Reading a term paper by one of my Växjö students, I learned something surprising.

Being a well-read and erudite sort, Dear Reader, you may not be surprised. You already know that Japanese women have been having very few babies each since the 1950s, and that thus there’s a growing shortage of strong young people to work in the care for the elderly. It has gone so far, and the prognosis is so dire, that the Japanese electronics industry is busy developing robots to care for old folks.

What I learned is that the problem is really one of xenophobia. All of Japan’s neighbouring countries across the sea have a completely different demography and offer an endless supply of nursing staff. But it’s politically impossible to lower the bar for entry onto the Japanese labour market. Foreign nursing certificates aren’t recognised. The Japanese voter prefers to have simple automatons caring for grandma when the alternative is a darker-complexioned Philippine person who doesn’t speak Japanese.

Seen from the larger ecological perspective, Japan is simply an isolated human population that is not reproducing well and so will soon be unable to fill its niche. I’m pretty sure neighbouring populations will redress this imbalance within a few decades.

Comments

  1. #1 Janne
    January 31, 2013

    It is largely a language problem. There are foreign nurses in Japan, but the language requirements are stringent. You can’t really work as a nurse unless you can do so effectively using the language everyone else around you is speaking.

    There’s an ongoing debate about this; specifically, the nursing test that everybody — foreign or domestic nurse alike — has to take is written in a formal, old-fashioned research-medical style, and contains terminology and phrasing that is seldom used in practice today. So there’s suggestions that the test be modernized, and that difficult characters be annotated for foreign test takers. This would alleviate it to a small extent at least.

    As for your final paragraph, it is complete nonsense. You’re looking at a population trend of a few years and extrapolating into absurdum. Do the same twenty years back and you’d conclude that the entire mass of Earth would consist of nothing but Japanese at some point in the future.

    Besides, Japan is in good company, with countries such as Korea, italy and Germany all just as liable to disappear if current trends would actually continue indefinitely…

  2. #2 Martin R
    January 31, 2013

    Nursing robots would be even less able to pass those tests.

    Are South Korea, Italy and Germany making it equally hard for foreign care workers to enter the job market?

  3. #3 Janne
    January 31, 2013

    South Korea is certainly considered more xenophobic than Japan, and they have about the same ratio of foreigners living in either country. Japan is very homogenous, but there’s a sizeable number of foreginers working and living here. One marriage in ten in Tokyo is with a foreign resident.

    And you do understand, I hope, that every country with robotics research sees health care and nursing as a primary target (that includes robotics research in Sweden). It’s nothing unique to Japan. The only ones who seem to think so is the usual “oh look how weird Japan is” crowd. The same people that believe “lap pillows” and marrying game characters are actual things here, not the same gag gifts and art stunts you find anywhere.

  4. #4 Martin R
    January 31, 2013

    How can nursing robots be socially acceptable unless you really dislike the available humans?

  5. #5 Birger Johansson
    January 31, 2013

    (Shrill, mechanical voice) “I dee-tect a foreign national! EXTERMINATE!!!!” ZZZAP!

  6. #6 Frode Steensen
    Danmark
    January 31, 2013

    Judging from the many Anime cartoons & movie, you’d really get the idea that Japanese see themselves as looking more (Northern) European than they do, or wished that they did. So why don’t they import a mixed bunch of Russians or so to take care of the elderly. Intermarriage will then soon also make them look more like their anime characters.

  7. #7 Martin R
    January 31, 2013

    Yeah, selective breeding for phenotype, what could possibly go wrong!? :-D

  8. #8 Janne
    January 31, 2013

    Didn’t expect a archaelogy blog to turn racist. Time to drop this.

  9. #9 Lyle
    February 1, 2013

    Looking ahead which countries do you see having surplus Labor, South Koreas total fertitlity rate is actually lower than Japans, China as a low tfr also, as does Russia, So you must mean southeast asia and the Indian Peninsula. Here is a chart of TFR for asian regions: http://www.keepeek.com/Digital-Asset-Management/oecd/social-issues-migration-health/international-migration-outlook-2012/total-fertility-rate-by-asian-region-1970-2010_migr_outlook-2012-graph71-en. The chart shows that south asia is the only region with much population growth, southeast asia being about at replacement, and east asia being significantly under replacement. So it might be forward looking for folks in their 40s and 50s to build machines that can care for them in 20-30 years when you would have to go to Pakistan to find the workers.

  10. #10 Tariray
    somewhere...
    February 1, 2013

    As as asian, we are accustomed to Japan’s attitudes towards their neighbours. It’s weird, not exactly troubling, you kind of accept that Japan is somewhat racist to everyone other than themselves. Its not this evil aspect of their culture, its just that they’re insular and averse to cultural change. And even then, its to do with very deep cultural issues that have nothing to do with racism at all.

    I dont know how to explain it without somehow coming off as inflammatory. Its not like some horrible thing, its not nice but most neighbouring countries more or less accept this of Japan as one of their… aspects.
    They may change tack in the next few years, or not, its entirely up to Japan.

    It’s just… the way they are.

    And its been mentioned that other countries like Korea have similar issues. Germany wont have this issue because Germany counters their aging population with immigration reform. (Italy, well… I lived there for two years, it was… difficult).

    As to what this has to do with archaelogoy, who knows? But its informative.

    Some good articles on this:
    http://www.csa.com/discoveryguides/robots/review.pdf

    and a great video – super interesting and awesome (ROBOTS!)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cxPGnWiLFfo
    -

  11. #11 riyad
    UK
    February 7, 2013

    It’s really true that Japanese Robot Development Driven By Xenophobia. and it will have to be solved by themesalves.

  12. #12 Kaleberg
    February 17, 2013

    Care of the elderly is labor intensive. A big goal is to provide robots and other automatic systems so that people can live independently in their own homes, even as their own bodies are failing. The Japanese were the first to get robots seriously used in manufacturing. Why not elder care?

    P.S. There was an amusing article about the persistence of the fax machine in Japan. It’s a cultural thing. It can’t be the writing system. Everyone in China texts or sends email. Japan will often seem schizophrenic. They may be moving into the future with robotic health care aides, even as they are preserving the small shopkeeper in the face of big box retailing.