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Japan’s Building an Army of Over-Friendly Androids for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics

This summer, Japan unveiled plans for a digital tourist-assistance system that mimics the concept <i>omotenashi</i>: anticipating guests' needs and exceeding their expectations to the point of it being eerily predictive.

Illustration by Ole Tillman

This article appears in the September Issue of VICE

This summer, Japan unveiled plans for a digital tourist-assistance system. Starting development in 2016, the program will allow foreigners to enter personal information into phone apps or computer terminals at airports, which will then share the data with authorized hotels, restaurants, and other institutions. Officials hope tourists will flock to these businesses, swiping special cards at digital terminals to call up facts about their dietary restrictions, language skills, religious proclivities, and more.

From there, without tourists ever speaking, institutions might automatically pull pork out of Muslims' meals or find English copies of brochures and leave them under doors—a level of effortless care that sounds both hyper-efficient and eerily predictive. The government wants to have the system operational nationwide by 2019, just before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which will be anchored around the concept of omotenashi.

Omotenashi is Japan's tradition of anticipating guests' needs and exceeding their expectations. In September 2013, a Japanese representative made it the cornerstone of a speech that many think helped secure the Olypmic Games, and the nation has been obsessed with omotenashi as a tourism-boosting tool ever since.

As part of the campaign, the state has also created a corps of volunteer guides and begun dealing out omotenashi seals to foreign-friendly businesses. But it's also launched more advanced projects, like the tourist database and omotenashi robots. The latter include dolls that can listen to a tourist's queries while being cuddled and chirp out information from a cloud database.

Ted Bestor, a Harvard professor of modern Japanese culture, believes that Japan's automation-obsessed population will embrace these systems. But international audiences have been predictably skeptical of this dehumanizing, data-driven "hospitality."

"I think it will be a question of whether things work well or not," Bestor told VICE. "'Wow, the robo-bartender made me a martini just the way I like it,' versus, 'I couldn't get the translation thingie in the taxi to understand I wanted to go to Akihabara, not Sekigahara.'"

Japan probably welcomes this technological referendum. The shrinking population is banking on automation to maintain the country's global stature. But to plan for the techno-future, they need to know that machines can still provide their trademark service, and that foreigners will accept them. To work that out, they'll roll the dice on briefly creeping us out in 2020.

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