Japan’s robot workforce is increasing as the human workforce shrinks

An employee at Nissan Motor Company in Japan. Photo: Koji Watanabe/Getty Images.

There has been much discussion about automation and the potential for robots to replace humans in some jobs. An article by researchers from the IMF notes that Japan, with a rapidly declining labour force and limited immigration has a powerful incentive for automation. They suggest that this makes the country a useful laboratory for the study of the future landscape of work.

The IMF researchers point out that Japan’s estimated population fell by a record-breaking 264,000 people in 2017 and that deaths outnumber births by an average of 1,000 people a day. Japan’s domestic labour force (those aged 15–64) is projected to decline even faster than the overall population, dropping by some 24 million between now and 2050.

Japan also faces a rapidly ageing population. Nearly a third of Japanese citizens were older than 65 in 2015 and research from the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research suggests that number will rise to nearly 40% by 2050.

Japan has historically been a leader in technological development. The country is still a leader in robot production and industrial use. The country exported US$1.6 billion worth of industrial robots in 2016 — more than the next five biggest exporters combined.

The IMF article points out that Japan is also one of the most robot-integrated economies in the world in terms of “robot density” (the number of robots relative to humans in manufacturing and industry).

While previously robots tended to be used in manufacturing, the service sector is now starting to adopt robotics to reduce the need for staff. Family Mart, a convenience store chain, is accelerating implementation of self-checkout registers. The restaurant group Colowide has installed touch-screen order terminals to reduce the need for staff. The researchers note that other examples abound in health care, financial, transportation, and other services—including robot chefs and hotel staff.

In terms of the impact of robots on employment, the IMF researchers note empirical evidence suggests that, contrary to fears for the worst, automation and increased use of robotics have had an overall positive impact on domestic employment and income growth in japan. IMF staff calculations found increased robot density in manufacturing to be associated not only with greater productivity, but also with gains in employment and wages.

For more information on automation see our BI Research Connected World Report

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