Japanese Robots: The Seemingly Least Cool Robotics Story of July is a Must-Read!


Cleaning robots don’t grab headlines – what with the DARPA Robotics Challenge, NASA’s nuclear powered dunebuggy on Mars, exoskeleton intrigue, ASIMO’s new training, etc. What those fancy robots don’t have, however, is a current and growing presence in our homes. A recent Japanese survey breaks down some interesting data:

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Japan: Not Always as Tech as it Seems
Often discussed, but difficult to appreciate if one’s never been here, is the notion of Japanese technological duality, or contradictionism, if you will. Among the favorite targets are the fax machine and its death grip on relevance, banking stuck in 1997, and very late-to-the-game smartphone adoption. These exist side-by-side with some of the world’s most advanced robotics research, a plurality of global industrial automation, the world-standard high-speed shinkansen trains, nationwide 4G wireless coverage, etc.

A lot of Japan has remained unchanged for, ohhhhh… a few thousand years, and one of the technological hangers-on is the humble broom. While one can find a standard plastic broom with plastic bristles anywhere, there are just as many, if not more, shiny new cleaning tools with bamboo handles and some kind of dried grass or an entire plant just stuck on the end.

One might argue that if it’s not broke, blah blah blah, but try effectively sweeping anything other than a lawn with a tumbleweed wired onto the end of a stick. Granted, they’re used primarily for outdoor cleaning – but still, that they exist alone is a curiosity.

(Editor’s Note: Though we’re making light of the issue here, it’s also quite nice to be spared the noise and air pollution of leaf blowers and lawn mowers here in Japan. Mid-sized weed eaters, small engine rotary grass cutters, are pretty much the only motorized outdoor landscaping tools in use.)

So, arguably, in a country where all public school students spend at least 10-15 minutes a day cleaning their own classrooms and buildings by hand, where the verb「掃除」(“sō-ji;” cleaning) is often pronounced with an honorific prefix, and a generalized reverence for things being clean & tidy pervades much of everyday life, the leap to robot cleaners is an interesting one, but one that’s gradually being taken. Japanese buyers’ most common leap is this:

Yep, according to a new survey report from Tokyo-based Seed Planning Market Research and Consulting (市場調査とコンサルティングのシード・プランニング), Boston, Massachusetts-based iRobot’s Roomba, available here since 2004 (and first to market), holds a 75%+ share of Japan’s robo-cleaning market.

Seemingly unrelated, the luxury of home cleaning robots and the practical utility of disaster response robots have one thing in common here in Japan: iRobot. The American company makes both Japan’s #1 selling cleaning robot and the first robots able to enter and inspect the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster zone. This again, is a matter of timing; iRobot’s PackBot and Warrior models have been tested and deployed in active war zones for more than a decade, and Roomba’s 2004 introduction in Japan was far ahead of any viable domestic models.

In second and third place, respectively, are domestic models from Tsukamoto Aim (below left) and Sharp’s Kokorobo series (below right):

(Another Editor’s Note: It’s not being, and would be unfair to imply here that all models sold by Tsukamoto Aim license and take design cues from Hello Kitty, but the existence of this product is, well, it’s just… Japan!)

To Buy or Not to Buy and Why: Reasons & Numbers
As elsewhere, cleaning robots got a slow start here in Japan. Shiny new gee-whiz product purchasing patterns from early adopters gave the market an initial bump, but average consumers were hesitant – rightfully so – early Roomba and domestic models just didn’t, you know, work very well, and reviews and word of mouth weren’t kind to the inspired, yet uninspiring machines.

The tech has caught up, however, and sales in Japan are booming. According to Seed Planning, since 2008 the home cleaning robot market has seen a 6-fold increase in yearly sales (approx. 380,000 units sold in 2012), and they project sales of 9o0,000 units in 2018. In a nation of about 128 million people, if realized that’s some serious market penetration. Given that homes in Japan generally aren’t all that big and don’t have a lot of carpeting, it’s all the more impressive. Among Japan’s massive, dominant middle-class, such expenditures are a luxury but not quite as economically extravagant as one might think – but still, 900,000!

In addition to evaluating brand preference and sales figures, Seed Planning’s survey among 400 cleaning robot owners and 300 non-owners also gauged reasons for consumers’ purchasing and not purchasing. Current owners included simple convenience and easing the cleaning burden as the most common reasons for buying, and, true to form in the Japanese consumer tech market, a lot of people just wanted to try a “cute” new product (in that vein, see video below for some of the best viral marketing cleaning robot makers didn’t but could have ever asked for). Non-owners cited cost and concerns over the robots’ ability to properly clean as the most common barriers to purchasing (best seller iRobot’s prices range from $650 – $800, Sharp’s Kokorobo models are comparable, and Tsukumoto Aim’s, at $100-$150 for the disc-shaped models, up to $400 for the unfortunately named “Hobot” glass cleaning model, are vastly more affordable).

Why Care? Because Live-In Social Robots Begin, Labor Shortages Pend, and $¥$¥$¥$¥$¥$!
Okay, to be fair, it’s understandable if you’re yawning at the ferociously unsexy topic of cleaning robots. But here’s the kicker: one has to fully grasp and appreciate that these unassuming little pucks of technology are the vanguard of personal service robot deployment and use. The quest toward a friendly, conversational, perhaps dressed-like-a-French-maid home and/or industrial service robot has to start somewhere – and clearly, it’s on. For now these simple machines operate within a very narrow spectrum of ability, but they are, nonetheless, primarily autonomous robots existing side-by-side with human beings, doing a job, becoming part of our conceptual landscape; these are the babysteps of human/robot integrative socialization, and while still novel to us, for future generations they might be simply obligatory and obvious.

Japanese society, as per usual, presents a unique market observation opportunity. Women do most of the cleaning and housework here, and if, as predicted and arguably very necessary, more women begin entering more of the workforce, in addition to the impending and unavoidable large-scale human labor crisis facing the country, then the seemingly over optimistic sales projection of 900,000 units in 2018 makes a lot more sense.

It’s often claimed, but seldom detailed how, the robotics industry is going to have any practical impact on the Japanese economy. (which it’s going to desperately need in 50 years when – and this is inevitable – 30% of what might be the world’s most advanced capitalist economy’s consumers have passed away, and due to extremely low birth rates, go unreplaced). Well, let’s see: how about 900,000 units times even the low-end cost of a cleaning robot plus maintenance, accessories, upgrades, etc.? Not a bad economic push, that.

For now, iRobot’s running away with the Japanese sales cake, but there’s no shortage of competitors on their way up. One review site, LesNumeriques, found 24 (!) viable models from around the world worthy of consideration:

So, there you have it. But, if even now the subject of cleaning robots does absolutely nothing for you, if you remain unmoved by the practical genesis of in-home, someday social robotics, if the intriguing demographic factors are just meh, and if you care little about potentially lots and lots of big-time money changing hands here in Asia, then we’ll simply leave you with these words:

Cat Riding a Roomba In a Shark Costume Chasing a Duckling
and if that doesn’t strike a nerve, someone should take your pulse)

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VIA: ITMedia (Japanese/日本語); MyNavi (Japanese/日本語); Seed Planning Market Research & Consulting (Japanese/日本語)
Images: iRobot; Sharp; Tsukamoto Aim; LesNumeriques