Japanese workers struggle to control the robot revolution

After 19 years on a cash register assembly line, Morio Wagatsuma became obsolete. The company replaced him with a computerized machine that could do the job faster, better, and cheaper.

''Within a few months of the company deciding to automate, there was no longer any need for sheet metal workers or mechanics. . . . On the assembly line the work force was shrinking steadily,'' Mr. Wagatsuma recalls.

''The company had no way to transfer the surplus to other jobs, so it called for voluntary retirements. Those with no work to do would attend study meetings or be assigned weeding and maintenance jobs. We would look out of the window and see our friends weeding the garden. It was upsetting and demoralizing. . . .''

So Mr. Wagatsuma joined a growing band of Japanese preferring to risk changing jobs in mid-career rather than doing meaningless work. Today, he works at a wholesale fruit and vegetable market, but he is unhappy that the skills he worked hard to acquire are no longer needed.

In Japan, a new industrial revolution is under way, and its impact is being brought home daily to some workers across the country. Their manual skills are no longer needed. They must step aside to let the machines take over, and then somehow rebuild their lives and careers.

Automation is the only way to stay competitive in a harsh business world, the managers argue. And, anyway, few people actually face unemployment from the robot takeover because, in theory at least, they will be absorbed into the company operations elsewhere.

Kunio Takasaki, after 34 proud and happy years as a skilled lathe operator, however, was one worker who decided to stay after the robots took over. Now a mere spectator of the automated assembly line, he says: ''Sometimes when I look at the hands that mastered a skill over a long period I feel like crying. But the machine has more skill than I do, and you can't stay in business any more clinging to traditional practices.''

Mineo Chiba is one of those workers who decided not to stay around to see the destruction of their dreams. Of his decision to quit an auto-parts subcontractor to become a carver of beef at a meat wholesaler, he says: ''When I graduated from vocational school 11 years ago, I wanted to be a lathe operator. But there are no skilled workers anymore. It's become meaningless.

''Before, a newcomer felt the challenge of trying to emulate and then pass his seniors. Now, no matter how little or how much experience you have, you're all simply pushing a button.''

A landmark agreement on automation was reached last week between Nissan Motor Company and its 47,000-member labor union which promised prior consultation on any further automation, and guaranteed that introduction of robots will not lead to the dismissal of any worker nor his demotion or loss of pay. The company also pledged to provide adequate retraining for displaced workers offered new jobs.

Nissan has long been a pacesetter in automation. At its Zama plant near Tokyo , virtually all welding is now done by robots, as is a growing proportion of other assembly work. Where 100 welders once worked, only six now remain to watch over the machines.

A Nissan spokesman explains the company is expanding into nonautomotive fields, such as building space rockets, to try to absorb the surplus workers.

But there are natural limits to this, and managing director Takuro Endo indicates the answer lies in attrition. ''Five to six percent of the workers will retire every year and they should be replaced by robots.''

In other words: Today's workers are being promised they won't lose their jobs , but there is no promise that posts will be available for their sons and daughters.

A Nissan executive says: ''The answer must lie in creating a whole range of industries that will offer expanded employment for the current and future surplus labor force.''

But such industries will almost certainly be capital- and technology-intensive, offering only a handful of jobs compared with the old labor-intensive industries now automating in a desperate bid for economic survival.

The Nissan official considers this in silence for a while and then says quietly: ''Yes, that is going to be a really serious social problem for Japan in the years ahead.''

There are an estimated 20,000 industrial robots in operation in the world today - about 70 percent of them concentrated in Japan. This country is also pioneering the way in office automation, destroying white-collar jobs wholesale just as blue-collar work has been eliminated. A major company like Kao Soap, for example, runs its nationwide and overseas operations with only 30 people in the Tokyo head office.

As a result, Japan - which normally relies heavily on precedent - finds itself sailing into uncharted waters. Only belatedly are sectors of government, business, and the unions taking up the problem.

At first, factory workers welcomed automation, accepting the argument that robots would take over all the dirty, boring, and dangerous assembly-line jobs. That attitude is changing.

Ichiro Shioji, chairman of the Federation of Japan Automobile Workers' Unions , who spent four years negotiating the robots agreement with his own employer, Nissan, says: ''The reason man and machines have coexisted since the first Industrial Revolution is that man is free and a machine is still a machine no matter how wonderful it might be. But we can no longer afford such complacency.''

The social implications of the microelectronics industrial revolution fall into two categories involving today's and tomorrow's work force. For middle-aged blue-collar workers who lose their jobs, it is hard to look for a new job that will probably mean loss of seniority and a smaller wage packet. But it is equally tough staying with the same company in a new job.

Mitsubishi Electric Company, for example, found itself with a large pool of unemployed skilled labor when it automated an elevator manufacturing plant near Nagoya. Plant manager Toshio Kitaoka says: ''It split the work force. Some are ready to accept the challenge, others feel they cannot hope to catch up.''

The company set up a school offering five hours a week of basic training in the new technology over six months. Many of the middle-aged students found it a struggle.

At another Mitsubishi plant in Nagoya, skilled middle-aged workers insisted they wanted to go on using their hands, so the company created a subsidiary to maintain and repair the new, automated machinery. According to a company official: ''We transferred 200 men to this subsidiary, and there is a long waiting list of others from the parent company trying to get in.''

This is possible only in major companies. But the vital backbone of the Japanese economy is provided by small- and medium-size firms, and they too must automate to survive in the face of an average 1,500 bankruptcies a month.

A survey in Tokyo last year found 40 percent of 600 such firms planned to switch from human to robot labor. The only staff they need are a few part-timers , mainly housewives, to feed raw materials into the machines.

Shinichi Matsuda, president of the Japan Robot Lease Company, explains the economics: ''It costs a firm 5 million yen ($21,000) a year for a skilled worker who is on the job only eight hours a day. For only twice that amount a manager can get a robot which works round-the-clock.''

Many companies are beginning to appreciate the mental stress that can afflict skilled workers replaced by a machine. There is talk of hiring professional counselors to cope.

The nation's schools are also feeling the drought from the automation whirlwind. A career guidance counselor at a Tokyo high school reports: ''Job offers are down at least 40 percent from last year. I no longer have any confidence to advise these youngsters about their future.''

The present education system is no longer adequate to help the average youngster who can't claim a place in the microelectronic elite, complains another teacher. ''I think that is going to lead to a lot of frustrated youngsters who will add to the present explosion in school violence.''

Competition for places in good schools is even more intense than ever, especially for the few professional colleges specializing in the new electronics. The Japan Engineering Academy, for example, will set up the country's first ''mechatronics'' department this year to teach construction and operation of robots. Its first 200 prospective graduates have already been overwhelmed with job offers.

For the bulk of today's youngsters, however, the situation is: far fewer job openings than applicants, and the gap widening all the time.

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