A hotel staffed by robots, a robotic girlfriend or dancing robot, with clock-like regularity stories of a new type of robot coming out of Japan. One thing is for sure, the hype is real and robots are integrating into Japanese society and it’s not a novelty, it’s because there aren’t enough people.
Over the last year, robot makers are seeing more orders come in to make up for the labor shortfall. Last year mid-size companies posted openings for 1.1Million jobs, according to data from Japan’s Labor ministry. The number of people who are of working age peaked in 1995 at 85M and has been falling ever since. This year, it’s projected to fall to 76M.
No one in Japan is afraid of automation taking away jobs
With Robots filling a need, automation is not seen as a threat but imperative to economic survival. In 2014, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe unveiled reforms with hopes that the robot market would reach $21 billion by 2020.
Japan is striving to become the largest society in the world supported by robotics.
What makes robots a perfect fit for Japan’s ambitions is Japan’s service sector accounts for 70% of its economic output. Service Robot’s are performing basic and repetitive tasks are an ideal match. When you compare this to labor productivity, it is 40% less than in the U.S. The contrast puts a strain on the industry sector so we’re seeing companies like McDonald cut back on the number of locations open 24 hours.
Robots are seen essential to the economic growth of Japan.
On trips to Japan where I meet with companies like Fujitsu, it’s clear that optimizing the workforce that they have is the main focus. However, a simple solution to the labor shortage would be to simply accept more immigrants.
In 2005, it was proposed that Japan would accept 10 million immigrants over a 50-year period. The plan did not receive any support so the idea was dropped.
Japan’s overall population is now declining at the fastest rate globally. The country sells more adult diapers than baby diapers and fewer workers to support an aging population likely leads to poor economic growth.
“Japan doesn’t have an immigration policy — this is something that politicians stress,” Chris Burgess, a migration researcher and lecturer of Japan studies at Tsuda Juku University in Tokyo, told CNN.
“Many people in Japan believe that the country’s peace and harmony is based on it being a homogenous country where there are few foreigners,” says Burgess. “That kind of thinking pervades a lot of aspects of society and underlies the no immigration principle.”
Looking to the past Japan didn’t need foreign works
Japan has remained a country closed off from foreign influence, during its period of isolation in 1641 to 1853 Japan allowed only traders from China and the Netherlands to come and go. Locals were not allowed to leave.
Japan didn’t rely on foreign labor during its periods of economic growth from 1955-19973. It was only in the late 80s that the country began to debate accepting foreign workers.
In the 1990s Japan began to accept highly skilled workers and encourage the return of nikkeijin, people of Japanese descent.
Foreign-born residents make up less than 2% of the population compared to the US which is at 12%.
But low skilled workers are still not welcome. Enter the need for Robots and the reason behind why Japan is obsessed with them.