Robots are by and large given an easy ride in Japan. Most people like them, an esteemed Tokyo University robotics professor once told me, and the rest don’t actively dislike them.

And as Japan’s population greys and shrinks, that robophilia has come in handy. Increasingly, industry, academia and the government pitch advances in robotics as a panacea for the challenges that come with being the world’s fastest-ageing society.

Japan has a population that has contracted every year since 2010 and pre-pandemic projections suggest that, without significant immigration, its workforce will be 20 per cent smaller in 2040 than it was in 2017. Machines are not stealing Japanese jobs and destroying livelihoods, runs the argument, if there are ever fewer humans in this labour market.

This line played well enough until Covid-19 — a calamity that has battered the economy and begun to rekindle employment anxiety. Before the crisis, there were 1.49 jobs per applicant, which meant robots might be needed to fill the gap; in December, that fell to a rather less comfortable 1.06 jobs. This has not silenced the robot-makers’ cherished appeal to demographics but it has to some extent lowered the volume.

It has also cast a powerful spotlight on a paper published by the US-based National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) last month on the labour-market impact of robots in Japan’s nursing homes. The study is groundbreaking in several ways but perhaps most clearly for setting its sights not on manufacturing but on the services sector, where robots are only just beginning to make their mark.

The distinction, say the authors, is vital given the diversity of roles they could play there and how rapidly they may be adopted where labour markets are tight.

The choice of Japanese nursing homes (the paper is based on a survey of about 860 such facilities) is key. To a striking degree, they have been early and government-backed hotbeds of experimentation with new types of robot, from health monitors to machines that help to lift people on to their beds.

Many of these are likely to become standard around the world. As more countries face ageing populations, Japan’s case will help shed light on how demographics interact with new automation technologies, says the paper.

But the most arresting conclusion offers an offset to the more dystopian predictions of robot job theft: robot adoption, the NBER survey found, actually increases the number of (non‑regular) care workers and nurses, promotes more flexible work and reduces the likelihood of nursing homes reporting difficulty in staff retention. The main drawback, it notes, is that robot adoption tends to reduce the monthly wages of regular nurses.

This will, of course, play well in Japan. Even without this research, the sentiment that robots are fascinating, benign and even cute (as opposed to job-thieving, sinister and soulless) feels well embedded. Under pandemic conditions, for example, some shops have repurposed their in-store greeter-bots to bleat nagging reminders about social distance: the robots expect human obedience, and receive it.

But the national robophilia goes deeper than storefronts. When robots work brilliantly, as great armies of no-nonsense automatons already do in manufacturing and logistics, Japan welcomes them as guarantors of efficiency and productivity. When they are given humanoid features and barely manage to fold a shirt, flip a pancake or play ping-pong, they are forgiven — their whirring endeavours praised as delicious amuse-bouches for the techno-banquet of our future.

Sitting behind this benevolence is the conclusion that Japan has arguably reached sooner and more clearheadedly than elsewhere: that the present and future narrative of robots is, fundamentally, more about demographics than technology. When the Japanese company Alsok recently updated the Reborg-Z security patrol robot, it quite naturally cited labour-force shrinkage as a justification for the machine’s existence. Japan’s National Agriculture and Food Research Organization did the same with a robot that picks fruit.

The great value of the NBER paper is that — however limited its scope and however much it is supported by future research — the foundation is now laid for an empirical debate on a subject that will be deluged with human emotion as robots continue their march into the services sector.

Leo Lewis is the FT’s Tokyo correspondent

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