*First broadcast on September 8, 2022.
The average age of the Japanese population is rising quickly. To offer care that matches the diverse needs of Japan's many elderly people, Japan produces a wide range of welfare goods. Various ingenious products offer physical and emotional support to help people live independently. Our guest, physiotherapist Matsuba Takashi, introduces a number of devices, including wheelchairs and one-handed chopsticks. We also see how robots are used in modern welfare facilities.
Hello, and welcome to Japanology Plus.
I'm Peter Barakan.
For some time now, Japan's average age
has been on the rise.
At present, some 30 percent of
Japanese people are aged 65 or older—
a much higher proportion
than any other country.
This trend has led to the development
of all kinds of products
whose aim is to make life easier
for elderly people—
which includes me, I suppose, too.
Today we'll be looking
at some of those products,
which can tell us more
about Japan's aging society,
and also about the Japanese attention
A wide variety of welfare goods
are used in Japan.
Many were developed
for people with disabilities.
such products are increasingly used
to meet the needs of the elderly,
and their caregivers.
In 2021, Japan recorded its highest-ever
number of citizens aged 65 and over.
The rapid aging of the population
has made a significant impact
in the world of welfare goods.
We focus today on this welfare equipment
support center, in Yokohama.
The center offers
information and consultations
to help people continue
to live independently.
Visitors can also buy welfare goods.
Our guest is Matsuba Takashi,
He has expertise in the use of
welfare goods to care for the elderly.
He has also contributed
to the development of new products—
such as by offering advice
on access ramps.
I see this machine's called “Hug.”
What does it do?
It helps to move someone
from a bed to a wheelchair,
or from a wheelchair to a toilet.
It picks people up.
That's what this machine is for.
Would you like to try it out?
Well then, take a seat.
Put your feet on here.
And put your chest here.
Oh, it's like being in the hospital.
Hold these handles.
OK, let's begin.
It slowly pulls you forward.
And lifts you up.
Then we can turn the machine round...
and move you about.
Let's put you back down.
This is for someone who struggles
to stand up by themselves.
Maybe they need to sit on the toilet.
You need two people.
One caregiver will pick them up,
and another will lower their underwear.
But with this machine,
one person can do it.
It reduces labor requirements.
Let me show you this.
OK, let's see some of the other things
you've got here.
These products help to solve common
problems that can occur in daily life.
Some people can only move one arm,
or one leg.
For them, these are ideal.
here is a one-handed nail-cutting device.
Here's something else
that can help you cut your nails.
This device is designed for people
with poor grip strength.
Both of these tools
can be used on a flat surface.
These...this is the sort of thing
you wouldn't even think about
unless you actually need one yourself.
It's an example of “universal design.”
Look at this.
Usually you'd apply soap like this.
But with this bottle, you just press here,
and it covers your hand.
Usually you need two hands
to open a container.
But with this, you can do it one-handed.
Many products are related to dining.
In Japan we use chopsticks.
But when that gets difficult...
you can use these.
You know...so many people
who come to Japan from abroad
and have trouble using chopsticks
would probably love this,
because you get it right
every single time.
If they had these in restaurants,
I'm sure they would be really popular.
I hadn't thought of that.
Next, we have this bowl.
It's easy to scoop things up.
Ah! That's a great idea.
And not just for people who have problems
with their hand movement.
That'd be a great idea for anybody.
These bowls are sloped.
That makes it easy
to pick up food using just one hand.
They have rubber on the bottom.
So they don't slip.
Great ideas. Yeah.
Japan began developing welfare goods
in the 1930s and '40s.
Early examples were wooden wheelchairs,
made for injured soldiers.
This bed was developed
after the Second World War.
It was based on one used
by the occupying forces,
but adapted to suit Japanese needs.
In the late '60s came a toilet
with a built-in spray function.
It was originally designed
for people suffering from hemorrhoids.
Later iterations allowed users to control
amount and angle of the water.
The toilet evolved from a welfare product
into a device now used
by 80 percent of Japanese households.
Japan's first exhibition of welfare goods
was held in 1974.
It featured around 60 Japanese businesses.
From the year 2000,
subsidies encouraged new companies
to enter the market.
The production of welfare goods
is now a booming industry in Japan,
with nearly 600 companies.
It's interesting that a lot of these
appliances start off with military use.
And I'm sure that's a universal thing.
But recently in Japan,
that's not the case anymore, is it?
In the past, products were designed
for those wounded in wartime.
But today, with disabilities becoming
more common as the population ages,
there is growing demand
for new welfare goods.
Actually, products aimed
at the elderly are also designed
to be appropriate
for people with disabilities.
They cater to the needs of both groups.
And that helps to grow the market.
Another point is the idea
that people with disabilities
should have the freedom
to play a full role in society.
In support of that,
laws were introduced to
make public facilities accessible to all.
That movement sprang up.
to make public transport more accessible,
every train station that is used by
at least 4,500 passengers every day
must have an elevator.
The elevators installed thanks to that law
are used by people with disabilities,
and by the elderly.
Even healthy young people
aren't shy about using them!
Accessibility is about creating access
to society for everyone.
And I think welfare goods are contributing
to that ideal.
There's a reason why a lot of
welfare goods were developed in Japan,
rather than being imported.
Japan's streets are generally very narrow,
and many lack a dedicated sidewalk.
Many houses are smaller than those
in the West.
Japan had to develop products
that could be used in cramped conditions.
A regular wheelchair has
two large fixed wheels at the back,
and casters at the front.
But shift those big wheels forward,
and you can turn on the spot.
To stop it from falling backwards,
two more casters are added at the back.
So it has six wheels.
Japanese homes often
have narrow corridors.
This wheelchair makes movement easier
in tight spaces.
A regular wheelchair
can go forwards and backwards.
But not side to side.
No, I don't think
I've ever seen one do that.
It moves like this.
But look at this wheelchair...
It can move like this.
How is it doing that?
Have a look.
Extra wheels come down.
Try it out.
Yes, like that.
I bet kids would have great fun with this.
You might wash some dishes.
Then move and cook.
In the kitchen,
this wheelchair is fantastic.
Well it gives you total freedom to move.
That's quite amazing actually.
Now let's try this one?
Let's give it another go. Alright.
The next wheelchair Peter's trying
has a power assist function.
These black parts are called handrims.
Use them to push yourself forward.
You can feel it, can't you?
Oh, it moves very...OK,
so it's electrically assisted.
I'll raise the level of power assistance.
OK, you've got
to be a bit careful with this.
Do a light push, then release.
You've got to be careful with this,
With one push, you can travel a long way.
When you're outdoors, you use this mode.
slower mode is for indoor use.
For even more precise movement,
you can switch off
the power assist altogether.
to “power-assisted” bicycles.
Although these were invented first.
Other products have evolved
to suit Japanese living conditions.
have tatami mat flooring.
You take off your shoes,
and sit down on the tatami.
But many elderly people
find it difficult to stand up.
This chair can lower someone down
to the ground.
Oh, OK. I'll give it a try; why not?
Oh, it's like a car seat but
with extra function.
OK. Because I mean, car seats kind of all
do this to a lesser extent, don't they?
Woo. It keeps going down.
But I guess for older people in Japan
who have lived most of their lives
at a lower level...
well, basically on the floor,
this is going to be really convenient.
I would imagine
for the younger generation of Japanese
who've grown up
with tables and chairs and beds,
they probably wouldn't have
so much use for this.
It depends on
what area of Japan we're talking about.
In the north, many people still use
kotatsu—low, heated tables.
A kotatsu is ideal for a tatami room.
There is a heat source
underneath the table,
and a blanket under the table's top.
Using a kotatsu generally means sitting
on the floor.
Getting back up again can be difficult.
The company that makes this chair says
they sell more in the north.
Ah, interesting. OK.
The traditional Japanese
lifestyle involves tatami.
Some people with disabilities—those
who can't walk—
may crawl or even pull themselves
over the tatami.
We can use chairs like this
to raise those people up,
so they can be transferred
into a wheelchair.
It's a very useful tool
in situations like that.
Similarly, this is to help people stand up
after lying on a futon.
You grab it, and stand up.
It basically consists of two hand rails.
Ah, OK. So you'd have your futon,
like, laid out here.
And then you grab hold
of this and stand up. I see.
In Japan, the lowest floor of a house
must be at least 45 centimeters
above the ground itself.
By law. That's the rule.
That helps to protect a building
in our warm and humid climate.
But it means there will always be
a step up somewhere in a house.
One important step up is just
after you take your shoes off.
That's in the entranceway to the house.
And it's a good place for these rails.
Ah, OK so this is portable?
Well, it weighs about 20 kilos.
So it's not exactly portable. Alright.
If you can't install a hand rail on
a wall, you can use one of these instead.
But it does make all the difference,
I mean, if you've got mobility problems
and you don't want to be in hospital or
in a nursing home,
you want to be at home,
then you need something to help you out,
and this is the sort of thing
that's going to do the trick.
One by one, welfare goods
are solving the everyday problems
in people's home lives.
If you use a wheelchair,
you can't use these hand rails
to move up into the home.
So instead, you can use this.
Ah, OK. I get it.
It's called a wheelchair lift.
You dig a hole,
and install it in the floor.
In urban areas,
lots of homes are built close together.
To clear a height of 45 centimeters,
you want to build a ramp,
but there isn't enough room.
Lifts allow you to move vertically,
up and down, on the spot.
But when you mention these devices
in rural areas,
people often say they don't need one.
They have a lot of space,
so they can just build a ramp.
That's what they tell me.
Japan's long-term care insurance system
makes it possible
to rent these wheelchair lifts.
It helps people
in cramped urban environments.
I guess we all take care insurance
for granted now, in Japan,
because it's been around
for quite a while.
I wonder how many
other countries have that.
Well, the Japanese system is based
on the German model.
The content is quite different,
but in general,
it aims to support people living
in their own homes.
It establishes the necessary services
for the effective provision of care.
Efforts are also made
to keep people healthy,
so they need less support.
Those factors are all part of it.
Another important aspect
of everyday life is bathing.
In general, Japanese take a daily bath.
A typical bathroom has a tub,
and next to it,
an area for washing yourself.
The basic idea is to get clean
before you get into the tub.
Soaking in the bath is seen as a great way
to end the day.
Elderly people enjoy it
for the mental relaxation,
and the health benefits—such
as improved circulation.
People who become physically frail
can find bathing difficult,
but help is on the way.
One common welfare product
is this—a bath board.
You sit on it, like this.
When you're stable, you grab the handle,
and move your legs in one by one.
But then you have
to stand up and move the board.
You move it aside.
So that's quite a palaver. Yes.
Then you sit.
Now look over here.
We have an electric bath board.
Take a seat right here.
What's going to happen now?
First, put your left leg into the tub.
With my shoes on?
Yes, leave them on.
Then shuffle over, bit by bit, to here.
Now put your right leg in.
And now, press the “Down” button.
All you could do with
the previous bath board was sit on it.
This device helps you get into the tub,
and get down into the water.
Then up and out again.
In a bath, you feel almost weightless.
That's a great sensation,
but frail people may worry
that they won't be able to get out.
With this device, they can.
Endless cycle of having to come up
with yet more improvements,
because somebody's going to need it.
You identify a need,
and develop a product that can help.
A great many Japanese welfare goods
are geared towards helping
the elderly live independently.
Next, we're going to look
at another example of that:
toilets with special features.
The toilet here has the
well-known built-in spray function.
But it also has a frame around it.
The whole seat can be raised and lowered.
For some people, a little extra height
makes it easier to stand up.
People with weak knee joints, for example.
It helps to preserve people's dignity.
That's an important factor.
They can use the toilet
in a private space.
If people really struggle with movement,
you can install a portable toilet
next to the bed.
But that kind of toilet
is pretty unpopular.
Where possible, people want
to keep using a proper toilet like this.
We hear that from so many people.
Recently, welfare goods have reached
a new stage in their evolution.
Here's an example: powered suits.
They use the latest technology to
reinforce the power of the arms or legs.
For some time they have been used
for physical labor,
but now they are also being used
to care for the elderly.
This board contains sensors
and communications technology.
It's installed in an elderly person's bed.
The boards allow someone
in a separate location
to check on the status
of multiple people at once,
and send help if necessary.
Caregiving robots are also
in the spotlight.
They allow families to keep an eye
on elderly relatives living elsewhere.
On a smartphone, you can check
the messages recorded by the robot.
This robot can exchange greetings.
Oh! Good morning.
Welfare goods are continuing to evolve.
We've already seen
some pretty high-tech machinery.
I see we're going to get
into a different league here.
Welfare robots are in the spotlight
at the moment.
This one is designed
to communicate with people.
If you ask it something, it will search
for relevant information online.
And it will respond.
It might ask if you want to hear
about a certain news story.
It keeps the conversation going,
shifting the subject if needed.
For elderly people, conversation is a form
of mental exercise.
Reports say that it can prevent a loss of
I imagine, with the advent of COVID-19
and people not being able to go out,
not being able to...for example,
if you're trying to look after somebody,
but you're not allowed to go and see them,
then obviously these things become
more useful than they were previously.
These particular robots
are very expensive,
so in most cases they are rented
by welfare facilities.
Due to COVID-19,
it is often necessary
for staff to wear protective clothing.
It has become much more difficult
to conduct face-to-face interactions.
In those cases,
the robot takes the place of the staff—
and I'm told it's an effective solution.
So is the trend now
towards digital interaction more?
Technology has certainly increased
what robots like this can achieve.
Take a look at this one, for example.
It has a motion sensor,
so it can detect when someone walks past.
If it's lunchtime, say,
and your elderly relative still
hasn't got out of bed,
this robot will let you know.
In other words, even at a distance,
you can still look after someone.
That's what robots like this can do.
It's a great technological innovation.
At first, I myself thought that using
welfare robots was cutting corners.
Maybe those receiving
the service thought the same.
thoughtful use of robots allows
for very reliable provision of care.
Japan has too few caregivers
and the situation is getting worse
with each passing year.
We simply don't have enough.
Running welfare facilities
will become difficult.
The hope is that robots will allow
for a small number of staff
to maintain a high level of service.
That's the biggest challenge
There's also the potential of robots
in people's homes.
I wasn't really aware of
how much need there is
for all the appliances and services
that you have here.
Japan's society is still graying,
and this will continue over
the next few years, maybe even decades.
How do you see
things developing from here?
In the old days,
companies would tend to specialize
in prosthetics or in wheelchairs,
But then all kinds of companies started
entering the market for welfare goods.
These days, lots of innovative
technologies are being put to use,
and that might lead
to something brand new.
I've been thinking about toilets.
So far the focus has mostly been on
how to deal with people's waste.
Many devices concentrate on that.
Or they help people use the toilet,
such as the spray function we saw earlier.
But devices with sensors
can help us to predict
when someone might need to use the toilet.
At that point, a robot can say,
“Time to use the bathroom,”
and lead them to the toilet.
They'll make it in time.
Getting the timing right
would obviously be great
for the person using this service,
and easier for the caregiver.
I think that's an example of
the innovations we'll start to see.
Thank you very much.
Thank you very much.