The Japanese Way: Using Robots to Solve Labor Shortage Problem
Mon, 07 May 2018 || By Anaq Duanaiko

As Japan’s economy picks up speed, companies are facing labor shortages which ‘traditionally’ will be filled in by foreign workers and those who weren’t in the workforce to provide the labor market. But in Japan, automated machines, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and robots, are preferable than humans since they are more loyal and could be ‘fixed.’ For the manufacturing industry, the shift from human labors to machines already happened several decades ago, but for the service industry, the use of AI and robots is only getting started. The new form of labor in the service industry then got adopted by companies to boost their profits without looking forward to the sustainability of the human welfare.

As expected, the growth of the Japanese economy in the past five years since the end of 2012 also creates a concern for companies regarding to the tightening of the labor market.[i] 70% of companies in Japan are facing labor shortages, according to a recent Finance Ministry survey conducted on 1,341 companies between late November and January.[ii] The study also found that 71% of companies said they experienced workforce shortages, a rise from 67% the previous year. For those that claimed deficiencies both times, 52.1% said the current situation is more severe than the previous year.[iii] This shortage has created an opportunity for women and old people to be involved in the economic sector since companies became forced to hire those who previously weren’t looking forward to be bothered on having a stable job.[iv] Therefore, Japan’s labor crunch is a serious problem in Japan which is caused by several issues, such as Japan’s shrinking population – which also creates economic disadvantages for the nation.

The decrease of population in a quarter of century in Japan has created the worst labor crunch in the country.[v] The hiring difficulties highlights Japan’s declining population and the strength of its economy after five years of economic stimulus under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.[vi] The population of foreign workers set a record of around 1.28 million in number in late October 2017 as Japan continues to rely on foreign trainees and students to make up for its labor shortage.[vii] Since that Japan is trying to involve women, older people, foreign trainees, and students, this means that Japan is putting those newcomers into their ‘common' work phase that could be considered as deadly.

Karōshi (過労死) which translates to “overwork death” happened to a Japanese woman. The case of Miwa Sado, a worker at the broadcaster’s headquarters in Tokyo reached 159 hours of working in a month and luckily got her two days off that caused her death in 2013 from heart failure.[viii] The news didn’t spread because it was kept hidden by the company for four years until one of the coworkers spoke up after several cases of Karōshi occurred in Japan. Karōshi has become one outcome of labor shortage, while this could also interfere Japan’s economic growth.[ix]

Death is one of the reason why Japan is facing their population colapse. This has threatened their economic performance, but they tackled it in a very futuristic way by using robots.[x] Ryo Shimojyo, a student from Nagasaki University, stated: “Japan considers to adopt robots into companies like convenience stores because it helps them to fill in the labor shortage and population decline.”[xi] The brief statement that Shimojyo explained could potray clearly about how japan is trying to include those automated machines to solve their curremt economy problems. Automated cashiers are starting to add up in stores which also remove human cashiers, providing ‘self-service’ and making consumers more ‘independent’ when paying their purchases. One example is the Android-based robot called Junco Chihara, located in Aqua City Odaiba, Tokyo, which acts as an information center and could speak three languages (Japanese, English, and Chinese). This blinking robot gives information about the stores, restaurants, and events happening in the area just like how a ‘conventional’ information desk would function.

Robots will work non-stop without having the thoughts of killing themselves or even having the risk of Karōshi, which grabs the attention of several companies to exchange human into robots. Usually, hiring robots means buying them from huge electronic companies, which might increase the number of unemployment but make companies richer. In Japan’s current situation with their population decline, it won’t be a big matter since it helps Japan’s economic growth and companies, in fact, need workers. However, managing job distributions between robots and humans should be put into place by stronger policy frameworks. There should be a clear line between what can and cannot be replaced by robots to still preserve the people’s productivity in the country. The service sector, as previously explained, has also begun to use robots to replace humans. As the service sector cannot always be automated, consideration should be put onto the details on which service sectors really require robotic interventions.

Reflecting at the previous examples and elaborations on robots use in the country, the government of Japan will surely reap a lot of economic gains from using robots in their economy. This is largely highlighted by the fact that their population growth declines, and to some extent, humans have limits and robots don’t. However, stricter policy should always be taking place to make sure that humans still can get fairer portion of works, and that robots will not leave humans unemployed. Ethical questions still also linger, especially since the importance of emotional involvements in a lot of fields cannot be set aside. So, how will Japan be in the future, where robots swarm the street doing works that were previously for humans? Or, before going there, is it really possible to holistically have robots-powered labor force that has no emotional capacity doing the conventional jobs requiring the exact thing these robot don’t have?

Editors: Diah Ratna Pratiwi, M.Dev & Viyasa Rahyaputra, S.IP

Picture: unsplash


[i] Morikawa, Masayuki. (2018). Hidden inflation: Japan’s labor shortage and the erosion of the quality of services. [online] VOX. Available at: <> [Accessed 7 April 2018]

[ii] Japan Times. (2018). 70% of firms pinched by labor shortages, Finance Ministry survey says. [online] Japan Times. Available at: <> [Accessed 7 April 2018]

[iii] Ibid


[iv] Macfarlane, Alec. (2018). Japan needs more workers and it can't find them. [online] CNN. Available at: <> [Accessed 7 April 2018]

[v] Chandran, Nyshka. (2018). Foreigners could ease Japan's labor shortage, but Tokyo prefers robots. [online] CNBC. Available at: <         japans-labor-shortage-but-tokyo-prefers-robots.html> [Accessed 7 April 2018]

[vi] Harding, Robin. (2017). Corporate Japan hit by severe labor shortages. [online] Financial Times. Available at: <> [Accessed 7 April 2018]

[vii] Japan Times. (2018). Japan sees foreign workers climb to record 1.28 million as labor crunch continues. [online] Japan Times. Available at: <> [Accessed 7 April 2018]

[viii] McCurry, Justin. (2017). Japanese woman ‘dies from overwork’ after logging 159 hours of overtime in a month. [online] The Guardian. Available at: <> [Accessed 7 April 2018]

[ix] Shaffer, L. (2017). Japan’s move to end ‘death by overwork’ will drag economic growth: Deutsche Bank. [online] CNBC. Available at: [Accessed 7 Apr. 2018].

[x] CBS News. (2017). Japan battles population decline with robots. [online] CBS News. Available at: <> [Accessed 9 April 2018]

[xi] Shimojyo, Ryo. (2018, April 9). Personal Interview.