Why is Japan turning to robots as bankers?

Japan is facing a looming economic crisis between its shrinking population and aging work force, so one bank is looking at robots to pick up the slack. Is there a more human solution for the 'Land of the Rising Sun'? 

One of the largest banks in Japan is on the verge of becoming a little less human.

Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group is about to begin testing a bank teller robot in one of two branches. According to the Guardian, the performance of the robot named Nao will determine if the bank will employ the automated tellers at other branches.

Nao is 23 inches tall and was developed by the French robotics company, Aldebaran Robotics, which is owned by the Japanese telecom giant SoftBank. The robot features a camera on its forehead and can speak 19 different languages. He analyzes customers’ facial expressions and tone of voice so he can offer the most effective service.

The move by Mitsubishi UFJ has been on track with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s call for the country to undergo a "robot revolution" to replace its aging workforce and contracting population, according to Bloomberg.

However, there are deeper societal customs that accelerate the drain that an older workforce and declining population has on a society. One in particular is the lack of female labor participation. Mr. Abe’s government has sent mixed signals regarding liberalizing some of these traditions to better accommodate women who have professional aspirations, but also want to balance those aspirations with raising a family.

Only 49 percent of Japanese women participate in the labor force, compared to 56 and 54 percent in other modern countries like the United States and Germany respectively, according to the World Bank. When broken into age demographics as of 2012, 25 to 29 year-old women in Japan are working as much as their peers around the world, at roughly 80 percent, according to an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report cited by the Economist. From ages 30 through 49, the Japanese participation rate falls to approximately 70 percent, which was well under the global average, which hovers above 80 percent through the age of 59.

The Economist estimated that if female labor participation in Japan was to increase to the level of men, it could add nearly eight million jobs to the economy and boost GDP by up to 15 percent.

In 2013, Mr. Abe wanted women to “shine” under his “Abenomics” policy to revive Japan’s economy and referred to women as the cornerstone of future economic growth, according to the Economist. However, when a previous government sought to promote gender equality back in 2005, it was Mr. Abe’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party that argued such efforts would undermine traditional Japanese culture.

This had devastating consequences for population demographics. Japanese women stayed at home, but they were not rearing children as the LDP would have hoped. In 2005, only 1.26 children were being born per one women in Japan and that figure has since climbed to 1.41 as of 2012, and this birth gap will leave Japan’s workforce decimated by age in 2050, according to the Economist. 

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