I had been hoping to do while in Japan: conveyor belt sushi. Shortly after that excursion, we jumped on the train, only to arrive at the Narita airport with time to spare, which led to another round of souvenir buying at the most authentic Tokyo boutique: the gift shop outside of security. Two rounds in a massage chair later, we were on our flight back to the U.S.

My final thoughts on the trip are nothing unique. Japan is a foreign place with very different culture. It was ultimately very enjoyable and I am grateful for the opportunity to get our of St. Louis and experience somewhere a bit different. Meanwhile, the paper deadline for HRI2011 is in September. I would be concerned by this fact if not for the fact that I’m already on the organizing committee for the workshop that I participated in this year. And so Lausanne Switzerland doesn’t look too far away.

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