Japan’s Plans to Innovate itself out of Labor Shortages
Tuesday, February 19, 2019
With the first wave of migrants expected to arrive in a few short weeks after the government approved a new visa system for foreign laborers last year, the Japanese media is in a frenzy with stories about integration successes and failures like the two part series that is airing on the NHK program Heart Net this week. It’s true that in the short term increasing labor shortages with foreign workers is Japan’s only option given the extent of the labor shortage, however Japan’s forte has never been in accommodating differences and the new migrant program is guaranteed to bring out all kinds of debate on the ability for Japanese society to withstand a drastic change on a scale never seen before in Japanese history.
Currently 28.1 percent of the population or 35.57 million people are over the age of 65 and that number is only going to increase and by 2065 the number for elderly in Japan is estimated to reach 38%, making Japan the oldest population in the world. Industry leaders, while prepared to navigate the inevitably rough waters of integrating foreign workers are still setting their sites on innovation and technology as the long term solutions for the country. Torn between the need to stay competitive in the global market by bringing in people with diverse perspectives and the fear of too much change in the historically isolationist archipelago, puts Japan in a unique position to charge forward on both fronts with the hopes to find a happy medium where automation fills gaps and eases the overstretched labor market.
Medical innovation is particularly cutting edge in Japan because of the mandatory universal healthcare system that the country implemented in 1961, meaning that the volume of medical data collected in the past 60 years for a population that is over 100 million is unprecedented and standardized. The medical data is a 21st century gold mine. Forbes magazine recently wrote about how Japan’s aging population actually comes with great opportunities for investment and innovation and that is no secret. Part of Abe’s economic plan is to create an “age-free” society where retirement isn’t mandatory at 65, but rather encourages people to live actively as long as possible with the help of technology. For example, the smart walker developed by Panasonic is designed to counter the effects of degenerative diseases that stifle independence at older ages.
The rise in automated pets while seemingly frivolous can do wonders to help the elderly feel like they have a companion without the burdens that come with caring for a real pet that many can’t handle with age. Softbank has Pepper, Sony as their robotic dog Aibo, and AIST developed Paro, the furry robotic harp seal, all designed with the idea to support and connect with humans for a better quality of life.
But robots are not just being invented to ease the emotional difficulties of aging. Toyota built a nursing aid robot named Robina that can communicate with words and gestures, and her “brother” Humanoid can do dishes, take care of sick parents, and can even be a source of entertainment. Rivaling Toyotas family of robots is Honda’s Asimo that is at a level of sophistication where it can react to human conversations, movements, and emotions. With cameras for eyes, it also responds to voice commands, answers questions and bows in a proper Japanese fashion.
Tokai Rubber Industries in collaboration with the national wide research institute, Riken, developed a robot named Riba (Robot for Interactive Body Assistance) that can pick up people up to 80 kgs in weight and is designed to comfort patients. AIST has also been working for the construction industry to develop a robot that is designed to work in construction sites. Still in no way can human workers be replaced by robot builders for construction but the video reveals that simpler tasks on construction sites can be done with extreme accuracy if left to automation giving people more time to handle tasks that still cannot be automated. While the technologies are still far from perfect and the IMF assesses that robots aren’t going to be taking over all labor any time soon, innovation and automation seemingly has more benefits than negatives. Data even suggest that integrating automation and robotics into workplaces not only increases productivity, but also results in higher wages for the people.
Even in industries as technologically cutting edge as the aviation industry, there are still many tasks that just require human labor and the industry in Japan is trying to find ways around that. For example, even though the departure lobby underneath Narita airport is equipped with an extensive and complex automated conveyer system that is able to sort the luggage by destination, when it comes to loading the bags onto containers before being put on the plane, this task still requires human labor. This year, following ANA’s example, JAL introduced wearable robots for their staff at Haneda Airport that load and offload checked luggage. The robots help relieve the pressure of long hours of manual labor and help prevent lower back pain or other injuries. The robotic support system alleviates about 10kgs of weight felt by the individual allowing older people or those with smaller body types to work as luggage handlers widening the hiring pool for this kind of work.
Further, ANA has been working with five other companies to create driverless buses to transport passengers from the airport terminal to the airplanes within Haneda Airport. In January this year they entered their second phase of testing with the hopes of implementing driverless buses on the tarmac by 2020.
Japan is currently the worldwide leader in robotic production and industrial use in addition to being the world’s largest robot exporter. The opportunities for innovation in robotics are endless and industries are pouring money into bigger and more extensive automation projects. As such, the projection is that human jobs will quickly move further away from simple manual tasks into a system where robots and automation becomes an irreplaceable layer of the labor market. Of course an experiment of this scale has never been done before so the outcomes can be anyone’s guess. But what’s true is that Japan is greying faster than they know how to deal with and as it stands now, robots are here to stay. As human labor gets more tightly integrated with automation probably the place to be is not on the user’s end of the automation but in the building and maintenance of the most cutting edge social technologies the world has ever seen.
About the Author
I've been in Japan so long that I say my heart is Japanese. And still this country impresses me from time to time. In those moments I think, "That's why I love living in Japan."