Japan has a population problem. Though it isn’t what you think. For the reasons mentioned in the comic, Japan is becoming a nation of the elderly.  Low birth rates and higher life expectancy has resulted in more elderly with less younger relatives to take care of them, but the impetus behind the Mimamori Hotline has a cultural cause as well.

Traditionally, the eldest son moved into his parent’s home after getting married, wherein the parents would abscond themselves to a guest bedroom and they would all live together under one roof. I know this because my parents always threatened me with it growing up*. I experienced my first extended familial living situation, as a homestay working in Japan in 2003—and I really enjoyed it. Every meal was an event and I bonded really quickly with my host grandfather, despite his initial reservations towards having some big hairy foreigner living in their house. By the end of the summer, he ceaselessly joked about flying back to America with me.

But  that scene has been shifting for a while now towards nuclear families moving to the cities while the grandparents live alone out in the country. My travels in Japan have shown me both the old and the new ways through my host family as well as my actual family Japanese family. My mother, her brother, and her sister all moved out of the house as they grew up, going to America, Germany, and elsewhere in Japan respectively. But they were always a more westernized family—my grandfather spoke fluent English and even worked in a Detroit automotive plant—compared to my host family in rural Nagano prefecture. (There’s a part of me that revels in this dualism.)

But onto the comic…

The Mimamori Hotline was an interesting techno-social experiment I had unearthed during my rice cooker research—buried in the “about” section of Zojirushi’s website. One could argue it was one of the first jabs into the world of social media—connecting people through their devices. I was surprised I hadn’t heard of it before, and also curious why they didn’t flaunt this brilliant work of technology-based welfare management. My best guess is because it is only available in Japan and is now ten years old and considered commonplace. You have to give it to the Japanese though: How many people had cell phones in 2001, let alone kitchen appliances that let your family know when something was amiss? Although, also leave it to the Japanese to need a hot water kettle to tell you how grandma is doing. On that subject, read this lecture about communication in the modern age. Especially interesting are the slides about how people “keep in touch” while not bothering to spend any time doing it**.

Finding out more about the Mimamori Hotline actually took quite a bit of digging. The Zojirushi and official Mimamori sites were only mildly helpful. I gleaned most of the information from research papers and articles written about the hotline’s revolutionary use of emerging mobile technology to keep families connected. The story of the doctor is unfortunately just that. He is never named, and is only briefly mentioned when explaining the Hotline’s history. The lack of material left me scratching my head just the same as before. I’m pretty sure that there might be  language divide at work here. After all, Google wasn’t pulling in Japanese websites and I currently don’t have my keyboard set up to type in kana. If I get that going and find anything new, you’ll be the first to know.

So how much does a little peace of mind about your far-off aging relative cost? Apparently around $26 a month plus $50 down. But like the foreign language articles I covet, the wonders of the I-Pot are confined to the land of the rising sun (think Holy Grail moving past Templar seal***) and will not work anywhere else. But that doesn’t stop the caregiver from being elsewhere in the world. Check out this article about one blogger’s personal experience with the Mimamori system. It also includes some more articles about it that you can read for more information.

Issues? It’s a bit a macabre. You don’t find out if your relative is on their way (unless you interpret the data carefully), only when they finally kick it. But then again, kettle use could also stop because they are too sick or injured to use it, causing an alert that sends much needed help. That there is the silver lining case where the Mimamori Hotline can actually saves lives, and not just report their passing. That chance, coupled with the added psychological benefit of your nana not feeling totally dejected—“They left this teapot here to watch over me.”****—makes the Hotline a mixed-bag of gooey, great success.

If you love the idea of technology that pokes you now and then to make sure you’re alive, you have probably already heard of David Eagleman’s Death Switch website. For a modest fee, Death Switch will occasionally email you, prompting to respond and reset the counter. Think of it as the numbers for life. When you sign up, you can set up a series of emails to be sent out in the event of your death. If you miss a few missed prompts, the system will assume you have passed and will send out all of those emails you requested. Pretty cool. According to the website, uses include:

  • Computer passwords
  • Financial information
  • Love letters
  • Unspeakable secrets
  • Final wishes
  • and my favorite: The last word in an argument.

I still giggle at the thought of that last one. I’m sure I’d have a slew of emails sent out that only read, “No, you are.” 



This post was brought to you by Copernicium (Cn) which, while not initially discovered in Japan, was confirmed at the RIKEN Superheavy Element Lab in Wako, Japan.

*Though now, living on a lake in upstate New York doesn’t sound like such a bad deal.
**It also contains a slide about the creator of the emoticon! Geek-tastic! Also on that vein, a recent Pew study found that 13% of people pretend to talk on the phone to avoid talking to other people (guilty).
***”Indiana… let it go.”
****Oh man this stuff is terrible