TOKYO • Ms Setsuko Saeki, 87, has lived with a robot for a year in her spacious house in the city of Saijo, Ehime prefecture, western Japan.
When she gets up in the morning and enters the living room, she is greeted by her robot, a model named PaPeRo i, on a desk. "Good morning, Setsuko-san," is a typical address. "Did you sleep well?"
Ms Saeki said: "When it spoke to me the first time, I couldn't help but feel excited. No one had called me by name and said good morning for a long time."
Her three children have moved out and her husband died six years ago. Since then, Ms Saeki has lived alone. Nursing care helpers visit her daily, and she attends haiku poetry gatherings. Even so, she often feels a sense of loneliness that is hard to describe.
In July last year, the city government began a project to lend PaPeRo i robots free of charge to 10 elderly residents - who do not have family members living with them - for three months.
Ms Saeki's eldest son, who lives in Chiba prefecture, learnt about the project on the city government's website and applied on his mother's behalf.
A PaPeRo i robot is about 30cm tall. Its cheeks light up when replying to questions. Cameras are installed in its big eyes, and it follows Ms Saeki using the camera sensors, directing its face towards her.
Before she goes to bed, the robot asks: "Did you lock up the house?"
... robots are bought by not only elderly people, but also by many people in their 40s and 50s who buy them to help keep watch over their parents.
Sometimes, the robot makes impromptu puns and tells her pieces of trivia. Three times a day, the robot asks her: "Setsuko-san, may I take photos of you?"
The robot photographs her and transmits the images to her eldest son's smartphone or personal computer. Her son also sends photos that Ms Saeki can see on a device connected to her robot.
The photos are also transmitted to a care manager in charge of Ms Saeki's case, giving her more peace of mind, and she can exchange voice messages with her eldest son and his family via the robot.
"Initially, I didn't expect anything after hearing about a robot. But now, I don't want to be parted from my PaPeRo i," Ms Saeki said.
Mr Mitsuaki Matsuo, chief of the city's comprehensive support section, said: "The responses were better than we expected."
Some elderly residents in the city initially voiced negative opinions about the robot-on-loan project. One said: "If I have to receive care from a robot, it's over."
But about 90 per cent of those who used the robots have positive things to say, such as "I feel close to it" and "I can ease my loneliness". Also, about 90 per cent of the families of the users praised the project, saying it relieved their anxiety.
Later, the city government made the service a paid rental business. The fees are 22,530 yen (S$293) for instalment and 6,000 yen a month for telecommunication and other necessary features, both excluding consumption tax.
Six residents, including those who have continued to use the service, have such robots at home.
In a survey by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry in 2015, 40 per cent of respondents in their 20s or younger said they "want to use" or "could consider using" communication robots.
The percentage among people in their 50s was 51 per cent, and that among people in their 60s or older was 55 per cent.
Still, there are many elderly people who are hesitant to buy robots for fear they may be difficult to use.
For such people, Benefit Japan, an Osaka-based firm selling Sharp's small RoBoHoN model robots, holds events at which visitors can control real RoBoHoN robots for free, in department stores and shopping malls across the nation.
A RoBoHoN is about 20cm tall and has functions like a smartphone through which users can access e-mail and a camera.
A Benefit Japan official said: "Users can take photos at travel destinations and chat about the memories later. Many people are surprised at how many functions the robots have, despite their very small size."
Takashimaya opened a Robotics Studio, which the company claims is the first sales corner in a department store specialising in robots, at its Shinjuku store in Tokyo in 2017. The following year, the company opened the same kind of sales corner at its store in Osaka.
At both locations, customers can experience various means of controlling robots.
At Takashimaya's Osaka store, officials said, robots are bought by not only elderly people, but also by many people in their 40s and 50s who buy them to help keep watch over their parents.
Sales in the robot corners have been brisk, and Takashimaya plans to open Robotics Studio corners in more places nationwide.
The main feature of communication robots is that they understand human words, recognise their users' faces and chat and make gestures that endear them to users.
Such robots are said to be priced mainly between 100,000 yen and 300,000 yen.
A 2017 poll by the Cabinet Office showed over 10 per cent of respondents who lived alone at age 55 or older said they had conversations with family members or friends "once or twice a month" or "rarely".
Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University said: "Robots can fulfil people's desire to chat with somebody, and make users feel close to them and warm with their eye contact, motions and words. They could become as popular as smartphones, if prices go down."
THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ ASIA NEWS NETWORK