Asia > Eastern Asia > Japan > Why Japanese workers aren’t as concerned about robots stealing their jobs

Japan: Why Japanese workers aren’t as concerned about robots stealing their jobs

2017/08/21

A culture that celebrates robots and a tradition of "lifetime employment" — retaining and retraining workers — created a muted debate.

Thousands upon thousands of cans are filled with beer, capped and washed, wrapped into six-packs and boxed at dizzying speeds — 1,500 a minute, to be exact — on humming conveyor belts that zip and wind in a sprawling factory near Tokyo.

Nary a soul is in sight in this picture-perfect image of Japanese automation.

The machines do all the heavy lifting at this plant run by Asahi Breweries, Japan’s top brewer. The human job is to make sure the machines do the work right, and to check on the quality the sensors are monitoring.

“Basically, nothing goes wrong. The lines are up and running 96 %,” said Shinichi Uno, a manager at the plant. “Although machines make things, human beings oversee the machines.”

The debate over machines snatching jobs from people is muted in Japan, where birth rates have been sinking for decades, raising fears of a labour shortage. It would be hard to find a culture that celebrates robots additional, evident in the popularity of companion robots for consumers, sold by the internet company SoftBank and Toyota Motor Corp, part others.

Japan, which forged a large push toward robotics starting in the 1990s, leads the world in robots per 10,000 workers in the automobile sector — 1,562, compared with 1,091 in the U.S. and 1,133 in Germany, according to a White Home statement submitted to Congress last year. Japan was as well ahead in sectors outside automobiles at 219 robots per 10,000 workers, compared with 76 for the U.S. and 147 for Germany.

One factor in Japan’s different take on automation is the “lifetime employment” system. Major Japanese companies generally retain workers, even if their abilities become outdated, and retrain them for other tasks, said Koichi Iwamoto, a senior fellow at the Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry.

That system is starting to fray as Japan globalizes, but it’s still largely in use, Iwamoto said.

Although data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Improvment(OECD) show digitalization reduces request for mid-level routine tasks — such as running assembly lines — while boosting request for low- and high-skilled jobs, that trend has been less pronounced in Japan than in the U.S.

The OECD data, which studied shifts from 2002 to 2014, showed employment trends remained almost unchanged for Japan.

That means companies in Japan weren’t resorting as aggressively as those in the U.S. to robots to replace humans. Clerical workers, for instance, were keeping their jobs, although their jobs could be done better, in theory, by computers.

That kind of resistance to adopting digital technology for services as well is reflected in how Japanese society has so far opted to keep taxis instead of shifting to online ride hailing and shuttle services.

Still, automation has progressed in Japan to the extent the country has presently entered what Iwamoto called a “reflective stage,” in which “human harmony with machines” is being pursued, he said.

“Some tasks may be better performed by people, next all,” Iwamoto said.

Kiyoshi Sakai, who has worked at Asahi for 29 years, recalls how, in the completed, can caps had to be placed into machines by hand, a repetitive task that was hard not just on the body, but as well the mind.

And so he is grateful for automation’s helping hand. Machines at the plant have become additional than 50 % smaller over the years. They are faster and additional precise than three decades ago.

Gone are the days things used to go wrong all the time and human intervention was needed to get machines running properly again. Each 10 to 15 minutes, people used to have to go check on the products; there were no sensors back again.

Glitches are so few these days there is barely any reason to work up a sweat, he added with a smile.

Like a lot of workers in Japan, Sakai doesn’t seem worried about his job disappearing. As the need for plant workers nosedived with the advance of automation, he was promoted to the general affairs section, a common administrative department at Japanese companies.

“I remember the work being so hard. But at the same time as I think back, and it was all about delivering great beer to everyone, it makes me so proud,” said Sakai, who drinks beer each day.

“I have no regrets. This is a stable job.”

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