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From Chopsticks to Robotics

Honda's humanoid robot ASIMO on display in Japan.

February 27, 2013

As they set out for a Winter Term course in Japan, nearly two-dozen students looked forward to studying the Japanese concept of monozukuri. First, they had to figure out what it meant.

Translated literally, monozukuri means “to make things." The closest analog in English might be craftsmanship, but even that falls short of the broader picture monozukuri paints. The word represents the attention to detail and pride in one’s work that typify Japanese culture, extending into the home, religion and education. Though the word has become nearly synonymous in Japan with modern industry, the country’s electronics and automobile giants invoke it to recall a much older tradition. Before Toyota and Sony, the monozukuri spirit honed razor-sharp samurai swords and raked flawless patterns in pebble-filled Zen gardens.

“The cultural foundations were already there before manufacturers began using the word,” says Associate Professor of Modern Languages Hiroko M. Chiba, one of two faculty members who organized the trip. “In origami, for example, even if the viewers won’t see the inside of the folded paper, everything has to be neat. From a monozukuri viewpoint, an object’s aesthetics are not only about outward appearance but also relate to inner qualities even if they are not visible.”

Professor of Computer Science Dave A. Berque, who worked with Chiba to design the course, thought the monozukuri philosophy was something he could incorporate into a first-year seminar he teaches on design. Berque had read about how Japanese design principles influenced Steve Jobs at Apple, contributing to his reputation as a perfectionist. Jobs once requested that even the wires within a Macintosh computer be neatly arranged. When engineers protested that nobody would know what the inside looked like anyway, Jobs responded that he would know.

Chiba and Berque secured a $66,400 grant from the Japan Foundation to support their Winter Term course, titled Exploring Japanese Craftsmanship: Chopsticks to Robotics. The grant lowered the cost of the trip by several thousand dollars per student, thereby increasing the number of students who could afford to participate. The grant also allowed the two faculty leaders to augment the itinerary to cover the full scope of monozukuri’s presence in Japanese culture: from cutting-edge technology to artifacts and rituals that date back to a time when cutting-edge was meant literally. It was important to both professors that students returned from the trip understanding that monozukuri was a philosophy, not a product.

“Just like design, learning is an iterative process,” Berque says. “You can’t fully internalize the concept the first time you encounter it. You keep peeling away the layers until you get a deeper and deeper understanding.”

During their two-week stay in Japan, students visited traditional homes, technology museums, palaces, universities and temples. At the beginning of the trip, in Itakura, a small town on the outskirts of Tokyo, the group split up for home stays with Japanese families. Sophomore Jessica R. Schilling was among a group of students invited to stay with a university professor who is also a Buddhist monk, and whose home is part of a temple. There, Schilling saw monozukuri as an element of daily life. Traditional shoji sliding doors allowed rooms to be combined for larger gatherings and separated again for privacy or to contain heat. Even meditation, as one student observed during the trip, was representative of monozukuri because “the ‘thing’ you are creating is you.”

“Monozukuri isn't just about making an object.” Schilling says. “It's also a way of life for the Japanese.”

The group also visited a grade school in Itakura, where children are taught at a young age how to clean their own classroom and serve food during lunchtime. Chiba remembered the lessons from when she was a child in Japan. “From early on, we learned how to implement the monozukuri spirit in our life,” she says. “When we cleaned our classroom, we would ask, ‘But why do we have to clean the corner? It’s too hard to reach.’ It was to teach us to put all our effort into what we did so we knew we had done the best we could.”

Chiba’s return to Japan for the Winter Term course was inspired by science fiction that is gradually becoming science fact. Japanese robots can be found in all shapes, sizes and functions, from cleaning and manufacturing robots now common in the West, to the entertainment and companion robots that are a source of Japan’s technophile identity. To Chiba, these creations are the embodiment of monozukuri, the result of a people striving for perfection.

“Growing up, I just saw these things as objects,” Chiba says. “Now I’m starting to consider the spiritual context for them. It’s something about Japanese culture I never thought about before, and it was great to be able to share the experience with students because I learned a lot from them as well.”

At the coincidentally named Chiba Institute of Technology (CIT), the group toured advanced robotics labs where research teams had designed robots capable of navigating harsh and uneven terrain. Rather than basing their designs on bipedal or wheeled locomotion, the teams also turned to creatures such as snakes and centipedes – evolutionarily suited to travel well in specific terrains – as models for robots that slithered and crawled. At the Future Robotics Technology Center (fuRo), a research lab affiliated with CIT, the group had the chance to control a four-legged robot that was designed to climb stairs by changing the height of its front versus hind legs. 

Andrew S. Pace, a junior computer science major on his first trip abroad, was amazed by the care that had been put into the designs. “What impressed me the most was the efficiency in design,” Pace says. “While extremely advanced, there was still a maintained element of elegant design. Nothing was out of place, and nothing was superfluous.”

The group left CIT equally impressed by the graciousness of their hosts. As the first foreign contingent to visit the university during a newly launched international outreach program, the DePauw students had been warmly welcomed all day and were even treated to a presidential reception and dinner banquet.

Junior Robert S. Weidner, who took the pictures used in this story, was the group’s most prominent documentarian, collecting more than 6,000 images of their travels. Although he spent much of the trip peering through a camera that captures a photograph in the blink of an eye, one of his most memorable experiences of monozukuri came while sitting on the steps overlooking Kyoto’s Ryoanji Zen Garden – a place that renders shutter speed irrelevant.

“Every day, someone rakes perfect concentric circles around each boulder in the garden,” he says. “Knowing the time it takes to do such a simple task made the beauty of the garden that much more admirable.”