The dolls, called Yumel in Japanese, have a vocabulary of 1,200 phrases. The makers are marketing Yumel not as toys but as "healing partners" for elderly Japanese.
Since their limited introduction three months ago, more than 6,000 Yumel have been sold. Some of the customers are so taken with their dolls that it bothers them when they can't answer the doll's "questions," such as, "Why do elephants have long noses?"
The elderly didn't always need dolls for their loneliness. Once upon a time, they had children and grandchildren.
P. D. James's novel The Children of Men is set twenty-six years after the last known birth on Earth. In a world without children, dolls have become the object of women's maternal attention. City streets are filled with women taking their dolls on a stroll. And the anxiety and despair caused by knowing that theirs is likely the last generation of humans shapes the characters' actions.
The reason for the lack of children in James's novel is a mystery. But the same can't be said about Japan. Japan has one of the world's lowest birthrates, only 1.3 children per woman. (2.1 children is the replacement rate.) This year, Japan's population may decline for the first time since 1950-and it is a decline that will continue.
Younger Japanese, like their Western counterparts, are putting "careers and lifestyles over the pressures of having children and taking care of their parents." The result is an aging population with neither children nor grandchildren to ease their loneliness.
Notice that I said "like their Western counterparts." In Europe, similar values have produced fertility rates as low as, or even lower than Japan's. One consequence of Europe's "birth dearth" is a sizeable Islamic population that is having lots of children and whose assimilation is hardly a given. Demographics may bring about what the Moors and Ottoman Empire couldn't: a Muslim Europe.
While our fertility rate is higher, that's largely an artifact of high immigration rates. (Immigrant women have more children than native-born Americans.) Despite a nearly one-third drop in the abortion rate over the past decade, native-born Americans have a birth rate of only about 1.8 children per woman, the same as Norway. Like their European and Japanese counterparts, American women are increasingly postponing childbearing and having fewer children.
What's at work on all three continents is an anti-natalist worldview. Children, instead of being our motivation for working hard, are expected to accommodate themselves to the demands of the workplace. Instead of being the future, they are only "welcome" if they don't get in the way of our plans for the future.
The result is fewer children. And as the Japanese now know, by the time you've discovered the problem it's probably too late: Cultural habits are hard to change, even if you're willing to acknowledge the problem in the first place. All that's left are unpalatable choices and voids that no toy can fill.