Robots: The future of Japan? Maybe not

By Peter Dyloco

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

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So long as company's pay for their own robots and robotic research by investing their own profits, robots have a bright future. So long as they depend on government funding (i.e. economy killing taxes) robots will be nothing other than tourist novelties serving okonomiyaki.

I suppose that would go under the "Cool Japan" that is supposed to pull this country out of the abyss.

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Labor shortage!??! I thought JOBLESSNESS among young people was one of Japan's leading economic problems.

Isn't that why the government is spending zillions of yen of stimulus money (ie, taxpayers' money)? Naoto Kan cited unemployment when he announced the latest round of public spending, much of it on job creation programs.

So the solution is simple - nudge more people into nursing and other sectors, and forget about robots and even mass immigration.

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Japan is coming ever-so-close to fulfilling a reality once limited to the imaginative realm of science fiction.

..and that's where western analysis of Japan's robotics research tends to fail. That sci-fi dream is the western image of the Japanese goal, not the Japanese goal itself.

In the west, we have other terms for the majority of the robots in use - or imagined for use- in Japan. "A machine for X" or "an automatic X-er" to do work that used to be manual (or impossible) has been a cornerstone of innovation for decades, likewise the adoption of digital automation in the workplace.

The key difference between the two has always struck me as this: the western goal has been increasing profits through reducing the workforce (have a look at the number of staff in your local bank branch compared to 20 years ago, if you still have a local branch), while the Japanese goal has been maintaining profits as a workforce shrinks.

Taking banks as an example - my hometown used to have 6 banks, with a staff of about 10 each. Today, we have 5 ATMs for each, and the two banks that still have an actual presence have staffs of 3 - a net loss of 54 jobs that paid well, for no reason other than increasing profits. Repeat that across the country, and the economic impact is tremendous. Contrast that with the Japanese approach of filling a void left by a graying workforce.

The process is the same, but I would argue that the Japanese approach is a lot more sustainable (and sane) than the western profit-driven approach.

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I am not buying one until I can get my personal Astro boy or "tetsuwan Atomu"!

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Washing hair and spoon-feeding are all well and good, but what about good ol' conversation?

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And who design, builds, maintains these robotic workforces?


Most of these 'robots' or 'automatic xxxers' have only a single function, and need re-building and re-programming to do another task, by humans again.

With the cost of raw materials, design, building, maintenance, operation, are they really cheaper in the long run?

And what of the greater impact on society, as job satisfaction is eroded, personal/ business relationships are eliminated, and we descend into hopelessness when 'the computer says no!'

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I have to admit, while the idea of robots is pretty awesome, the very thought of them taking an even bigger role in society is a bit unsettling, particularly in regards to the job market. I wouldn't mind a robot pet or something though.

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Working robots have been around since the 1960s, and today only fill niche markets: ATMs, Coke Machines, ticket vendors and the like. Who wants to be taken care of by a robot when we are over the hill? It sounds cool but I think almost no-one would.

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I will not get one unless the robots are manufactured with the 3 laws of robotic firmly ingrained in the positronic brain.

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Japan needs to keep on going until they can produce human-proportioned fully functional machine. Then they can ride easy as the world will come to their doorstep for sexbots. Until China copies them.

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Jason6, humaniform robot is extremely difficult to make ( if you read asimov )........ for that particular purpose, a blow up rubber version is cheaper and easier.

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Lots of robots in operation already.

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The problem with relying on robots to keep society going is that, unlike humans, machines neither pay taxes or buy things, both of which are vital to keep government and the economy running. How do you support massive pension payouts to the elderly without a tax base? Anyone with a basic understanding of economics understands this problem, yet it's not even being discussed by people in Japan.

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Yes. Really looking forward to the sexbots. Imagine having a really hot one of those in the closet? One that can go out to izakaya and have about 8 beers with you would also be nice. Imagine how much I could save by staying away from those darn snack bars that seem to beckon me around 11:00 pm.

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This is all about xenophobia and cannot last. Robots only last because of cheap and abundant energy sources. Once those sources are gone, so are the robots. Then with a society that cannot adjust to other human beings Japan would rather fail than budge. This capacity for Japan to self inflict problems is legendary and will continue. Actual solutions will be necessary, and not dreams and wishful thinking.

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Who says robots can't pay taxes???

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Hokkaido boy says it all.

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Thanks to robot vacuum cleaners, there is a robot in every home in some parts of America. Apparently the author of the article decided to ignore lowly household or military robots? I would say Japan is very far behind when it comes to those sectors.

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ATMs, Coke Machines, ticket vendors and the like.

There are far and away more types of robots in use than this. The problem is when people hear "robot" they imagine something humanoid, but most practical robots are actually not very human looking at all. I used to work for a Japanese "robot" manufacturer- their robots consist of a single arm, which moves very quickly through to accomplish the same repetitive task (usually welding, gluing, inserting screws, pressing or pick-and-place) many thousands of times each hour.

These robots are widely used in the automobile and cellphone industries in particular, and modern manufacturing would be impossible without them.

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a blow up rubber version is cheaper and easier.


can this be the "quote of the day?" I laughed myself silly at the multiple entendres of this line. Thanks, oberst. What you say may be true, just don't say it to their faces, m'kay?

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We don't need immigration. Robots are just fine.

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Always interesting to hear more about robots, wherever they may be. But here's my objection to the article: It mentions "Japan’s love affair with robots" without demonstrating that there is such a thing – or, more to the point, that such a "love affair" is any less real elsewhere in the industrialized world.

Sure, I'm familiar with the frequent claim of such a special relationship, as well as related topics such as a Shinto connection. The problem is that these claims never seem to get backed up by actual evidence. If you've got an interest, I tear the claims apart at homejapan dot com slash japan-and-robots . (Seems I can't insert a URL here. The two-cent summary: Yes, there's plenty of interest and great developments coming out of Japan in robotics – but that's every bit as true for the rest of the developed world, with lots of evidence to back up the claim. Any special Japan-only relationship is pure modern mythology.)

Here's what I'd like to see more writers do: When hearing claims such as "special love affair with robots" or "special contribution from Shinto", ask whether there's really evidence for such claims, whether there's evidence against such claims, and, if the claims don't seem warranted, ask who's making them and why. That's where some real, untapped journalistic goodness is to be found!

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