Japan has long held a fascination with robots and their application in daily life. The country remains at the forefront of the robotics industry, in no small part due to the billions of yen’s worth in government and private sector investment.
The results have been nothing short of astounding. Of all developed countries, Japan holds the record for having the most industrial robot workers. Japanese companies continue to hold a monopoly in the production of industrial robots used in factories around the world. Realistic humanoid robots, now capable of singing, dancing and acting, serve as shining examples of Japan’s technological prowess. Robots available to the public are becoming increasingly capable of doing menial chores both at home and at the office. Some even possess the ability to fulfill janitorial and receptionist duties, and prototypes designed to care for the elderly and disabled have shown much promise. Japan is coming ever-so-close to fulfilling a reality once limited to the imaginative realm of science fiction.
The question, however, remains: what’s the driving force behind Japan’s love affair with robots?
The answer is a threefold response: history, economy and society.
Historically, the Japanese have always been fond of (or, at the very least, have had a predisposition to) robots. Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion, maintains the belief of “living spirits” in inanimate objects. One could say that this philosophy contributed to the wild popularity of puppetry in 17th century Japan, the forerunner to modern robotics. Though Japan has changed much over the course of the last 300 years, its love for robotics has been unyielding to the seas of time.
That’s not to say, however, that Japan’s love of robots is simply of historic significance; far from it. Faced with the consequences of an aging workforce, Japan has placed its bets on robots as a solution to their economic problems. It’s difficult to argue against the cost effectiveness, accuracy and productivity of robot labour which, unlike their human counterparts, make no mistakes and have no qualms about salaries, pensions, benefits or fair working hours. In combination with the strong yen, an infamously restrictive immigration policy and twenty years’ worth of economic stagnation, the switch to industrial robot workers has saved Japanese firms millions in manufacturing and labor costs.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The graying of the nation has led to an increased demand for workers in health care and nursing – roles that many in immigration-averse Japan hope to fill with robot workers. One of the most recent examples is a robot manufactured by Panasonic capable of – wait for it – hair washing for the elderly. Multiple prototypes for robotic exoskeletons continue to be tested, aimed towards boosting the physical strength and mobility of seniors. As researchers develop robots equipped to do everything from spoon feeding to nannying, Japan’s dependence on robots will only continue to grow as half of its population surpasses the age of 65 by mid century.
How will this all affect Japan’s future?
Unless coupled with a change in its immigration system or an increase in its birth rate, robots will only prove to be of a short to medium term benefit to Japanese society. There’s no denying the benefits of a worker that doesn’t complain or a housekeeper that fulfills its roles dutifully. One must realize, however, that robots aren’t self perpetuating. Without the combination of human innovation and engineering skill found in youth and nowhere else, progress in Japan’s robotics industry will slow to a grinding halt; the country unable to maintain its lead over industry leaders in competing countries. Educated youth in Japan will become a resource scarcely found and sorely needed by Japanese robotics companies.
Then there’s the job dilemma. In some industries, robots can take over the jobs of ten individuals or more. As great as that might sound for manufacturers in perennially expensive Japan, one must ask: “Where are these individuals going to turn to work?” Less than a third of all Japanese go on to some form of higher education, and the elimination of these blue collar jobs leaves the rest with fewer opportunities for a steady job and increased competition over the few positions that are left. It’s obviously not the ideal scenario.
Nevertheless, the continued investment in robotics remains a sound decision. Until change comes in other aspects of Japanese society, however, don’t expect it to be the end-all solution to Japan’s socioeconomic problems.© Japan Today