Japan's Robotic Obsession, Demographic Oblivion

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 8/06/2009 01:43:00 PM
Pictured here is Miimu--equal parts lovely and ghastly--Japan's vision of a robot bride. Rather than make more snide comments about the implications of its (her?) existence, and you know I can go on and on, let me just put forth some thoughts on how it came to be.

There is a perceptible and deep-seated fascination among the Japanese with robotic technology. In times past, this interest has had more to do with employing the most advanced forms of capital to augment its highly advanced manufacturing-for-export industries. You've also had a longstanding affinity with robots in popular culture: long before the Yanks came up with the Transformers and its puerile, homogenized Hollywood-style sex-and-violence, Japan gave the world Mazinger Z, Voltes V, and Voltron. (As an expression of culture, note how most Transformers change from vehicles and whatnot to robots individually, while their Japanese equivalents have to assemble themselves together to form a robot. Think of the difference between individualist and communitarian cultures.) Even I have enjoyed the antics of Doraemon, the amiable, bumbling robot cat from the future. This is so much so that I even play Doraemon Wii even if my comprehension of Nihongo is rather limited.

In recent years, however, this fascination has accelerated into something resembling economic necessity. In an earlier post, I established the dismal equation which now looms large over the Land of the Rising Sun's demographic fortunes:

Long life expectancy + low birth rate + reluctance to accept migrants = demographic disaster.

TIME Magazine has an interesting follow-up to the Reuters piece that puts into place more of the pieces in the robotization puzzle aside from caring for aging populations in a society highly reluctant to accept an influx of migrants in fear of diluting cultural homogeneity:
In the past several years, Japan has committed several tens of millions of dollars to an industry whose revenues it hopes could surge to nearly $70 billion by 2025. Japan already employs over a quarter of a million industrial robot workers — more than any other nation — in an effort to counter high labor costs and to support further mechanization of its industries, and would like to see that number go up to one million over the next 15 years. "Robotics is to be for the Japanese economy in the 21st century what automobiles were in the 20th," says Jennifer Robertson, a professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan.

Japan hopes this new robotic army could be part of the answer to an ever-declining birthrate and shrinking workforce in a country famously wary of opening its shores to immigrants. Foreign-born residents make up less than 2% of the country's total population, compared to 12% in the U.S. Although dependent on the type of industry, one robot can replace several workers, music to the ears of many government officials who know that the nation's declining work force will weigh heavily on future pension and health care programs...

After all, this is the land where salarymen pour over comic books on their way to work and where stay-at-home moms are also videogame afficionados. In many ways, robotics combines two of Japan's biggest cultural crushes: technology and animation. Some experts say the roots of the national love of robotics are in Japan's Shinto religion, which blurs the line between the inanimate and animate and in which followers believe that all things, including objects, can possess living spirits. "Robots have a long and friendly history in Japan, and humanoid robots are considered to be living things and even desirable members of families," says Robertson. While popular culture in the west often casts robots as forces of evil that pose a threat to world peace — or worse, job security — Japan "tends to see robots as a force for good," says Damien Thong, a technology analyst with Macquarie Securities in Tokyo...

And the global recession hasn't helped robots' lot. As people around the world curtail luxury spending on cars and gadgets, robots are gathering dust on factory floors, and future demand for industrial robots has dropped as Japanese production takes a nosedive. Still, this lull is unlikely to stop Japanese scientists and researchers, who will continue to develop industrial and service robots while rolling out an occasional whizzy invention or two, all in the hopes of turning science fiction fantasies — one day — into a reality.
Just as America's elite champions environmental industries for its future, Japan's envisions a highly robotized one. To each his own vision. As before, however, I ask the same question: why not just bring in folks willing and able to do the jobs the Japanese want done...if there were more Japanese? Ingenuity takes a backseat to providing employment to the world's growing population IMHO.