Things really do not get “more Japanese” than a robot. Whether it is the heroes and villains of manga and anime, or the Pepper you find in branches of mobile phone company SoftBank, robots seem to be everywhere here. The robots are indeed rising in Japan — and they are ready to take over the health and social care system.
In August, it was reported that Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry would seek a 20 percent increase in the budget it uses to support companies that produce “caregiver robots” for fiscal 2019. The funds requested for fiscal 2018 was reportedly ¥1.1 billion.
At first glance, this seems like a very sensible idea. Japan has an aging population and a declining birthrate. There is a projected shortfall of some 380,000 care workers by 2025. Something needs to be done, and the use of robotic technology is promising.
Elderly people in Japan — or at least the ones that regularly crop up in news reports — seem to be embracing the new technologies. As 84-year-old Kazuko Yamada, who uses a Pepper robot to exercise, said in a Reuters report in March 2018: “These robots are wonderful. … More people live alone these days, and a robot can be a conversation partner for them. It will make life more fun.”
However, some in Japan are not convinced of the virtues of robotics in the care sector. In an interview in July, cultural critic Tamaki Saito, who writes on social issues affecting Japan, expressed his concerns about the use of robotics in nursing and social care.
“No matter how advanced AI or robot technology evolves, the future of nursing care can only be in the direction of a new humanism,” he wrote on the Blogos news site. “Of course, we can’t deny the usefulness of the robot in the field of nursing care. I agree that using a robot can alleviate the burden on helpers and assist nursing care. However … there is a danger that the spirit of the care recipient will be devastated.”
The main virtue of robotics seems to be its “usefulness,” since it will “alleviate” the burden faced by the care worker. When the Japanese government extols the virtues of robotics, a great emphasis is placed on the increase in productivity the use of robotics will make possible — how it will free up care workers’ time, allowing them to do other tasks.
But what the government may need to anticipate, and adequately address, is a possible unwillingness to embrace robots. As Hirohisa Hirukawa, director of robot innovation research at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, said, “On the side of those who receive care, of course initially there will be psychological resistance.”
I posted a question on the Facebook group “NHK Barrier Free,” which is affiliated with the disability magazine TV show “NHK Barrier Free Variety Show.” I initially posted one question: “Do you want a robot to be used to care for people with disabilities?” When anyone responded, I would reply by asking, “Would you want a robot instead of a human nurse?” The responses were interesting:
One commented that they “wonder if robots are good enough to take care of my family,” and when asked if they would prefer a robot to a human nurse, they replied, “If the price is cheaper than for a nurse, I would choose a robot,” which suggests that the choice to have a robot or a human caregiver might just come down to a matter of money.
Another said they wanted a combination of human and robot care. “I do not choose a robot or a human, but it is best to care for a person while borrowing the power of a robot,” they wrote, “to avoid physical injuries and injuries to caregivers.”
One person simply did not want a robot at all, replying quite unambiguously: “It’s fine if it’s a machine of self-help tools, but I do not like robots,” drawing the line at assist devices and suggesting a resistance to robots replacing the role played by caregivers.
I do not claim that the answers I received on the Facebook group are representative of all disabled people in Japan. However, I think it worth noting one thing about the way Japan’s embracing of robotics is reported in the media: News reports often sing the praises of robotics in the care sector, and nearly always feature an elderly person who embraces the new technology. Younger disabled people, on the other hand, who are more likely to use social media, are rarely featured in such articles or reports on television in Japan.
Technology is indispensable to disabled people and has been around for a long time, essentially since the cane and wheelchair. However, there is a difference between an assist device that does a task usually done by the disabled person and one that replaces the human helper with a machine, as the latter removes the human element.
What appears to be missing, or at the very least rarely found when the Japanese government advocates such proposals, are detailed surveys and studies, asking questions of the elderly and disabled people whose quality of life the new technologies will apparently improve. What seems to be is lacking is any semblance of public consultation — a process in which the Japanese government would ask questions like this: Do the elderly and people with disabilities actually want robots to look after them?
Michael Gillan Peckitt is an academic living in Kobe. His e-book “Gaijin Story: Tales of a British Disabled Man in Japan” is available on Amazon. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion on issues related to life in Japan. Your comments and story ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org