Japan's big dilemma: Robots or immigrants?

Japan will introduce a new visa system in April aimed at attracting foreign workers to address the country’s acute labour shortages. The number of foreign workers in Japan has already hit a record high of 1.46 million in 2018.

The government’s willingness to introduce the new system represents a significant shift in a country that has long regarded immigration with suspicion. Like New Zealand, Japan faces declining birth rates, a growing elderly population, and skill shortages. Whereas New Zealand has typically turned to immigration, Japan has sought other solutions. Like robots.

“Japan’s push for automation has historically been driven by political and social resistance to large-scale immigration by non-Japanese, rooted in the idea that there would be a deep cultural incompatibility with such immigrants,” says Grant Otsuki, a lecturer in cultural anthropology at Victoria University of Wellington.

“In contrast, robots are generally seen as compatible with tradition and culture, or at least ‘neutral’, and therefore more acceptable than immigrants.”

A dire situation

Japan’s dilemma is acute and growing. In 2018, its population of 127 million fell by 448,000 people. In part, this is due to Japan’s low fertility rate, which in 2018 reached a record low at 1.43 births per woman. The impact on Japan’s workforce will be severe, with official estimates saying the workforce will shrink by 20%, or 12 million workers, by 2040.

By contrast, New Zealand’s population, currently around 4.9 million, will increase thanks largely to higher levels of migration. New Zealand’s total fertility rate in 2017 also reached a record low, but was still higher at 1.81 births per woman.

Japan is famous for its long life expectancy — 87.2 years for women and 81 for men, compared with 83 years for Kiwi women, and 79.4 years for Kiwi men. Yet in Japan, long life also means a ballooning elderly population in need of costly state welfare and care.

“There is an especially acute shortage in elderly care workers,” says Otsuki.

“In response, service robots — for example, robots that will help lift an elderly patient into bed or monitor their mood and movements — are becoming more noticeable in daily life, though they are far from ubiquitous.”

Seeking a solution

Japan’s new visa system will bring in 345,000 workers over five years, mainly from neighbours such as China, the Philippines, and Vietnam. The new foreign worker legislation would target blue-collar work in sectors with the most acute needs. As in New Zealand, this includes healthcare, construction, hospitality, and agriculture.

Abe’s recent denial that the legislation represented opening towards immigration, however, demonstrated how politically sensitive the subject remains in Japan. Technology represents an attractive alternative.

“The Japanese government sees ‘social’ robots — service and care robots — to be an area of potential significant economic growth over the next 50 years. Japan once saw itself as a technological world leader, particularly in advanced electronics. Some will speak of the country as gijjutsu rikkoku, a country built by technology.

“Even though Japan’s national self-identity is very technological, Japan has largely missed the global boat in newer areas like mobile. Social robotics is one area where the government and many corporations are investing heavily to capture the future global market and reinforce its 'technological' identity.”

Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto?

In some respects, New Zealand and Japan are on divergent courses to deal with their labour and skill shortages. As Otsuki notes of New Zealand: “There is less overt resistance to immigration from abroad here, and the population is not as old as Japan’s. In addition, the domestic technology market is less isolated than Japan’s.

“However, one of the main things that the Japanese example shows is that automation and robotics often develop in conjunction with dominant ideas about who is welcome in the society and who is not. New Zealand does face labour shortages in areas such as agriculture and construction, and it will be important to pay attention to how the introduction of robotics makes it easier for restrictive or permissive immigration policies to gain public favor.”

In Japan, it remains to be seen whether immigrants or robots will end up "taking over".

“While immigration remains controversial, it’s probably more accurate to say that the ‘traditional’ solution to demographic change and labour shortage in modern Japan has always been technological.”

- Asia Media Centre