With a surfeit of the old and a shortage of the young, Japan is on course for a population collapse unlike any in human history. What ails this prosperous...
TOKYO — With a surfeit of the old and a shortage of the young, Japan is on course for a population collapse unlike any in human history.
What ails this prosperous nation could be treated with babies and immigrants. Yet many young women here do not want children, and the Japanese will not tolerate a lot of immigrants. So government and industry are marching into the depopulated future with the help of robots — some with wheels, some with legs, some that you can wear like an overcoat with muscles.
A small army of these machines, which has attracted huge and appreciative crowds, is on display this winter at the Great Robot Exhibition in Tokyo’s National Museum of Nature and Science.
The Japanese are delighted by robots that look human. Honda’s ASIMO can dance and serve tea. Toyota has a humanoid robot that plays “Pomp and Circumstance” on the violin — rather robotically.
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But engineers say it’s the “service robots,” which can’t dance a lick and don’t look remotely human, that can bail out Japan, which has the world’s largest proportion of residents over 65 and smallest proportion of children under 15.
One such gizmo, on display at the show, can spoon-feed the elderly. Others are being designed to hoist them onto a toilet and phone a nurse when they won’t take their pills.
Toyota, the world’s largest car company, announced last month that service robots would soon become one of its core businesses. The government heavily subsidizes development of these machines. Other cheerleaders for robots include universities and much of the news media.
Not everyone, though, is cheering. There are critics who describe the robot cure for an aging society as little more than high-tech quackery.
They say that robots are a politically expedient palliative that allows politicians and corporate leaders to avoid difficult social issues, such as Japan’s deep-seated aversion to immigration, its shortage of affordable day care and Japanese women’s increasing rejection of motherhood.
“Robots can be useful, but they cannot come close to overcoming the problem of population decline,” said Hidenori Sakanaka, former head of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau and now director of the Japan Immigration Policy Institute, a research group in Tokyo.
“The government would do much better spending its money to recruit, educate and nurture immigrants,” he said.
The scale of the coming demographic disaster, assuming present trends continue, is without precedent, according to Sakanaka and many other analysts.
Population shrinkage began here three years ago and is gathering pace. Within 50 years, the population, now 127 million, will fall by a third, the government projects. Within a century, two-thirds of the population will be gone. That would leave Japan, now the world’s second-largest economy, with about 42 million people.
The work force would shrink even faster, thanks to the dearth of children under 15, whose numbers have been falling for 26 consecutive years and now reflect a record low 13.6 percent of the population.
Work force shrinking
Within 20 years, the work force will fall by 10 percent, according to Goldman Sachs, the investment firm. It estimates that within 30 years, Japan will have just two workers for each retiree; within 50 years, two retirees for every three workers. Pension and health-care systems will be at risk of collapse.
Robots can help make all this more affordable and less disruptive, said Masakatsu Fujie, a professor of mechanical engineering at Waseda University in Tokyo.
In a recent lecture to foreign journalists, he said service robots could help reduce government spending on health care, take over many dreary service jobs and prop up Japan’s “societal vitality.”
Human beings needed
Still, if Japan is to have any chance of holding on to its status as a major economic power, it needs human beings by the millions, and it needs to start importing them soon, according to Sakanaka. He argues that Japan has no rational alternative but to open its doors to at least 10 million new immigrants over the next five decades.
This is a tall order. Among highly developed countries, Japan has always ranked near the bottom in the percentage of foreign-born residents. In the United States, about 12 percent are foreign-born; in Japan, just 1.6 percent.
Restrictive and aggressively enforced immigration laws have broad support from the Japanese public, which blames immigrants for crime, impolite behavior and untidiness. Sakanaka’s immigration proposal, at least for the time being, has no serious backing among major political leaders.
But the country ranks first in robot use. Forty percent of the world’s robots are at work here, mostly in industrial jobs.
The government prefers spending money on robot development rather than on immigrants, Sakanaka said, because robots do not have a political downside.
“Politicians avoid the immigration issue because it doesn’t lead to a vote,” he said. “They should be thinking about Japan’s future, but they are not.”