Robots might solve Japan's labor problems

  • Fewer Japanese workers want to enter the country's food service industry because of the long hours, repetitive tasks and insufficient holidays, according to an entrepreneur.
  • Tetsuya Sawanobori is president at Connected Robotics, a start-up that plans to sell a robot in that can help restaurants prepare a popular Japanese street food called Takoyaki.
  • Connected Robotics is one of many companies in Japan using technology to address the country's labor shortages due to a shrinking population.
Pepper, a humanoid robot developed by SoftBank Group Corp., moves around on its own to guide passengers at sushi shop in Tokyo, Japan.
Hitoshi Yamada | NurPhoto | Getty Images
Pepper, a humanoid robot developed by SoftBank Group Corp., moves around on its own to guide passengers at sushi shop in Tokyo, Japan.

When Tetsuya Sawanobori finished grad school about a decade ago, he decided to start his own business. He set up a restaurant in Japan, following in the footsteps of his grandparents and uncle.

A year later, he stopped.

"I realized it's very hard," Sawanobori told CNBC. With few holidays, and working on average 16 hours a day, he said he was "exhausted, and that's why I gave it up."

"Right now, especially in the food service industry, they have a serious lack of labor because people tend to avoid these kinds of jobs, doing daily, repetitive" tasks, he said. "It's very hard and overwhelming for people ... they usually work very long, like 12 hours, or some people work 15 hours a day."

He explained that the situation is becoming more severe as Japan's population continues to shrink, putting more pressure on active workers.

Long office hours, often seen as a measure of hard work, have become a cultural norm in post-war Japan, where decades of economic growth led to the country's emergence as the world's third-largest economy. Starting in the 1990s, that growth slowed — but the long hours remained. The problem of "overwork" is serious enough that Japan's business community and the government are working to address the issue.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called for the government to examine plans to hire more skilled foreigners; meanwhile, many industries are turning to robots as a way around the labor shortfall.

Rise of the robots 

After ending his venture in the restaurant business, Sawanobori moved into robotics.

He's now president at Connected Robotics, a start-up that is backed by the Japanese arm of early-stage venture firm 500 Startups.

The company plans to sell a robot this summer that, according to Sawanobori, can help restaurants prepare a popular street food called Takoyaki — batter balls filled with minced octopus. He explained that the robot can put the ingredients together on the hot grill pan and tend to balls as they're being cooked.

While the robot doesn't make the cooking process faster, Sawanobori said that it makes it less tiring for the kitchen staff, since they do not have to constantly stand in front of the hot grill. He has plans to design the robots to assist restaurants with cooking or preparing other kinds of Japanese dishes and also help with washing dirty dishes.

Residents of a nursing home play with a Humanoid robot 'PALRO', manufactured by Fujisoft Incorpopated, at the nursing home in Yokohama city, Kanagawa prefecture, Japan.
Yamaguchi Haruyoshi | Corbis | Getty Images
Residents of a nursing home play with a Humanoid robot 'PALRO', manufactured by Fujisoft Incorpopated, at the nursing home in Yokohama city, Kanagawa prefecture, Japan.

Another sector that has turned to robotics is nursing and elderly care. By 2025, nursing is predicted to face a shortage of about 380,000 workers, according to the Japan Times.

Caring for the country's growing number of senior citizens can be "overwhelming, and people tend to avoid those jobs, and there are lots of elderly who don't have people around them to take care of them," according to Sawanobori.

But companies are already taking steps to automate labor-intensive processes throughout the health care space.

For example, The Asahi Shimbun reported in January that Nagoya University Hospital and Toyota Industries — an affiliate of the famed carmaker — developed a squad of robots that can deliver medicine and test samples around the hospital. That would reduce the workload for existing nurses, since some of those robots would operate during the night shift.

Another example is Palro, a conversational robot designed to do things like guide residents in senior care facilities during recreational activities, or even carry on basic conversations. A different robot called Paro, on the other hand, can care for elders with dementia and Alzheimer's. Meanwhile, Robear is a robot that can lift a patient from a bed into a wheelchair or help them stand.

Still, SoftBank's Pepper robot is perhaps the most recognizable robot from Japan. The company says on its website that it has about 2,000 Pepper robots that help to manage customers in its physical stores in Japan.

A changing attitude toward start-ups

While developments in Japan's robotics industry is primarily driven by need, some say that it is also emblematic of the country's changing attitude toward start-ups that are driving much recent innovation.

For example, Seven Dreamers Laboratories, which moved its headquarters from Silicon Valley back to Japan, has a robot that can fold laundry.

"Back in 2011, there (was) a big difference between (the) Japanese start-up market and the Silicon Valley start-up market," Shin Sakane, the company's founder and CEO, told CNBC. "But nowadays, like after eight years, it's been changing dramatically in Japan."

He explained that previously, large Japanese corporations thought they could continue to innovate on their own. But at some point, "they realized that it's not easy anymore in a huge company, so they decided to have a partnership with Japanese start-ups," Sakane said.

— CNBC's Akiko Fujita contributed to this report.