With apologies to the Vapors, the popular 1979 one-hit wonders, I believe that robots are turning Japanese.

According to a recent Associated Press article about the top robots being honored in Japan, it is clear that the country is quite serious about positioning itself as a leader in this emerging field, which, according to the Japanese Robot Association, is expected to be a $50 billion worldwide industry by 2020.

Among the things Japanese robots are already doing is allowing elderly citizens to operate, via joystick, a robotic arm to deliver food to their mouth. In one sense, it seems almost inhumane to make a person in the twilight of his or her life operate a joystick to eat. The alternatives, however, aren't any better.

Japan has a very elderly population, and it doesn't have enough care providers to adequately help this growing segment of society. Either more able-bodied young people will need to be encouraged to work in the care industry, or, alternatively, more elderly people will be forced to leave their homes to seek proper care in nursing homes.

Other robots that received awards were Paro, a furry robotic pet fitted with sensors that allows it to react to the touch of its users. One real-world application is that autistic and handicapped children are using Paro to comfort them.

Fuji Heavy Industries also earned recognition for creating a robotic vacuum cleaner that travels unaided between the levels of a home. A demonstration of this robot wasn't available, so I don't know how it compares with iRobot's (NASDAQ:IRBT) Roomba, but it at least suggests that the company will face some competition in the future.

And that is really is my broader point today. A number of Japanese companies, including Toyota (NYSE:TM), Honda (NYSE:HMC) and Yaskawa, are all racing ahead on robotic technology, and investors interested in the field therefore need to keep abreast of developments in Japan.

This isn't because I actually believe that robots will be turning Japanese. Rather, it is because the Japanese will be among the first to turn to robots for daily assistance. And by tracking how its citizens are using robots, investors can get a glimpse into where this exciting field is headed.

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Fool contributor Jack Uldrich has had robots on his mind for the past week. He also owns stock in iRobot. The Fool has a strict disclosure policy.