As Japan goes grey, toymakers design dolls for the elderly
TOKYO (AFP) - 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.
The toy has proved a hit not only with children but with the elderly and more than one million dollars have been sold over the past five years.
On November 13, Bandai went to a Tokyo amusement park to celebrate the fifth "birthday" of Primopuel, inviting doll owners to pay homage at a nearby shrine in a ritual just like parents of real Japanese five-year-olds do that month.
"There has been demand for dolls which can 'heal' you but toys available on the market were mostly for daytime," said Kiriseko.
"I thought that you need to enjoy the night together if you really hope to live with a doll."
The 37-centimeter (15-inch) Yumel -- deriving from the Japanese word "yume", or "dream" -- looks like a sleepy baby boy but is equipped with six sensors and an IC chip which keep track of the owner's sleeping time.
The doll can be programmed to "sleep" or "wake up" in accordance with the owner's pattern, saying "good morning" with open eyes at due time or inviting the elderly to sleep with the doll's eyelids drooping.
"I feel so good, g-o-o-d n-i-g-h-t," the doll says before falling asleep if the owner pats it on the chest gently.
Or Yumel may ask, "Aren't you pushing yourself too hard?" when it judges the owner has been going to bed too irregularly or not spending enough time playing with it.
"If you lead an orderly life, Yumel will be in a good mood, singing songs or pleading with you to do something like buying him toys," Kiriseko said.
He said the doll could serve as a more suitable companion for the elderly than man's best friend.
"The market for this doll overlaps with a market of dogs, cats and other pets," he said. "But some older people worry about the possibility of dying and leaving their loved pets behind."
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".
Some customers are so much in love with the doll that they are troubled by casual questions it asks.
"Some say they cannot give Yumel good answers when it asks questions such as 'Why do elephants have long noses?'" Kiriseko said.
"You may think they don't have to answer as it's just a doll who's asking, but they are truly perplexed," Kiriseko said.
The toymaker found a solution in the new-version Yumel: The doll's statement has been modified from a question to the statement, "It's interesting elephants have long noses."
Japan is a country with one of the world's lowest birth rates and oldest populations. The nation's birth rate hit an all-time low of 1.29 children per woman in 2003.
The government said Monday that Japan's population rose a mere 0.05 percent in the year to October 2004 and could decline this year for the first time since records began in 1950.
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.
In December, a software firm released on the market a 45-centimeter (18-inch) robot for the elderly named Snuggling Ifbot, who is dressed in an astronaut suit with a glowing face.
If a person tells Snuggling Ifbot, "I'm bored today," the 576,000 yen (5,600-dollar) robot might respond, "Are you bored? What do you want to do?"
To a statement, "Isn't it nice today?", the robot could say, "It is a fine autumn day," by detecting the season from its internal clock.
The robot's maker Dream Supply said the Snuggling Ifbot had the conversation ability of a five-year-old -- considered just enough for small talk to keep the elderly from going senile.