Demographic Crisis, Robotic Cure?

Japanese government and big industry are betting that robots will help the country cope with what is now being described as a "super-aging" society, but not everybody agrees with the mechanical solution. Video by Blaine Harden/The Washington PostAdditional Video courtesy of: Toyota
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 7, 2008

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.

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 wrenchingly difficult social issues, such as Japan's deep-seated aversion to immigration, its chronic 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 workforce 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.

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