By DON MORRISON Editor, TIME Asia
Nobody really knows where the word gizmo originated, but nearly everyone understands what it means: gadget, thingamajig, clever little device. And nobody does gizmos better than Japan, a country whose genius for technology has increased productivity and enriched lives the world over. In this week's special report on the Gizmo Nation, we ask one of the key questions of the 21st century: What makes Japan tick, whir and beep?
Answer: plenty! Led by associate editor Nisid Hajari and Tokyo bureau chief Tim Larimer, our techno-sleuths scoured Japan for cool hardware, visited engineering laboratories, interacted with intelligent machines and even witnessed the birth of a robot. Reporter Hiroko Tashiro profiles craftsmen who can perform work more exacting than any machine. Chief of reporters Hannah Beech describes the paradoxically difficult lot of Japan's inventors. And Ryu Murakami, the celebrated novelist, examines one of the darker consequences of Japan's love affair with gizmos.
Technology is a young person's game, so we turned to the experts for advice. With generous assistance from NTT Data Corp. and Apple Japan, Inc., we held a competition for Japanese schoolchildren: design a gadget or robot that you would like to see built. We publish the winning drawings, along with their creators' charming explanations. And don't miss correspondent Donald Macintyre's list of Japan's 10 smartest-and 5 dumbest-machines, if only to see where he places the glowing fingernails.
Though Japanese love gizmos, the country is often endearingly no-tech. When I ride the bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka, says Larimer, I'm on this modern transportation marvel. It runs on time, it's quiet and it even looks futuristic. But I've never seen anybody use a laptop, which seems odd in a place where gadgets are king. One friendly seat mate told me other passengers didn't like me working. I was disturbing the wa, the peace and harmony.
We noticed another cultural oddity. Unlike Westerners, who tend to curse machines when they misbehave, Japanese treat them with respect and affection-and even give them names. Japanese project their hopes and dreams onto a machine, explains reporter Sachiko Sakamaki. And the most common desire that I encounter is a simple one: to love and to be loved. So read on, and see whether a nation can find love in the arms of a robot.