By Melissa Francis
In this post, we look at Japan agetech and elder care and some of the tech solutions addressing common issues. What does Japan’s current senior demographic look like, and what’s helping boost longevity and overall happiness?
What does Japan’s ageing market look like?
Japan is home to the world’s second largest healthcare market, with almost a third of individuals in Japan being aged 65 or over and with 2.1 million being over 90. As such, the country’s elderly population remains to be one of the most significant globally. Naturally, this also makes Japan one of the most viable markets for new innovations in the Japan agetech sector.
Initiatives including a digital healthcare system are being put in place to make patient data more accessible for insurers and developers of tech solutions. The overall aim of this is to limit the burden on the institutional care system, carers and family members through various streams of technology including AI and Virtual Reality. There is also a trend towards more inclusive, community-led programmes that encourage being on the lookout for elderly citizens in need.
The life expectancy of women is disproportionately higher for those over 100 years old with 88% of Japan’s estimated 71,000 centenarians being women. Centenarian swimmers like recenrly retired Then comes the question of single-person households, a trend unravelling on a global scale, particularly in cities.
By 2040, it’s expected that more than 9 million people will be living alone in Japan (39.3%)—whether by personal choice or due to the circumstances they happen to find themselves in. According to figures released by the Ministry of Health, one in five senior citizens in Japan will be living with Dementia by 2025—that’s around 7.3 million people (up from around 4.6 million now), and with life expectancy being so high, it’s remains to be a problem that technological developments can help provide a solution for.
The value of the four key sub sectors underpinning the rise in Japan agetech, namely; living / nursing care, food, medical / health, and out-of-home services was estimated to be worth just under 9 trillion yen ($82.9 billion USD) in 2015. This figure is set to exceed 18 trillion yen ($165.8 billion USD) by 2030. The sector represents a long-term opportunity to cater to the growing senior demographic, with cognitive care, companionship and mobility being three of the key focal points.
Japan agetech in the fight against Dementia
Keen to push non-drug therapy forward, Aikomi uses technology to create solutions for Dementia patients through customised content. This is designed to stimulate the senses, ease anxiety associated with cognitive decline, and aid memory recall. The service also gives caregivers peace of mind and enables them to communicate more clearly with patients.
A trial, conducted with 60 Dementia sufferers living at care homes in Japan, found that more than half responded positively, even those who had not spoken in a long time. Aikomi partners with leading drug company Takeda Pharmaceutical, electronics manufacturer JVC Kenwood, and innovation and startup accelerator firm INDEE Japan.
Nippontect and GE Japan formed a partnership to build a platform for the early detection, diagnosis and treatment of Dementia with the aim of supporting happy and healthy lives as citizens age. The idea is to compare results from neuropsychological tests with other Dementia detection screeners in order to more accurately detect patients even before symptoms of cognitive decline start to set in.
Robotics and Elder Care in Japan
There’s no doubt that Japan is renowned for its superiority in the field of R&D around robotics. The idea of robots co-existing alongside humans is generally well-received across generations and most have a positive sentiment towards this prospect. We’re already seeing the results of such innovations making waves in Japanese society. As well as being part of the solution to support a dwindling workforce, the presence of robots naturally spills over into the realm of elder care. Tokyo’s Shin-tomi Nursing Home is one of the primary locations for testing how interactions between robots and senior residents can have a positive impact.
Here are a few examples of how robots are deployed for elder care.
PARO, a pioneering robotic seal designed to provide cognitive stimulation to those dealing with Alzheimer’s and Dementia. It first came into existence back in 2003 and since then it has been deployed in care homes throughout Japan as well as in countries such as Denmark. PARO has tactile, light, audition, temperature, and posture sensors and has been designed to respond to user preferences, changing its behaviour based on feedback.
Silver Wood Corp., an operator of serviced care homes in Japan has partnered with various companies to develop solutions for a range of age-related conditions, including a Dementia simulating VR headset that assists caregivers in their treatment of patients. The headset works by projecting scenarios of everyday experiences dementia sufferers often face, such as feeling a sense of confusion when navigating train station platforms. This, in turn, acts as a type of experiential training device, aids deeper understanding and elicits greater empathy.
‘Living Together’ Robots
These types of robots are often referred to as doukyou robotto (living together robots) and are designed to help combat loneliness, ease the burden of nursing care for family members, and give peace of mind. Leading toy manufacturer TAKARA TOMY has produced a range of robots with wide-ranging functionality, but specifically aimed at senior citizens in Japan, some of which are still in operation today.
Models such as OHaNAS, a talking sheep-like robot with the ability to engage users in conversation, play word games such as shiritori and respond to touch in various ways. OHaNAS was initially released in 2015 and had a dedicated accompanying app ‘OHaNAS no Kimochi’ which has since been discontinued, although it can still be used as intended without the updates.
Robi Jr. is another compact-sized communication robot, promoted with the slogan motto nakayoshi (get closer), packing more than 2,000 phrases. It’s tempting to think that the rise of smart speakers might dwarf the existence of these types of seemingly novelty robots, but it’s precisely the cute and accessible appearance that makes them a popular choice for senior companions. In the future, it’s likely we will see developments to make these companion robots more mobile so seniors can leave their homes with an additional safety net.
Robots with practical functions
Both communication and therapeutic robots have a key role to play in terms of benefitting mental health and cognitive function, but what about robots designed to offer more practical aid such as heavy-lifting and mobility support? Released in 2015 as a follow-up from the heavier duty versions, Robear is a bear-like robot developed to assist with the lifting of elderly patients in and out of hospital beds, offering a decidedly gentler approach, although there is still much refinement needed in order to make Robear suitable for mass utilisation.
As well as helping caregivers with aspects of manual labour, powered exoskeletons such as INNOPHYS’ Muscle Suits enable employees to lift heavy items, and therefore equip a larger number of Japanese to work in more physically demanding jobs for longer. This demonstrates the point at which humans can still be active in the workforce without robots replacing them completely. As of March 2020, INNOPHYS announced it had sold more than 10,000 units of its Muscle Suit worldwide.
Other technology helping Japan’s ageing population
Promotion of safer driving
As the number of road accidents are significantly higher among those aged over 75, measures were brought in to ensure that such incidents could be prevented in the future, through the use of specially-designed cars with features including automatic brakes.
Different automotive manufacturers, including Toyota, Daihatsu and Subaru have released models of safety cars that use sensors to automatically stop the car when certain conditions arise. For instance, the emergency features might kick in at intersections where the probability of accidents occurring increases, or at nighttime when visibility is significantly reduced. Naruse Machinery’s Onepedal, a special pedal designed to prevent road traffic accidents among the elderly, saw orders increase in 2019 due to drivers being unable to differentiate between the accelerator and brake.
Monitoring wellbeing through IoT
Mitsufuji manufactures AGposs, a type of conductive metal thread that can be used for smart clothing. The company also makes ‘hamon’, a range of monitors for smart clothing that gauge various aspects such as heart rate, temperature and breathing. This type of system can make keeping track of the ageing population’s key health metrics even easier.
A substantial number of Japanese citizens are living with Type 2 Diabetes (around 10 million), the two-year PRISM-J programme, backed by the Japan Diabetes Society, has seen physicians monitoring patient conditions remotely through IoT and has been collecting data from 2,000 patients aged between 20-75. To collect the data, an app called Shichifukujin is used.
The app’s name, which translates as ‘The Seven Deities of Good Luck’, is part of Japanese mythology familiar to everybody in Japan. Each of the seven Gods is responsible for overseeing a particular aspect of patients’ progress. For instance, Daikokuten (the God of Commerce) is assigned to check up on diet, while Ebisu (God of Wealth, Crops, and Food) is responsible for monitoring daily step counts. This is a prime example of how a culturally-accepted concept can encourage patients to feel more motivated when it comes to their health.
Where are the opportunities for foreign companies in Japan’s agetech sector?
In terms of the opportunities for foreign agetech companies to expand their offerings to Japan, Laurie Orlov, Principal Analyst at Ageing In Place Technology Watch says, ‘“there’s a significant appetite among US entrepreneurs to expand—see the CTA market size reference for more information.” On the other hand, she notes that there are some challenges to developing a presence in Japan. “Barriers to entry include not having a detailed enough knowledge of demographics, adoption of technologies, resellers and go to market approaches.”
Solutions designed to manage dementia and improve cognitive care will continue to be particularly in high demand, as will diabetes control. But there’s no reason to focus solely on these; anything that can help citizens or their healthcare providers to offer targeted services would be welcome. We can expect the many agetech innovations coming out of Europe to do particularly well in Japan, too. Places like The Netherlands, UK, and Scandinavia are in a prime position to assist based on what’s already been implemented there.
If you’re a company working to develop agetech solutions and want to expand to Japan, we first recommend getting a deeper understanding of the overall Japan agetech market. Then, conduct research to see how your offering will fit, both practically and culturally. Partnering with established companies in Japan can generate a higher level of trust. There have been a number of success stories in the agetech space over the past couple of years, with the likes of startups MyndYou, Vsee, and Seismic collaborating with large Japanese corporations.
Contact us if you’re a healthtech brand looking at the Japanese market for expansion. We would love to discuss your plans and see how we can assist.