As part of my book research on automation and impact on jobs, I have been studying Japanese society. As Anthony Bourdain once said “Rigorously conventional on one hand, batshit crazy party animals on the other, Japan will always confuse outsiders looking in.”
It is a fascinating contrast in artisan skills and technology leadership.
There are master craftsmen – Shokunin – like metal smiths who try to recreate samurai swords using primitive, small lot steel and months, even years of flattening and rolling the blades. There is little written documentation to guide them to emulate the masterpieces which date back over a millennium. There are the intricacies of bonsai, the manicure of dwarf plants that the Japanese took from the Chinese and enhanced. There are sushi chefs who demand the best sumeshi, rice seasoned with vinegar, and served at body temperature. Not just any rice – those grown in mountains, again related to temperatures the grain was conditioned to.
Of course for each of these artisan masterpieces, there are mass produced options. You can buy “Mall-sai” at your local Ikea - S-curved tropical ficus plants. Conveyor-belt sushi is leveraging the magic of sensors, Big Data and magnets to bring much more affordable seafood to the common person. You can buy much more affordable, and handmade katana swords made in China.
In artisan communities in Japan, the skill is handed down from master to apprentice over years. The goal is to produce disciples who improve on your craft, so as not to disappoint your master who taught you when you meet them on "the other side".
Then there is legendary Japanese service. Shop assistants and hotel staff greet customers with irasshaimase and bow to them. They would be embarrassed if a customer saw them fiddling with a mobile device. You don’t tip a Japanese server or taxi driver – they would be insulted. Some people complain the service is all rules-based – very difficult to get custom orders or service, but the attitude of respect for the customer is hard to find anywhere else in the world.
On the other end is Japanese fascination with automation beyond conveyor-belt sushi. Japan has the highest number of vending machines per capita – and they don’t just dispense sodas or cigarettes. You can buy panties, plants, sushi – just about anything from these machines, 24x7. A country with a rapidly aging population and not enough young workers (and a country which is not that open to immigration) is turning to all kinds of service robots – carebots aimed at the elderly. A country which has exported industrial robots for decades is pioneering all kinds of humanoid robots.
Toyota announced at CES in Vegas last month about its large investment in AI and robotics and is betting heavily on autonomous cars. Mazda is betting the other way that a portion of world’s drivers will always love driving cars – what it has branded “zoom zoom” over the years.
To me, the contrast in those two companies and broadly across Japan is a good reflection of state of automation. For all those who worry about jobless futures, it allows me to say societies evolve slowly and humans find plenty of niches to keep perfecting their craft even as technology and automation introduces it to a much bigger audience.