We have constantly blogged about the stark figures of Japan’s ageing, declining, low fertility population. It is often described by us as the “canary in the coal mine”. Where Japan leads on the demographic front, many Western and East Asian nations may be destined to follow. But beneath these figures are stories of how society is changing due to the demographic facts. There are the (slightly creepy) attempts to repopulate a village with dolls. There are the reports about the falling Japanese sex drive. And today I would like to share with you a couple of other stories about Japan’s changing society in response to its demographic decline.

The first comes from Asia News. It reports that consumers increasingly want services where interaction with other human beings is limited. Things to do on one’s own are becoming more popular. Thus, in Fukuoka there is a Ramen noodle chain of stores set up which have dining booths separated by wooden panels, so that a diner does not see his or her neighbours on either side. Customers buy tickets from a vending machine where they select their food. They are not escorted to their booth by a waiter, instead customers seat themselves and then press a call button at their table. A shutter is then opened through which the ticket is passed to a (human!) server. The shutter is then lowered and then only reopened to allow the food to be passed through. The whole experience is designed to limit human interaction to a minimum.

Elsewhere, singing alone or “1 kara” has become fashionable among young Japanese women. Customers are given headphone and microphones and sing in a soundproof room. Alone. 

According to Tomoki Inoue, an associate analyst at the think tank NLI Research Institute, lone customers are becoming more and more common.

Service industry insiders believe the trend reflects an effort to address diversifying

“‘Because people are marrying late and other factors, there has been an increase in single people even among the middle aged and elderly, and this market is growing,’ said Inoue.”

He thought that “this trend of welcoming the lone customer will continue”. This is so desperately sad. It is not good for man to be alone. We are a social animal. It also seems odd to me – if I was single without children and other family, I would want to go out to interact with others and to talk, even if it were to a waiter. I wouldn’t want to go out to eat as if I were at home and alone.

But if some Japanese are desperate for as little human interaction as possible, then they will be pleased to know that this desire can continue to be satisfied, even after death. According to Japan Times, humanoid robots (SoftBank Group Corporation’s “Pepper” robot) will soon be available to chant Buddhist sutras (scripture) at funerals. This will be in place of human monks, who are too expensive. And too human.

The Pepper has been programmed to recite sutras from four major Japanese Buddhist sects and will only cost around ¥50,000 (450USD), much less than the cash offerings usually made to Buddhist monks (human ones). The company offering the robotic funeral service will also be attractive to more secular minded customers “looking for alternatives to the traditional rituals associated with death”. (Wouldn’t they just ditch the sutras altogether?) Other aspects of the funeral industry in Japan are having to change with the shifting demographics. The traditional “danka” system (where families support family temples through donations) is declining in areas amid rural depopulation and migration to the big cities. Even as Japan empties, Tokyo is increasing in population. This has lead to very expensive burial plots and a demand for more convenient and cheaper burial/funeral options. Some burial plots have therefore built IT-powered facilities that store thousands of urns. Visitors can retrieve the urns and mount them on altars using touch-screen panels. There is little doubt that the Japanese have the technological know-how to get around many issues that a declining population brings. I’m not so sure that they’ll be able to so easily cure a society that is demanding more service industries to cater for them alone and without human interaction.

Marcus Roberts

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...