Japanese day cares turn to robots as high-tech solution to alleviate staffing shortages

In a bid to help fix the Japan’s child care crunch, a Tokyo-based start-up is testing a new service combining robots and sensors to monitor kids at nurseries.

Global Bridge Holdings, a child care and nursing care venture, is working with academics from Gunma University to develop a system aimed at alleviating the burden of nursery school teachers, many of whom are overworked amid a nationwide staffing shortage.

The project features a specially designed bear-shaped robot called Vevo that can greet and identify children and record their body temperatures using a thermograph. During naps, sensors embedded in cots can monitor heart rates and body movements of children to make sure they are breathing. An alarm system will notify teachers if any abnormalities are detected.

“It’s aimed at solving the understaffing problem in child care,” said Nobuaki Nakazawa, an associate professor at Gunma University and an adviser to the project. Taking temperatures and monitoring nap time are just a few examples of the myriad duties nursery teachers manage, he said. “Letting the system take care of some of those tasks should be helpful,” he added.

Nursery school teachers have a jobs-to-applicants ratio of 2.17 before seasonal adjustments in July, compared with 1.31 nationally, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. The labor shortage is especially dire in Tokyo, where the figure for nursery teachers skyrockets to 4.72, meaning there are almost five jobs for every applicant.

Low wages and long working hours are frequently cited as reasons behind the trend, something municipalities and the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are trying to address by raising salaries and increasing the number of day care spots.

Demand for day care, however, remain high as the number of working mothers swell. There were 26,081 children on waiting lists for day care facilities as of April 1, an increase of 2,528 from the previous year, according to the ministry.

Global Bridge Holdings operates 27 child care centers and has been testing the new service at one of its facilities in Tokyo. Starting in October, the company will deploy the system to a nursery school in Ota, Gunma Prefecture, for further demonstrations, with the aim of commercializing it by April next year. It hopes to sell the integrated system for ¥4 million, a spokesman for the company said.

Managers are turning to technology to mitigate staffing shortages at care facilities for the elderly and day care centers.

Telecommunications and internet giant SoftBank Group Corp. has deployed its humanoid robot Pepper to nursing care facilities to lead exercises and recreational activities with senior residents. In 2015, UniFa Co. introduced Meebo, a kindergarten monitoring robot that takes photos and dances with children.

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