Japan Looks to Robots to Fill Jobs

Robin Lustig, BBC News, September 3, 2009

One of the biggest questions hanging over the newly elected Japanese government is what it intends to do about its rapidly diminishing workforce.

Japan’s population is both ageing and shrinking at a dangerous rate. It will have halved by the end of the century, according to one estimate.

So who is going to do the work as the country gets steadily older?

The first thing the government plans to do is increase the child allowance to 25,000 yen ($270, £166) per child per month–the hope is that will encourage couples to have more babies.

But if that does not work, there are two other options–build more robots to do the work there are not enough people to do, or allow in millions more workers from overseas.

I met a couple of robots in Arai Sadahiro’s robot shop in Tokyo.

They talked and sang to him just as they would to a lonely elderly person in need of company.

Mr Sadahiro insists that, although of course it would be better if a real friend or relative were available, the robots are not a bad second best.

For social and medical care, robots are already in use. There are robots that can lift patients out of bed, carry them if necessary, even act as receptionists in a hospital or doctor’s surgery.

But would it not be even better to import more workers from abroad?

After all, Japan has the lowest rate of foreign workers among the world’s major developed economies–making up less than 2% of the workforce, compared with close to 15% in the US, or 10% in Britain.

Centenarians

The biggest number of migrants come from Korea and China, many on government-sponsored three-year training programmes meant to equip them with new skills to take back home.

But some migrant workers say the training schemes can sometimes be little more than a way of exploiting low-paid migrants.

One Chinese worker, who chose to remain anonymous, said he felt “tricked” when he found he was expected to pick strawberries all day with no training on offer.

Other foreign workers have a much better experience–such as Indian businessman Jagmohan Chandrani, who has lived in Japan for more than 30 years.

He runs a tea-importing business and a restaurant, and says the big advantage that Indians have here is that many possess valuable Information Technology skills that Japan needs.

So what will it be? More robots, or more foreign workers? My guess is that it will be both.

Something certainly needs to be done. The United Nations estimates that by the middle of the century there will be more than a million Japanese who are over 100 years old.

And someone will have to look after them.

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