01 January 1970

Ageing Japan Would Rather Depend On Robots Than Immigrants

Ageing Japan Would Rather Depend On Robots Than Immigrants

In ageing societies like Japan, where maintaining racial purity is sacrosanct, people are looking to robots to fill the gap.

World Population
World Population Photo: AP/Rafiq Maqbool

Asha Saran is a 30-year old British Indian from Birmingham looking to cash in on the shortage of nurses in UK's National Health System. Apart from doctors, there are plenty of nurses from the sub-continent already manning the British health system. Yet there is a severe shortage and this is going to grow. She is hoping to bring in nurses from India to fill the shortage of nursing staff in the UK. She has not yet succeeded in getting into the tightly controlled business of getting immigrants to fill the huge gaps with young women from India.

India’s nurses, except the lucky few working in government hospitals are overworked, badly trained and paid a pittance. This is why every young nurse is looking to go abroad as soon as they see an opportunity. Whether Asha can finally break the tight-knit circle that operates from both the UK and India and enter the field is not known.

Nurses, plumbers, maids and workers to look after the elderly are in great demand, not just in the UK but in most of the rich industrialized nations of the world. An acute manpower shortage brought on by an ageing population and a dwindling birth rate is becoming a major problem in the developed world.

This has come as a boon to countries like India where 600 million people are between the ages of 18-35, and there are not enough jobs to go around. It is but natural for young Indians, to look abroad for employment. During the oil boom and even today, many people head to the Gulf nations. There are around eight million Indians working out of the region and sending back precious dollars to families back home. But as India’s population overtakes China, the demand for jobs will go up even more and the Gulf nations are in no position to take in more people, especially the unskilled workers, from the subcontinent.

The flip side is while India has become the most populous country in the world, a large number of the rich and industrialised nations of Europe, America and Asia are going in the opposite direction. Better living conditions have led to much longer life expectancy while birth rates are declining.

Take the example of Japan, a country totally devastated and destroyed at the end of World War II. It was the only country in the world to have faced the two nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Japanese lived through that terrible period and assiduously got to work to rebuilt the country. In fact, Japan became the shining example of how systematic hard work could reshape a nation's economy and lead to growth. Japan became the number two economy in the world, second only to the US. It has now of course been overtaken by China and is today at number three in world rankings of economies.

Yet, Japan is now a country with the highest number of old people in the world (after Monaco, a tiny European nation), the longest life expectancy and lowest birth rates. Almost a third of Japan’s population are over 65. Japanese government projections say that there will be one elderly person for each person of working age by 2060. It is expected to plummet from its current 125 million to just around 88 million in 2064. This has placed Japan at the leading age of sweeping demographic changes posing a major challenge to the economy and social issues triggered by rising pension and healthcare costs for the country with shrinking of the tax base. Productivity is also affected with shortage of workers.

According to official reports in 2021, the number of births went down to 811,604, the lowest since records began to be kept in 1899. But the number of centenarians were as high as 90,500. The Japanese government has in the last few decades encouraged couples to have more children, by providing subsidies for pregnancy, childbirth and childcare. That has however not succeeded in encouraging couples to have more children, as more and more women are concentrating on careers and are not inclined to have more than one child. Many are opting out of marriage.

Much of this has to do with the traditional role of women in a patriarchal Japanese society. When a young couple have children, the woman often has to leave her job to look after the child while the husband continues to work late hours. Men generally refuse to help at home, as the traditional mindset of men who believe it is the women’s job to look after the family has not changed. Yet there is also something to be said about the work culture in Japan.

Robin LeBlanc, associate professor at Washington and Lee University, used the Japanese term "Ovaji" to describe the Japanese man as the "soul of the nation" who works hard and is the bread winner of the family. She notes that the Japanese male is often stressed out because Japanese work culture demands extremely long hours at work, and hundred percent commitment to the company. There is no concept of work-life divide. The man has no time to devote to the family.

Quoting figures from 2005, LeBlanc said at a talk discussing Japan’s declining population at the Wilson Centre that 35 percent of men between the ages of 35-39 were unmarried. And among those who earned around $40,000 a year, nearly 75 percent were single. The suicide rate for men in Japan is also much higher than for women. Many men choose to stay single, considering the expectations from them in employment and at home from wives who resent the fact that her spouse does not lend her a hand at home. Day care and child care are both expensive. It is but natural for women too not to opt for marriage.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has pledged to establish a new government department to nurture children and family. “Focusing attention on policies regarding children and child-rearing is an issue that cannot wait and cannot be postponed.” Governments earlier too had given monetary incentives to couples for having more children. Somehow nothing works out.

Maintaining Racial Purity

One way to solve the problem of manpower shortage is to encourage immigration. But Japanese society does not welcome immigrants, placing a premium on maintaining racial purity. In fact, "outsiders" are welcome only as tourists, not to make permanent homes in Japan and marrying locals. Right-wing parties in Europe and America, look to Japan as a shining example of racial purity and social harmony.

So, what can Japan do to salvage the diminishing childbirths as allowing immigrants is out of question? The Japanese government has spent billions of dollars to encourage research in robotics. Robots will do much of the household chores and leave the housewife with free time, perhaps to have more children. The aim is to develop intelligent robots capable of doing much more. People in Japan would much prefer robots to immigrants from neighbouring Asian countries. Whether robots are the answer to Japan remains to be seen.

But Japan is not the only country that dislikes immigrants. There is growing sentiment against immigrants across Europe and America. The rise of the right-wing political parties in all these countries is in part thanks to the aversion for immigrants. Refugees from Syria and North Africa have led to many countries closing the door to immigrants. That many of those from North Africa are also Muslims have led to widespread Islamophobia across Europe. Though Britain today is a multicultural society, the fear of being inundated remains strong. One reason for Brexit was to stop the flow of refugees from Eastern Europe.

In America, US President Donald Trump best exemplified the anti-immigrant sentiment. His rhetoric full of bile for Mexican workers dubbing them as murderers and rapists was a reflection of how his base felt about Mexicans and immigrants from Central and South American countries. The fear that the white population will be reduced to a minority by African Americans and immigrants is very strong among many Americans. Donald Trump stoked these feelings and helped to extend his support base. All right-wing political movements are against foreign workers whether in Europe or America.

But when declining birth rates lead to large-scale reliance on foreign workers from developing nations, what happens to social harmony? Nobody is sure. Will an ageing population hang on to their prejudices or be forced to let foreigners take care of them? Nobody can tell whether circumstances will force them to open their hearts and minds or whether robots will replace foreign workers. Only time will tell.