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A Chicken Nugget Robochef Is the Latest Sign of Japan's Worsening Labor Shortage

Robots are taking over the jobs left vacant by the country's aging population.
Chicken nugget robot
Photo courtesy of Lawson

The employee of the month at this Osaki's convenience store is a robot. A rooster-shaped robot that churns out Karaage-Kun, or chicken nuggets, five minutes faster than any of its human coworkers could, to be exact.

The five-foot tall Dekitate (“ready-to-eat”) Karaage-Kun Robo debuted at Lawson’s TOC Osaki branch in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward on December 11, SoraNews24 reported.

The robot is a big hit among Karaage-Kun enthusiasts and curious onlookers alike, creating long lines at the store each day. The process goes like this: you choose what flavor of chicken nuggets you want by selecting an order card from the front of the robot, then take the card to a human cashier, go back to the robot to scan a paper container and place the container inside the robot. One minute later, voila! Your warm, juicy chicken nuggets are ready to eat.


Lawson spokesperson Ken Mochimaru said that the robot's helped the store maximize its chicken nugget cooking efficiency and keep customers happy. “Previously, the food was kept warm until a customer ordered. Because of the new robot, the food is prepared after the order is placed and served fresh,” Mochimaru told VICE. “Some customers who tried the robot told us that the Karaage-Kun prepared by the robot was very juicy and they wanted to try it again."


The line for Dekitate Karaage-Kun Robo at Lawson's TOC Osaki branch last Saturday. Photo by Daisy Bird

Karaage-Kun is Lawson's star product, one that it's been producing for three decades. Even Katy Perry is a fan. The chain sells about 2 billion pieces of nuggets each year, according to its own estimates. While it has introduced more than 100 flavors, including a Karaage-Kun garlic-flavored steak sauce variety that came out recently, the robot only gives you three options — the regular, red, and Hokkaido cheese.

How do Lawson's breathing, human employees feel about this, I wondered?

“It’s very interesting," Yama Zaki, an employee at the branch, told me. "The customers are also interested in it and I am asked about it very frequently."

One of these excited customers is Daisy Braid, a 25-year-old Australian who teaches English in Tokyo. She went to the branch last Saturday to order from the robot for the first time.

“I have a long history with Lawson fried chicken," she told me. "It’s some of the juiciest conbini [convenience store] chicken around,” Braid said. After tasting the robot-made nuggies, however, it's clear that humans do a better job in the frying-processed-food department. “It was nice and warm, but I was surprised at how little it actually tasted like chicken. It was super processed, more like a spongy chicken nugget, and about the size of a ping pong ball,” she said.


Daisy Bird tasting chicken nuggets cooked by a robot. Photo by Harry Fisher

Customers seem to be attracted by its novelty above taste in this case but it won't be surprising if, in the near future, we see robots that have the ability to make food that tastes just as good as — if not better than — something humans make. And the wait might not be as long as we think, since it was only in October that Lawson unveiled a dumpling-making robot. It even plans to use robots that apply facial recognition to determine customers’ age and sex to suggest products they may like, a local newspaper reported. The chain hopes to have entirely humanless stores throughout the country by 2025, but it's not solely motivated by the goal to save time and money. Japan is experiencing a labor shortage with reports showing that by then, one-third of the country's population will be 65 years old or older. Most Japanese require employees to retire by age 60.

One research scientist at Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories, Christian Penaloza, told VICE that we'll only see more of these robots in Japan as a solution to one of its biggest economic and social problems.

“These types of automation systems will be introduced in the restaurant industry for a greater variety of tasks that not only involve cooking, but also serving the food to customers using robot waiters," he said.

Watch: Robots Could Be Coming For More Than Just Your Job

In other places in Japan, robots have taken over almost completely. There's Tokyo’s Robot Restaurant, where bots dance alongside humans in a parade. Over at Henn na, or Weird Hotel, the staff is made up robotic women and dinosaurs who help you check in.

Some businesses also see robots not as a replacement for humans, but as opportunities. Last month, a new Tokyo café employed people with disabilities whose job is to operate robot waiters from their homes. The café’s trial run ended recently but its developers hope to open an official restaurant in time for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics and Paralympics.

The pop-up café was part of a collaboration between three Japanese companies: The Nippon Foundation, a non-profit organization that aims to create a better society for those with disabilities, All Nippon Airways, and a robotics startup Ory. “As this avatar technology develops further, I am confident that people who have not thought of physical labor will now be able to work,” Toshimichi Takemura, a project leader at The Nippon Foundation told VICE. Back in Osaki's Lawson branch, the chicken nugget robo-chef's days are numbered, for now at least. The robot's trial run will end on December 28, and Mochimaru told me the chain has no plan to install it at other branches. But they might be getting other kinds of robots.

"Depending on the results of the trial, similar cooking robots may be used to prepare other kinds of fried food such as rice balls and salad, and may be installed in other stores in the future," he told VICE.