Thursday, February 24, 2005

Japan's Elderly Turn to Dolls for Companionship

Japanese toy makers are moving to exploit a need made increasingly evident by Japan's demographic decline:
As Japan produces fewer children and more retirees, toymakers are designing new dolls designed not for the young but for the lonely elderly -- companions which can sleep next to them and offer caring words they may never hear otherwise.

Talking toys have become such a hit that some elderly people have embraced them as substitutes for the children who have grown old and deserted entire neighborhoods in the rapidly greying country.

The Yumel doll, which looks like a baby boy and has a vocabulary of 1,200 phrases, is billed as a "healing partner" for the elderly and goes on the market Thursday at a price of 8,500 yen (80 dollars).

About 8,000 Yumel dolls, designed by toymaker Tomy with pillows and bedding maker Lofty, have already been sold in less than three months in limited marketing in sleeping sections of department stores.

"Toymakers are targeting senior citizens as the number of children is falling. We are also striving to attract them," said Osamu Kiriseko, who headed the Yumel project.

Another toymaker, Bandai, in November 1999 launched the Primopuel doll which is meant to resemble a five-year-old boy who needs the same sort of attention, asking to be hugged and entertained.

Like the denizens of most other wealthy, industrialized nations, the Japanese are failing to reproduce themselves. The Japanese fertility rate has decline to an average 1.38 children per Japanese woman with the result that, according to the AFP, Japan's population grew by a paltry 0.05 percent in 2004 and will likely decline in 2005, the first time since such records were kept. The drastic decline in young Japanese has produced significant changes in the traditional way of Japanese life.

Traditionally, the eldest son was expected to live with their parents as they grew older and many young Japanese still stay at home for financial reasons as Japan has some of the world's highest rents.

But the custom is fading out in the younger generation as more Japanese singles choose to live independently and favor careers and lifestyles over the pressures of having children and taking care of their parents.

The Japanese are also famous for their longevity, with more than 23,000 people aged 100 or over.

The absence of children and grandchildren and the general segregation of the elderly from families has resulted in the sad acceptance of artificial substitutes for human company.

Some 500 customers have sent in comments since October, many of them hailing the changes to their lives since Yumel entered the picture, with a 95-year-old woman the oldest respondent.

"Thank you for giving me a heart-warming baby. I'm no longer alone," an 82-year-old woman wrote while another senior woman said she was raising the doll "as my own child".

Of course, elderly Japanese are hardly alone in their want of attention - as a visit to any senior care facility (or assisted living facility, or, more crassly put, old age home) in Europe or America will easily prove. But with its burgeoning elderly population, Japan points to a seemingly inevitable future for all developed nations, in which fertility rates continue to decline even as lifespan increases. Politicians across Europe and in Washington have noticed the demographic trends and their negative long-term effect on social welfare and entitlements programs (like social security in the US). But the social effects of a swelling population of increasingly frail and socially isolated elderly population remain under-estimated.

Those effects are not likely to be salutary. In current medical practice, as the final years of life are extended, the cost of caring for the elderly rises sharply due to failing health, susceptibility to infection, mental deterioraton and general frailness. As the number of such dependent elderly people rise, the strain on national economies will begin to show. An ever higher percerntage of young workers will be lured into the elder-care industry, whose financial cost will consume an ever greater portion of national income. Financial resources devoted to elder-care will produce significant returns for the overall society (unlike, say, investing in schools or new factories or scientific research). Many welfare states - particular those in Europe - will eventually founder on this merciless equation. This will leave many national governments desperate for a solution. Government administered efforts to boost birth rates, dating back as far as Augustus Caesar (see previous posts) have historically proven ineffective. A sensible policy - as argued by FuturePundit - would be to invest in medical technologies that not only increase lifespan, but seek to prolong relative youth and health, thus reducing the long-term cost of old age and its burden on the national economy. But funding for such longevity research remains scant in Washington - muck like long-range thinking.

The dearth of young people will also undermine economies as the number of workers and entrepeneurs dwindle. In order to forestall these consequences, the US and Europe are trying to offset the decline in their native birth rates by importing young people from the Third World. Unforunately, the cultural consequences of doing so have proven highly divisive. In Europe, a large percentage of Muslim immigrants refuse to assimilate and segregate themselves into hostile, isolated enclaves - a breeding ground for Islamic fanaticism and violence. In America, Spanish-speaking immigrants pour into the country overwhelming established neighborhoods and threatening to bifurcate the US along linguistic and racial lines. The trauma caused to American and European culture from immigration is unlikely to be mild.

Unlike Europe and the US, Japan shows no intention of turning to immigration to bolster its supply of young people. The Japanese prize their culture and ethnic identity, both of which they feel would be lethally compromised by admitting non-Japanese to the society. Thus far, this policy has not serious erroded Japanese economic strenght or industrial might, largely because the Japanese have turned their technical and scientific prowess toward increased automation, reducing the need for new workers. Robotics has become "a key long-term economic strength with Japan possessing 410,000 of the world's 720,000 `working robots.'" Refusing immigration has ensured, however, that Japanese culture - if not as dynamic as America's - at least remains Japanese.

Not surprisingly, literacy in Japan is better than 99% of the population, the HIV infection rate is low, and crime, though rising, remains a fraction of that in the US, particularly violent crime. The dearth of Japanese babies, however, remains unmitigated. The Japanese may ultimately perfect automated companions who will shower aging Japanese pensioners with attention, but those machines will not solve the basic problem - a lack of new Japanese.


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