Mr. Inagaki cuts up fish while his wife prepares a stew

Welcome to the future

Welcome to the future

Japan has the world’s highest life expectancy—and the world’s lowest birth rate. With the population in decline, fewer and fewer young people are having to support more and more senior citizens. Japan thus offers a foretaste of the future of many developed countries

A regular customer pulls open the sliding door and makes a slight bow as he enters the restaurant. The door rattles a little, and the wood at its edge has turned dark. Still, everything else here is sparkling clean. “Welcome, welcome,” Harumi Inagaki calls from inside. She points to a seat at the counter, brings over a hot towel for her customer to freshen up with, and sets down a little snack of cooked beans and boiled mushrooms without being asked to do so. She knows exactly what Mr. Kimura likes, because he’s been a regular in her restaurant in Chiba, a city located near Tokyo, for 43 years now. Harumi Inagaki is 75.

Her husband, who is also over 70, heaves a cast-iron pot with oil onto a gas range behind the counter, as he gets ready to cook up some fried vegetable tempura. He’s also grilling some eel and mackerel and chicken skewers. While everything is cooking, he quickly cuts up raw tuna to make sashimi. He does all of this more or less simultaneously, without losing track of anything.

Kimura actually worked in Inagaki’s restaurant when he was a student 40 years ago. After completing his studies, he remained loyal to the establishment. He frequently drops in for a chat and sometimes holds family celebrations here. The three—the Inagakis, the restaurant, and Kimura—have truly grown old together.

Their working day starts in the early morning and ends just before midnight, but they say they can handle it

“I’ll probably go right here from my counter straight to a nursing home”

Harumi Inagaki

At 75, she still runs a restaurant with her husband—continuing to work in old age is increasingly the norm in Japan

As far as Harumi Inagaki is concerned, they can continue to grow old together for some time to come. “I want to keep running this restaurant until I am physically no longer able to do so,” she says. She can’t imagine living an idle life as a retiree. “I’ll probably go right here from my counter straight to a nursing home,” she explains. Her working day starts early in the morning and ends just before midnight, but she says, “I can handle that without any problem!”

They run a typical Japanese “izakaya” (bar/restaurant)

Like Inagaki, more and more Japanese now continue to work far beyond the traditional retirement age of 60. This is one of the consequences of the aging of Japanese society, which is proceeding at a faster pace than in Europe, for example. This trend of working after the retirement age has long since become visible in Japan, where grayhaired, stooped seniors pack groceries in supermarkets and elderly taxi drivers struggle to lift heavy luggage into their trunks in Tokyo. Surveys show that nearly half of all companies no longer place limits on the age of their employees, and that this percentage is increasing. The trend has also reached the top management level. For example, the editor-in-chief of the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, which has the highest circulation in the world, turned 91 in May. Shinsei Bank has an 88-yearold CEO, and he makes the bank’s
resident look like a spring chicken at 69.

Issued back in 1978: “Licensed to prepare highly toxic dishes. Mr. Inagaki may serve customers puffer fish”

Whereas academics and managers enjoy working longer into old age, an additional job has become a bitter necessity for other seniors whose pensions simply aren’t enough to live on. Many old people can be seen standing completely exhausted at underground garage exits, for example, where they direct traffic using light sticks.

“I will run this restaurant for as long as my body allows it”

Harumi Inagaki

Her regulars have grown old with her

Senior citizens already account for 16 percent of all prison inmates in Japan.

Senior-friendly jails

Even in orderly Japan, more and more senior citizens now steal from supermarkets, because they don’t have enough money. Seniors now account for 16 percent of all prison inmates in Japan—the highest percentage in the world. A new pilot project is now under way at the Onomichi jail near Hiroshima in southern Japan. Here, an entire floor has been converted into a nursing care wing for elderly prisoners.

Storage rooms in the Onomichi jail are packed with adult diapers, according to the Japan Times. In the wing’s dining room, caregivers affectionately slap elderly inmates on the back when something goes down the
wrong pipe. Seniors live separately from younger criminals, because the prison authorities think it would be too much for them to have to deal with the tough young inmates. The Japanese government will spend around €100 million this year to make prisons more senior-friendly. Old prisoners also cost the state double what younger prisoners cost.


percent – that will be the decrease

of the working-age population in Japan between now and the middle of the century

Some of the older inmates even like it in prison a little bit. Indeed, as the Japan Times reports, there’s little difference between a jail and a public nursing home. “The economy isn’t doing very well—how am I supposed
to find a job and survive?” a 70-year-old inmate was quoted as saying. The inmate added that he was already dreading the day of his release in three and a half years.

Crime is the last chance for a small minority only. In the meantime, the middle class has now joined the upper and lower classes by continuing to work longer as well. Some from the middle class want to supplement an already a solid pension, while others want to contribute to their grandchildren’s college fund. However, many also simply want to remain useful and lead an active life. Japan has the highest life expectancy in the world. The average life expectancy of Japanese women will soon be 90, and Japanese senior citizens stay healthy much longer than their American and European counterparts. They want to belong and not be written off. Inagaki and her husband take wonderful trips to England and Egypt, for example, when they’re not working in their restaurant. More than 20 percent of Japanese people over 65 have a job, and this percentage is increasing every year. A total of 75 percent of the current working population expect to keep working even after they reach retirement age. This makes sense. After all, if Japanese people spend their first 25 years living life as a child and then going to college or learning a trade, and if they will soon live to be 100, they will have worked for only around 35 years — and then they’re supposed to spend the rest of their lives living off of


thousand new

caregivers will be needed between now and 2025. Because there are no plans to admit immigrants, Japan will try to replace human workers with robots

The government is very pleased by the desire of seniors to keep working, especially as the number of working-age Japanese will decline by 40 percent between now and the middle of the century. There will be a shortage of 380,000 caregivers alone by 2025. Japan has always had a reputation for friendly and attentive service, but the quality of service in the country is deteriorating due to a lack of workers. One solution here would be to allow immigration from less prosperous Asian countries. The topic of immigration is taboo in Japan, however, and any politician who supports it will not get elected. The government nevertheless allows some immigrants to enter Japan via the “back door”—for example through internship programs. Politicians cannot talk about such things, however—especially not conservative politicians such as Premier Shinzo Abe, who has therefore told his fellow Japanese that “everyone has to tackle the problem now.”

Abe is also focusing on another source of labor besides seniors: robots. In fact, Abe has had legal experts review existing legislation in order to find restrictions on the use of robots, some of which he has since eliminated. For example, it’s now easier for physicians to test surgeon robots on patients, and the scope of a company’s liability for errors made by its robots has been reduced. The government has also increased its funding of robot research at companies and universities.

Group sessions: The robot takes on the role of caregiver and encourages seniors to perform gymnastics

Hotel reception robots

The trend toward the use of mechanical helpers is already clearly visible in Japanese society today. Stores and restaurants in the Ginza shopping district in Tokyo are now using Pepper—an information robot that understands spoken words, has a monitor installed in its chest, and makes gestures when it speaks. Restaurant patrons can order using the screen; the robot delivers the orders when they’re ready. Guests at the “Strange Hotel,” which is not far from Inagaki’s restaurant in Chiba, never even see a human staff member: They deal solely with robots from check-in to check-out.

“Now we’re going to sing a song together. We’ll start on three. One, two...”

Pepper the robot

talks to residents at the Silver Wing retirement home and keeps them entertained with games

Those who wish to experience the latest stage of cooperation between machines and humans can go a few hundred meters to the east, to the Shintomi district, where the Silver Wing senior citizens home is located. The facility is taking part in a pilot project sponsored by the city of Tokyo: “Eliminating the caregiver shortage through the use of technology.”

In the day room on the eighth floor, Junko Fukumura is playing with Paro, an electronic seal with soft fur and long eyelashes. Fukumura is only three years older than the spry restaurant operator Inagaki, but she’s not doing nearly as well as Inagaki either physically or mentally. She is often restless and sometimes confused. “Paro is so cute, and that helps me spend a few hours feeling very happy,” Fukumura says. The seal stretches underneath her hand, turns its head to her, and starts making baby noises and fluttering its eyelashes. Fukumura smiles back at it. Two other residents at a neighboring table play with Aibo, a robot dog built by Sony.

The pleasure the residents take in interacting with the machines is genuine. “They spend a lot of time with the robots and their interaction re-energizes them,” says Koya Ishikawa, who established the facility. Ishikawa, an enterprising lawyer and entrepreneur, recognized at the beginning of the 21st century that care for senior citizens was going to become a huge growth market at some point. Since then he has established several homes for care and rehabilitation, and he now plans to play a leading role in the technological transformation of the industry. The beds in Ishikawa’s facilities are already equipped with sensors that register the govements ofseniors when they sleep. A computer issues a warning to staff members if a person is in danger of falling out of bed. Caregivers can also see on the computer how much deep sleep each of the elderly residents is getting. “Just one look at the monitor can explain why someone’s extremely tired and often nods off during the day,” says Ishikawa. Playing with Paro then helps seniors relax a little in the evening.

Silver Wing uses many other robots as well. Staff members also wear exoskeletons to prevent hip damage when lifting patients, which is the biggest occupational hazard for caregivers. The omnipresent Pepper sings songs to the seniors in the day room on the eighth floor and instructs them to raise and stretch their arms in time with the music. Those who haven’t nodded off in their chairs happily join in with Pepper. On the floor below the common room, a robot is helping a stroke patient practice walking. The flat screen that serves as the robot’s head shows the patient how she should set down her foot—the machine is a mechanical physiotherapist.


will soon

be the average life expectancy for Japanese women. Japanese senior citizens stay healthy longer than their American and European counterparts

This is the vision of the future shared by bureaucrats, technologists, and industry. Inagaki is horrified by all of this. “I know even without a computer whether or not I’ve slept well,” she says as she wipes down a table with disinfectant. Her last customers have left the restaurant and her husband is cleaning his worktops in the kitchen area with lots of water. “It would be very nice if a robot could help clean up here,” she admits—but to allow a machine to touch her body in a senior citizens home? She doesn’t trust machines enough for that: “I would let a robot take me to the bathroom if nobody else would, but it would not be an ideal situation.”

Inagaki took care of her own elderly mother for ten years. During that time, she had to hire someone to help out in the restaurant. “That was hard, but it was a point of honor for me to take care of my mother,” she explains.

“The machines have to be absolutely safe”

Toshiharu Mukai

Robot expert at Meijo University in the central Japanese city of Nagoya

Japanese children interact with robots every day

Cute little machine people from the comics

Inagaki will also end up needing help from her family and human caregivers someday. Despite the futuristic approach employed in Silver Wing, the associated technology is still in its initial phase. “It will take at least a decade for us to get to the market-ready stage, and maybe even a lot longer than that,” says Toshiharu Mukai, a robot expert at Meijo University in Nagoya.

Mukai is a pioneer in the field of robot caregivers. He has also put together a set of principles for their use. A friendly appearance is one of these principles, as it helps ensure that even people who are unfamiliar with robots will accept them. Much more importantly, however, the “machines must be absolutely safe.” The prototype for this is Robear, a robot 1.5 meters tall with a face that looks like a bear from a comic. Robear is to be found in Mukai’s lab, where he greets all guests with a polite bow. The robot bear can carefully lift patients out of their beds or help them stand up. Mukai is currently developing new sensors and motors to make Robear’s grip gentler and softer in order to ensure it cannot injure seniors. Mukai is convinced that products like Robear will be indispensable in the future. “Who else is going to take care of our large elderly population?” he asks.


is the traditional retirement age

in Japan. However, more than 20 percent of people over 65 now continue to work

Robots are generally well accepted as caregiver assistants in Japan—even Inagaki loses some of her skepticism at some point and repeats a sentence that’s often heard: “Ultimately, people will get used to it and then it will probably be completely normal.” Most Japanese get excited about new technologies—and for decades now, the cute little machine people from the comics have gotten everyone used to the idea of coexisting with androids. Inagaki, on the other hand, would prefer to see more immigration in response to the rapidly aging society. As a restaurateur, she believes that ordering on a screen in a restaurant cheapens the experience. Besides, Inagaki says that she finds immigrant workers—from the Philippines, for example—to be friendly, hardworking, and helpful. “We should let a lot more of those people in; that would be smarter than simply trusting technology alone,” she says. Inagaki acknowledges that this would presumably change Japanese culture, with its countless little rules, its proper bowing, and its frequent apologies. “But at some point we need to make compromises if we keep on having fewer and fewer children,” she explains.

Finn Mayer-Kuckuk

has livedin East Asia for 11 years. He is the author of Tokio Total and writes for several well-known publications, including Handelsblatt, Frankfurter Rundschau, and Stuttgarter Zeitung