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Robot Nation: Robots and the Declining Japanese Population
(Released September 2010)

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  by Kathryn Mori & Carolyn Scearce  


Key Citations





Demographic transition toward an older population is a trend not just for Japan but for many countries. Because this is a new phenomenon in national and global demographics, it is impossible to predict the long-term results. Current population models for Japan and other global populations tend to work on the assumptions that the trends in birthrate and mortality will continue along lines very similar to present conditions. For short-term predictions (those under a few decades in length) this is a reasonably valid assumption. Human populations are unlikely to experience any short-term, dramatic shifts in population levels unless exposed to devastating epidemics or catastrophic natural or human made disasters. So barring such disasters, even if model parameters are mildly or even moderately inaccurate, due to the lengthen of the human life span, actual population trends should not vary too widely from population models for this time frame. Over multiple human generations, however, there is no telling whether Japan's population will continue to decline, stabilize around some equilibrium point, or eventually start increasing again.

elderly man with cute robot
Paro, the seal robot, is intended as company for the elderly

Nevertheless, Japan is at the leading edge of the demographic trend for rapidly aging, and in come cases already declining, populations. How Japan ends up coping with its demographic crisis will provide important lessons for the rest of the world. It seems likely that some level of new advanced technology, including robotics, will be incorporated into Japan's healthcare system to help ease the burden of elder care. It also seems likely that advanced technology will ease some of the burden of a declining workforce. Japan has put a lot of its eggs in the high technology basket. In working with cutting edge research, there is always the risk that much of the money invested will not yield salable technology. However, there is also the possibility of serendipitous discovery, as research projects may lead to lucrative new ideas and new products that were not initially envisioned. Much of the excitement and risk of working with cutting edge technology is that no one can really be sure what is achievable until the attempt is made.

An issue such technological solutions fail to address is how Japan's economy will handle a future where up to 40% of the population is above the age of retirement. Robotics technology may offer some relief, if it can substantially raise the productivity of the national workforce. But it is very unlikely to be sufficient. Japan's pension system is highly stressed, supporting the 23% of its population over the age of 65. The social security system is moving toward a crisis point significantly faster than that of the U.S.

Ultimately, to stabilize Japan both economically and culturally, it seems necessary to stabilize the Japanese population. The most practical solution would be to raise the birth rate. However, as long as Japanese women feel a need to choose between a career and family, this will not happen. To date, Japan's policy to increase the birth rate-including recommendations to businesses, programs to increase availability of daycare, and tax incentives-has been ineffective. While some Japanese women are comfortable with current gender roles, many want what women in numerous other first world countries have: education and personal autonomy; careers and salaries more equal to their male peers. Some Japanese women are willing to sacrifice family life to achieve these things. As long as career and family are presented as either/or choices, many Japanese women will choose careers first or instead of children. Japan currently lacks the political will to make the changes necessary to improve working and childcare conditions for women enough to make having more children appealing. Also, there is a lack of support for women dealing with fertility issues, and something of a cultural aversion to seeking treatment. Since many women are waiting to have children later in life, they often can find it difficult to conceive. Such issues must be overcome before Japan is likely to see any resurgence in its birthrate.

Japan is a country in transition, one that has undergone many changes over the last couple of generations: demographic, cultural, technological, and economic. It is hardly surprising that the nation's future seems so uncertain at this point. In a world of advancing technology and shrinking households, perhaps it is inevitable that the next few decades will begin to redefine the meaning of families, communities, and even technology. What role robots play in these redefined relationships may do much to set the course of change for Japan.

© 2010, ProQuest LLC. All rights reserved.

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