Japan says happy birthday to Astro Boy

At Robodex 2003, the major annual get-together for Japan's robot industry, you'd have thought the buzz would have been all about new robots -- Honda Motor's latest Asimo, Sony's improved SDR-4X or perhaps Tmsuk's Banryu -- but it is not. Stealing the limelight at this year's show is Astro Boy, a cartoon character that first appeared in comic books in 1952 and crossed over to television in 1963.

But why the big deal today, more than 50 years after the character first appeared?

In the cartoon, the robot with the heart of a child was born on Apr. 7, 2003, making this Monday his birth date. Ordinarily the birthday of a cartoon character might not be important but Atom Boy (Astro Boy's Japanese name) was a cartoon that several generations of Japanese grew up with and is cited by many of today's robot engineers as the spark that ignited their interest in the field.

"My parents had been a fan of his cartoons so when I was a little kid I used to read their comic books all the time," said Tomotake Takahashi, who was at Robodex to display his latest robot, Neon, which he says was inspired by Atom Boy. "After reading the books I felt like I would like to become an inventor of robots."

He was able to turn his childhood dream to reality while studying at Kyoto University and after recently graduating has gone on to create a robotics office called Robo Garage at the university in Japan's seventh largest city. His Neon robot is the result of nine months work and was created to coincide with the birthday of Atom Boy, he said on Thursday.

Others at the exhibition also created Atom Boy with providing them with inspiration.

"When I was a child I used to read Atom Boy," said Masatoshi Wakashima, a teacher of robotics at Nippon Engineering College of Hachioji in Tokyo. "It influenced me but I don't think today's robots yet have the ability of Atom Boy," he said. That might be a good thing. Atom Boy could fly using jet rockets and had lasers and guns which perhaps would not make today's cute humanoid robots anymore lovable but would certainly add an element of danger to Robodex.

Beyond the Pacifico Yokohama exhibition center, others are also getting in on the anniversary.

Anyone who has traveled in Tokyo will know that short jingles play at railway stations to indicate the train doors are about to close and East Japan Railway Co. has begun using the Atom Boy theme song as its jingle at Takadanobaba Station, which is close to the studios where Atom Boy was created. At the Takashimaya department store in Tokyo a miniature model of Atom Boy studded with diamonds, rubies and emeralds is on display and can be bought for a cool ¥100 million (US$843,000) and a new Atom Boy cartoon is also being readied to air on Japanese television this Sunday.

Not everyone is sharing in the excitement.

"I hate Atom Boy," said Shin Furukawa, director of corporate planning at robot-maker Tmsuk. "We don't have any illusions about robots, we aren't geeks. A robot is a tool. Sure, it has to look cool because you are going to have it in your house but it doesn't have to be your friend."

More information on Atom Boy and Osamu Tezuka.

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Martyn Williams

IDG News Service
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