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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
The Girlfriend Coat
In April of this year, RocketNews
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.
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.
KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images