But robots may not need to be emotionally complex to help the elderly. In 2013, researchers writing in the Journal of Gerontological Nursing found that Paro, a cuddly therapeutic robot seal designed in Japan to help patients with dementia, found that the furry mechanical creations produce “a positive, clinically meaningful influence on quality of life, increased levels of pleasure and also reduced displays of anxiety.” For a nation deeply anxious about the consequences of getting older, robot helpers are one less reason to worry.
But there are tradeoffs. Japan’s subsidized robots are intended to make up for national shortages in human health workers—and a long history of restrictionist immigration policies. In 2010 the country had just 1.3 million nursing care workers, a far cry from the 2 million the Health Ministry estimated were necessary and woefully short of the 4 million the ministry expects will be needed in 2025. Restrictions on immigrant workers make the situation even more dire: Japanese citizens are legally prohibited from hiring foreign workers to help with senior or child care.
The subsidies, then, function as a way of avoiding higher immigration levels. For years, Japan has been notoriously resistant to immigration. Of its current population, less than two percent are from outside the country, and the nation has traditionally only allowed about 50,000 immigrant visas each year—far less than the 700,000 estimated to be necessary to keep population levels afloat.