Cuddle Simulators, Girlfriend Coats, and Wine for Cats: Is Japan the Future of Human Loneliness?

A Guardian article about Japanese young people no longer being interested in sex and relationships has generated a lot of blogosphere criticism over the past week and a half, primarily about Western media exoticizing "weird" Japanese culture. Those criticisms duly noted, there have also been some recent Japanese innovations that seem to not only support the premise of the article -- that technology is taking over the space once occupied by sex and dating -- but take it further. Several recent inventions in Japan seem not only likely to disrupt traditional relationships in the way that social media or text messaging has, but to physically replace companionship and affection. Today's report of the physiological benefits of using the Hugvie, a soft doll that simulates a human heartbeat so that the user can "cuddle" with the person on the other end of their phone, is one such case.

Below are some Japanese inventions, like the Hugvie, that may be the most solid proof that Japan is indeed throwing out the idea of relationships and becoming a dystopian future of human loneliness.

The Hugvie

The Hugvie is a soft body-fitting pillow with a slot in the head for a smart phone. Users can cuddle with the pillow while talking on the phone, and the pillow's internal vibrators generate a simulated heartbeat of the caller based on the voice's tone and volume. In other words, the soft, "blobular" doll transforms a standard phone conversation into a "cuddling" experience with your phone companion. The gizmo was invented by an Osaka University professor who built off of an earlier remote-controlled doll. 

A video from the product's launch last year shows users talking into the phone end and cradling their pillows, and new evidence suggests that the pillow might be as satisfying and soul-warming as the video portrays: a joint study from the University of Sussex and Osaka University that levels of the stress hormone cortisol were reduced in people after using the pillow.

Wine for Cats

Earlier this month, a Japanese company took the age-old stereotype of the lonely cat woman and made it a little less lonely with the invention of Nyan Nyan Nouveau, a non-alcoholic feline wine. Masahito Tsurimi, the chief executive of the company behind the wine, told the Wall Street Journal that it was invented in response to requests from cat-owners -- despite the fact that only one in 10 cats were willing to taste it.

Tsurimi said he saw a bright future in the "specialty pet-drink business" six years ago when he was worried about where future beverage sales would come from with a shrinking, aging Japanese population. It was probably just a nice bonus when he read about the country's sexual aversion and social awkwardness on top of that.

Simon Thomas/flickr

The Girlfriend Coat

In April of this year, RocketNews 24 reported that a group of engineering students at Tsukuba University created a coat that could hug its wearer and whisper phrases into its ear. Meant to simulate a girlfriend, motors in the coat operate the "arms" that squeeze the wearer when he puts it on. In a pair of headphones he slips on with the coat, he also hears one of a number of programmed phrases: "I'm sorry, were you waiting?" and "Guess who?"

The university students named it the Riajyuu Coat. According to gaming site Kotaku, riajyuu is a mash-up Japanese word that means someone who is pleased with his non-virtual life. Unlike some of the other replacements for human contact, this one appears to have just been a joke between friends, and the inventors have no real plans to release it commercially.

Video Game Relationships

Japan has cultivated a global reputation for their romantic simulation video games, and for good reason: while some of the games are just bizarre, like a game in which both the player and his mate are pigeons, others mimic relationships down to eerily small details. LovePlus+, for instance, a dating simulation game released in Japan in 2009, invites players to choose one girl that they prefer out of three types -- a "goodie-goodie," "sassy," or "big-sister" type -- and then earn "boyfriend power" points by going to the gym or doing homework to become smarter. The girl can get mad at their boyfriends, too: in a 2010 article, LovePlus+ gamer Shunsuke Kato told the Wall Street Journal he was on the outs with his LovePlus+ "girlfriend" for being busy at work and only playing the game for ten minutes a day.

The game has blurred the line between real and virtual to such an extent that a Japanese resort town once known for honeymooning, Atami, launched a promotional campaign in 2010 that relied on recreating the virtual trip to Atami from the game. At Atami's (real) Hotel Ohnoya, the staff was trained to check in single men as couples, and restaurants created Love Plus+-inspired menus for the gaming guests.

Ryoku KASINN/flickr

If there's some silver lining to be found in all of this, it's that a business opportunity will be there to pad the landing when humans do something self-destructive. As Japan has demonstrated, the risk of a plummeting birth rate and the social instability inherent in becoming a society where unmarried people exist in large numbers at least opens up the possibility for bizarre romance-gamer tourism, wine for cats, and pillows you can cuddle with. It appears that the patterns of coupling off and forming small units, once thought of as a naturally occurring constant, can only be outlasted by the other constant of economic self-interest. On second thought, maybe it's not such a silver lining after all.



Whatever Happened to Asian Hopping Zombies?

If you, like me, were born in the 1980s, and if you, like me, had a grandparent who was into Hong Kong cinema, you might have vague memories of this guy:

The above is a Chinese hopping zombie, or hopping vampire, as he is also commonly known, though really, he is sui generis. Known as a jiang shi, or "stiff corpse," in mandarin, a goeng si in Cantonese, and a kyonshi in Japanese, he's not a zombie, because he doesn't eat flesh. He's not a vampire -- though he was called one by Hong Kong filmmakers, who thought it would be good for marketing purposes. He doesn't drink blood (or at least, he didn't until the influence of Hollywood western vampires made itself felt). Rather, he drinks qi, or life energy.

These guys were legion in the Hong Kong movies of the 1980s and 1990s, from the classic Mr. Vampire and Encounters of the Spooky Kind, featured above, to The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, in which a British film company tried to muscle into the genre. The films were big in Hong Kong -- a very earnest academic paper I stumbled across on this topic framed them as a critical response to the pending Chinese handover and the "crisis of modernity" -- but they were also popular in Southeast Asia, and across the Chinese diaspora.

The lines between jiangshi and other, more Western forms of the undead grew increasingly blurred over time, as Hollywood influence made itself increasingly felt -- in later jiangshi movies, for example, you might see one of these creatures drink blood -- but one defining characteristic remained: while western zombies lurched and juddered around, and western vampires moved like normal humans (or, if anything, more gracefully), these Chinese undead always hopped -- slowly, rigidly, with arms extended straight ahead (something to do with rigor mortis?).

And then the jiangshi disappeared, almost as quickly as they'd arisen. A Hollywood push into Asia took its toll on the Hong Kong film industry; Asian countries developed a taste for movies like 28 Days Later, and homegrown fare like Tokyo Zombie and Zombie 108 began taking on the tropes of the Western horror genre instead of the weird, wacky kung fu horror/comedy style that marked Hong Kong jiangshi films.

Another victim of globalization

Lately, however, the genre has shown some signs of life. Hong Kong pop star-turned-actor Juno Mak is proudly touting his latest movie, Rigor Mortis, as a tribute to jiangshi movies, while a Japanese show that debuted last year,Haohao! Kyongshi girl, features the jumping creatures and a Malaysia-made game, The Chinese Zombie War,  in which a Taoist priest fights an army of jumping jiangshi in the jungle,appears to be a a hit in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland.

Is this nostalgia? Another critical response to a crisis of modernity? I'll leave it to the academics to decide. 

Thanks to Matt Mogk at the Zombie Research Society for help on this post.