Japan: building the future, living in the past?

From New Internationalist Easier English Wiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Japan: building the future, living in the past?


(c) Dmitri Alexander/National Geographic/Getty Images

Robots aren’t likely to do postal workers’ jobs in Japan. But they may soon look after grandmother or sleep with you. Christopher Simons writes about some of the problems.

Science fiction often writes about robots learning to live with humans. The opposite – humans learning to live as robots – is less common. But a friend in San Francisco invited me to his birthday party as a robot. I found it very difficult to control the robot online from Tokyo. It was difficult not to shout, it was difficult trying to dance with people, and my batteries ran down my batteries when I tried to roll over a rug.

Japan is a world leader in jinkou chihou (artificial intelligence or AI) and robotics. As you walk through Tokyo, you can meet humanoid robots like Pepper, advertising the latest smartphone deals outside SoftBank shops. But there are much deeper changes. The Japanese economy is now growing quickly in industrial robot exports. As China automates its manufacturing, Japanese robotics companies are doing well. Robot exports to China grew from over $3 billion in 2012 to nearly $4.5 billion in 2016. And they predict sales to be $6.8 billion by the end of 2017. Advances in AI and humanoid robots promise more technological changes for our daily lives.

Japan is a world leader in robotics, but AI in Japan may be very different from other countries. There are four reasons for this. Japan wants human employment; a strong work ethic. A strong interest in AI and robotics for nursing and social care. And problematic attitudes towards sexuality.


Aiko Chihira is a humanoid robot that can blink and speak made by Toshiba Corp. The robot works on the information desk of a department store in Tokyo. Photo: David Mareuil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Human employment

Japan is still quite a good country for semi- or unskilled workers, especially in small- and medium-sized companies. As Japan’s population goes down, there are many more jobs than working-age people available to do them. For now, this means growing opportunities for more automation, without losing human employment. In the US, AI is already replacing humans in security. Sometimes there are problems. There were accidents with the Knightscope K5 or ‘thug R2-D2’ security robot in California. One robot injured a small child, and another drove into a fountain.

It is unlikely that Japan will use robots like these. There are high levels of government employment and state money for important industries like construction. This means there are too many workers in these sectors.

The same situation is true in Japan’s postal and transportation systems. Robots and drones are unlikely to replace the many takkyubin workers who knock on your door many times a day and who will return – sometimes immediately – if you miss a delivery. It is not only because Japan Post wants full employment that there is no automation in the postal system. The postmasters help the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s election machine across the country by delivering their campaign leaflets for free and keep their jobs.

Robotic society

AI in Japan may allow the country to keep some of its negative cultural ways. Japanese society is already ‘robotic’ in ways that other countries are not. In Japan work means working together. This can stop or punish individual ideas and creativity. The strong structure of Japanese society will make people-facing AIs easier to introduce, but may not help the lives of the office workers. Many company workers accept six-day working weeks and many, many meetings and reports as part of the job for life. In 2016, Nomura Securities began using AI software in stock trading, but it did not reduce the work or the working hours of Nomura’s human workers.

The Asahi Shimbun newspaper wrote about a technology prize for ‘HR Tech’. The winner is technology and AI to look at a worker’s concentration by measuring the number and type of their eye blinks. This sounds like controlling human workers and nothan more independent robot workers.

Care robots

Japan wants human-facing AI most in health and social care, where there are not enough workers. Japanese culture sees nursing and looking after older and disabled people and disabled, as ‘unclean’ work. One solution is giving the jobs to skilled migrants but laws make this difficult. Migrant nurses must pass exams in Japanese. Foreign social care workers also face racial abuse from the older generation with very little experience of diversity. And so there is a lot of public and private investment in care robots.

This summer’s RoboCup event in Nagoya (now in its 20th year) showed Toyota’s HSR, a ‘lifestyle support’ robot. It can help people with mobility problems. These technologies with AI will work as live-in help for Japan’s growing older population.

But there is a problem. Japanese society wants robots to do the jobs they are not good at. These are jobs which need emotional sensitivity and careful movements. The reports about jobs which will continue after automation include jobs in healthcare and social work. But these are the jobs that Japan wants robots to do. And Japan is good at robotics but it is not so good at AI for social care jobs. Luc Hovan works at a company making AI for systems in Japan. He says that Japan is very good at robots which follow orders, but not machines which look at information, understand meaning, and make decisions, and then follow them. There are similar problems in Japanese education. It has mostly rote learning. Countries that want to be leaders in AI must have AI which can think like humans.

Intimate relations

There are also problems with AI and humanoid robots in Japan with sex and relationships. There are already AIs for sex. AI sex work may dehumanize further Japan’s urban societies, where people feel lonely and cannot or do not want to have long-term romantic relationships. There are more serious problems with paedophilia and child sexuality. Japan banned the possession of child pornography a short time ago. But the new law does not include animation as it is not ‘real’. This law means there is the possibility of child sex robots. Shin Takagi’s company Trottla made child sex dolls to stop paedophiles like Takagi himself from offending or re-offending. AI child sex workers is a strong possibility in Japan.

A question people ask in Japanese animation is Can AIs can have souls and consciousness? This is an interesting question in a society with Shinto history. In Shinto, everything, even stones, can have a soul.

Christopher Simons is Senior Associate Professor in the graduate school of Comparative Culture at International Christian University, Tokyo



(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).