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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Open Access August 3, 2020

“Intimate relationship” with “virtual humans” and the “socialification” of familyship

  • Hiroshi Yamaguchi EMAIL logo


In this article, the author provides a new view on intimate relationships with “virtual humans” such as robots and AIs. Recent technological developments have enabled firms to create humanlike robots and AIs. It is likely that, in the near future, a growing number of people will want intimate relationships with these virtual humans. This may receive harsh criticism, for example, that such a move would indicate objectification of women or ethical wrongdoing. Instead, however, it should be viewed in light of quality of life (QOL) for sexual minorities and people with various difficulties. Aided by the discussion of the introduction of the Long Term Public Care Insurance (LTCI) system in Japan in the late 1990s, the author positions this trend as the “socialification” of familyship  –  that is, a phenomenon in which the virtual humans, as products or services offered by businesses, become partners/family members, and a change by which some parts of the intimate relationships within families are shared in society. Just as the LTCI system, which was introduced as a socialification of nursing care, reduced the burden of care on Japanese women and improved their QOL, adoption of virtual humans as a socialification of familyship is also likely to improve the QOL of people with difficulties worldwide.

1 The rise of “virtual humans”

1.1 “Serious” relationships with robots and AIs

The robot and Artificial Intelligence (AI) industry is now one of the fastest growing sectors of the global economy. It is “expected to grow from US$ 3.49 billion in 2018 to US$ 12.36 billion by 2023, at a compound annual growth rate of 28.78% between 2018 and 2023” [1].

The areas of application of these technologies are widespread. Among them, the household sector is expected to lead the growth of the whole industry. In 2010, the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) in Japan, in association with the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), predicted the future market size of the Japanese robot industry until 2035. They estimated that in 25 years, the Japanese robot industry will grow from about 1 trillion to 9.7 trillion yen. Within the industry, the service sector is expected to grow the fastest (Figure 1). This sector includes nursing care, entertainment, household support, and communication.

Figure 1 A projection of robot industry in Japan (NEDO 2010).
Figure 1

A projection of robot industry in Japan (NEDO 2010).

Robots and AIs have already become popular not only in workplaces or on the street but also in households. Many have practical uses, such as iRobot’s automated cleaner Roomba and Amazon’s Alexa, but some do not. Sony’s “entertainment robot” AIBO, first launched in 1999, moved autonomously and had various sensors to allow it to react to its owner’s actions but did not serve any practical functions. The owners of approximately 150,000 units, which were sold, simply enjoyed how they behaved as pets.

In fact, many AIBO owners treated them as if they were actually “living” and developed intimate relationships with them. Sony withdrew from the robot business in 2005, and ceased its user support and maintenance services in 2014 (it resumed the business in January 2018 and launched a new version renamed as “aibo”). This effectively meant that AIBO (the first series) faced “death.” In 2015, A-Fan Co. held a joint “funeral” ceremony for AIBOs that had stopped working [2]. The AIBOs that were “deceased” due to lack of parts necessary for repair were lined up and their owners put their hands together while listening to the voice of a Buddhist monk chanting a sutra. The event was just like funeral ceremony for pets. Since then, such ceremonies have been held semiannually; the sixth was held in April 2018.

1.2 Capability/appearance may not be indispensable

Humanoid dolls can also be partners in intimate relationships with people. Some companies sell, the so-called “sex dolls,” humanlike dolls intended to satisfy their owners’ sexual desire. Recent products often employ AI, enabling their owners to communicate with them (sexbots), and can be customized according to preference. In several countries, such as Russia, France, and Japan, sexbot brothels provide clients with cheaper and safer alternatives to “real” prostitutes. However, these dolls can at the same time be more than just “objects.” A number of news articles can be found on the Internet about those who engage in serious love and sex with the sexbots or sex dolls (for example, [3,4]).

In addition, these people do not necessarily require that the bots/dolls have a high degree of intelligence when choosing them as the partners of serious relationships. According to industry experts, about 2,000 “love dolls” are sold each year in Japan [4]. Many of these, often costing more than 6,000 US dollars, neither speak nor move autonomously. However, many of their owners live with them, go out with them, and even talk with them (although the conversations are one-sided).

A serious and intimate relationship does not necessarily involve physical contact, including sexual acts. A typical love doll is equipped with the function to have sexual intercourse with the owner, but not all owners actually use the function. For such owners, emotional “ties” with the dolls are more important. Such dolls are nothing less than partners in serious and intimate relationships with their owners.

Even physical bodies are sometimes unnecessary for such relationships. AIs without any physical body can also become partners for committed and/or intimate relationships with their owners [5]:

“When we communicate in an environment with fewer cues from facial expression and body language, people have a lot of room to idealize their partner,” says Catalina Toma, an associate professor of communications at the University of Wisconsin. She points to research showing that humans who communicate remotely by email or chat often have an easier time forming personal bonds than people who meet face to face. “It can be hard for real people, with all the messy complications of the physical world, to compete with that.”

In some cases, the bodies of AIs can be “two-dimensional;” in other words, they are AIs depicted as characters in animes or games. In Japanese games like Konami’s Love Plus or Sony’s Summer Lesson, players interact with characters on the screen. The human interaction made possible by that game engine was not enough to call it AI, but still one Love Plus player enjoyed going to a hot spring alone with that game as a hot spring trip with that character. In Love Plus, there is a scene where the player goes on a hot spring trip with the character. This player imitated it [6].

On November 4, 2018, a male government clerk living in Tokyo, aged 35, engaged in a wedding ceremony with Hatsune Miku. Miku is a type of virtual singer computer software with a green-haired girl character as an avatar. The software enables the owner to create female-voiced songs, but the girl character cannot physically interact with the owner since she does not have a physical body. Now the clerk lives with Miku who “lives” as the character of a virtual home robot, which costs US$ 2,600, created by an IoT venture company, Gatebox Inc. All she can do is recognize him and engage in simple conversations; yet the clerk says he is happy living with her [7].

1.3 Definitions and scope

In this article, the author defines the term “virtual human” as a robot or AI that enables the owner or user to feel commitment. If they are equipped with sufficiently developed AIs, these virtual humans cannot be distinguished from real humans. However, even those with limited capabilities (including lack of physical bodies), or an appearance not resembling that of a human, can be virtual humans if the owner/user feels commitment accordingly. Some people would be willing to have and maintain serious and intimate relationships with these virtual humans. Some may be reminded of “companion species” as described by Haraway [8]. Companion dogs, for example, may help their owners in their hunting expeditions but may do nothing useful otherwise; even so, these dogs can be precious and indispensable companions to their owners. Surely then, a virtual human can be a companion to its owner/user, just like dogs or AIBOs.

Throughout the world today, we see examples of “personification,” which attributes human characteristics to things that are not human beings. At least in Japan, personification is not limited to mere rhetorical techniques or children’s fairy tales. In the traditional Japanese faith (later called Shinto), people thought that God resided in all kinds of objects. Tylor thought that such animism existed only in primitive societies [9], but it prevails in developed societies as well. Unlike Harvey’s [10] claim, such ideas are not limited to people who have unorthodox customs or beliefs. As Jensen and Blok observed, techno-animism is prevalent all across Japan [11]. You can see it among factory workers who gave names to industrial robots in their factories, engineers who created a vending machine that speaks, and female fans of the game Touken Ranbu featuring personified Japanese katana (swords), in addition to AIBO owners and the man who married Hatsune Miku. Such sympathetic behaviors of people toward these man-made artifacts are natural extensions of their attitude toward graveyards, memorial towers for beached whales, killed and eaten livestock, exterminated harmful insects and termites, harvested plants, cut flowers, Bifidobacteria used for yogurt, or Bacillus subtilis used for biological experiments, all of which exist in this country. Distinctions between humans, animals, and things have been, and still are, quite subtle. The attitudes Haraway [8] found through many years of research were established at least hundreds of years ago in this country and have been maintained as a social norm to the present day.

However, it is inappropriate to think that such a way of thinking does not exist outside Japan. In this cultural domain, Japan has not been greatly influenced by traditional Western culture (based mainly on Christianity) that strictly distinguishes among humans, animals, and things. Thus, examples of this attitude prevail everywhere and are easily observed in Japan. Nevertheless, we also see similar examples in other areas of the world, including the Western Hemisphere, at least in fantasies or entertainment content, including Pygmalion in ancient Greece and Celtic animism in Harry Potter. The dissemination of virtual humans is creating a situation such that the possibility of Latour’s “non-modern settlement” in [12] should be seriously considered in the rest of the world, including in Western societies. Therefore, in this study, discussion is not limited in scope to only Japan. Rather, it will be at least potentially applicable to other areas of the world.

Since a virtual human does not necessarily have a physical humanoid body, an “intimate relationship” in this study does not necessarily include sexual relations. Also, since they may not be sufficiently intelligent, the author does not employ Giddens’s definition of an intimate relationship, “mutual self-disclosure between equals” [13]. A closer definition would be “a type of personal relationship that is subjectively experienced and may also be socially recognized as close,” by Jamieson [14]. It includes a wide repertoire of practices, including “giving to, sharing with, spending time with, knowing, practically caring for, feeling attachment to, [and] expressing affection for” another. Since it is personal, the “practice of intimacy” may differ from person to person. Sexual activity is surely important for many, but not for all.

It is important to note, however, that when a partner in an intimate relationship is a virtual human, the relationship may not be mutual or reciprocal in the sense that is applied to relationships between humans. (When a person says, “God loves me” and “I love God,” is it a mutual love?) Nevertheless, if a person feels an intimate connection to a virtual human, it constitutes an intimate relationship.

In addition, in some cases, it may be particularly important for the relationship to be “socially recognized as close” in the sense that such relationships may not be recognized as serious and worth being respected by a large majority within society. It is somewhat similar to the same-sex marriage, which is not currently recognized as socially legitimate in many regions of the world, except in some countries that have changed their existing laws in recent years. In many of these countries, gays and lesbians can still live with their partners. However, quite a few of them are not satisfied with mere co-living status. They want social recognition of their relationships and wish to marry legally. The man who married Hatsune Miku got a certificate of marriage from Gatebox Inc. The company issued such certificates for 3,708 owners of its products through December 2017 [15].

2 QOL of minorities and challenged individuals

2.1 Agalmatophilia (people who love machines/AIs/characters)

In Section 2.1, the author suggests a perspective in which virtual humans are a possible alternative to raise the quality of life (QOL) for sexual minorities, elderly or disabled individuals, or other groups with various challenges. The problems these people face in love and/or sex have largely been overlooked thus far. However, growing attention is paid to such issues as of recently.

A truly humanlike robot has yet to be created. The products available now are “robot-like” robots or even just dolls, some of which are capable only of limited AI or functions allowing them to perform several humanlike activities, including sexual activities. However, current technology has developed enough that we could imagine the appearance of robots and AIs eligible to be called “virtual humans” in the near future.

Intimate relationships with non-human artifacts are somewhat common in fantasies, but in the real world they are so uncommon that they have attracted no academic interest until recently. Alexander Scobie, a historian, sought past academic literature referring to agalmatophilia, defined as “the pathological condition in which some people establish exclusive sexual relationship with statues,” but could not find any. [16]” Murray J. White found only one real example of it while a number of pornographic fantasies depicted such instances [17].

However, in recent years a number of articles have been published on those who engage in serious and intimate relationships with dolls or sexbots [4,7,18,19]. Even the expectation of future development of virtual humans raises harsh criticism in the media. Opponents have presented a variety of arguments: it violates traditional values; it would lead to the objectification of women; it would induce sexual crimes; it is infidelity; it is religious sin or ethical wrongdoing; and so on [20]. We do not have enough evidence to judge whether this is an actual change in behavior, or only a shift by which what was previously unobservable has become observable. In either case, Cohen, who stated that “Love of statues is a longing for human form in stone’s immobile substance, not an itinerant desire that could be called stone love [21],” overlooked these recent instances.

Although only a small number of people face this kind of problem, it is inappropriate to overlook it as negligible; such an attitude is nothing more than discrimination against sexual minorities. According to Blanshard, agalmatophilia is labeled as a deviant sexual attraction throughout history [22]. This remains so even today, as is made clear by the way the aforementioned news articles are written. Recall that members of the LGBT community were considered abnormal as recently as a half-century ago. The general belief that sexual orientation, like homosexuality, is inherent, whereas sexual preference (like agalmatophilia) is not, is not corroborated by scientific evidence. The so-called “born this way” argument is rather an “advocacy against horrific attempts by physicians, clergy and psychologists to turn sexual minorities into heterosexuals” [23]. Grzanka states [24]:

Interestingly, psychological research generally confirms that essentialist beliefs about social identities correspond with putative judgment and stereotyping. Although this trend is consistent across research on race/racism and gender/sexism, the inverse has been observed in research about essentialism and SO (sexual orientation).

Whether a certain trait of a person is undesirable is irrelevant to whether that trait is innate. People with agalmatophilia, similar to LGBT individuals, do not hurt others with their preferences. In the near future, technological development will realize the creation of virtual humans in a true sense, and a growing number of people will choose AI-enhanced silicon (or other new material) dolls as partners in a committed relationship. In that sense, the previously raised concern that “intimate relationships with a virtual human causes humans to lose interest in other people” might be a legitimate one. However, is that really a problem? If “vicious” men lose interest in real women and choose far more attractive virtual humans, it would instead lower concerns that these men would objectify real women. Then women would no longer need to become “cyborgs,” as Haraway dreamed [25].

Of course, most men are not so vicious. The man who married Hatsune Miku did not objectify real women; rather, he personified a virtual human and chose her as a partner. His choice is based on his experiences of abuse by female classmates in his school days and by a female colleague in his workplace. It is a fact that men as a whole are in more powerful positions than women as a whole, however, it does not mean that each of all men is in more powerful position than each of all women.

The “objectification of women” argument is implicitly based on the assumption that only men buy/use virtual humans. This is a biased view. Certainly, there is no doubt that the sexbots currently available on the market are female and that most of their users are males. However, the fact that there are currently few female users does not mean that females do not need these kinds of products or services. The sexual needs of females may be suppressed by the male-centric societal norm that women should be “virtuous.” The argument that females do not have sexual desires, or that they never try to fulfill unmet desires even if they can do so secretly, would be the last things most feminists would say. There are likely also a number of women who would want to choose far more attractive virtual humans as partners rather than real men, if such products become available. Thus, the improvement of QOL that such products might offer for both some men and some women deserves consideration.

2.2 Elderly people

Aged people can also potentially benefit from the adoption of virtual humans. The United Nations estimates that “virtually every country in the world is experiencing growth in the number and proportion of older persons in their population.” Japan has the highest proportion of elderly people in the world. Societal aging necessarily involves an increase in single households due to bereavement or divorce. Figure 2 shows a 2015 joint survey of four countries. The ratio of single households in Japan is much lower than that of the US, Germany, and Sweden, but it is increasing over time. Japan is said to be an “advanced” country in that its population is aging. What Japan is experiencing today is going to be seen in other countries in the near future.

Figure 2 The ratio of single households in percentage. International Comparative Survey on the Lives of Elderly People (Cabinet Office, the Government of Japan).
Figure 2

The ratio of single households in percentage. International Comparative Survey on the Lives of Elderly People (Cabinet Office, the Government of Japan).

For elderly people, having partners to live with is important. In a 1995 government survey on elderly marriages, 45.3% of respondents answered that love or marriage was good for elderly people. More importantly, the ratio was significantly higher for men, 50.2%, compared to women, 41.5% (Table 1). The 8.7% point difference between men and women suggests that there is a mismatch in desire for marriage.

Table 1

“Love and marriage for elderly” (Cabinet Office, the Government of Japan 1996 Opinion Poll on the Health of Elderly)

Not good10.5%9.6%11.3%
Neither good nor bad33.8%30.8%36.1%
Not sure10.3%9.4%11.1%

Such differences between the sexes in the attitude toward intimate relationships are more prevalent with respect to the issue of sexlessness. Araki compares the results of two surveys, in 2000 and 2012, which were conducted by the Japanese Association for Sex Education [26]. She found that, over the 2000 and 2012 period, the proportion of sexless people increased significantly in all age groups across their 40s–70s (Figure 3). She suggests that the major reason for this is that a growing number of middle-aged or elderly females are not attracted to sexual relationships. In the 2000 survey, the ratio of people who desired to have an “intimate relationship involving sexual intercourse” with a spouse, and actually had sexual intercourse more than once a month, was 78% for men and 79% for women. This decreased to 44% for men and 68% for women in the 2012 survey. More than half of elderly men, and approximately 40% of women, were unable to fulfill their desires.

Figure 3 The ratio of sexless people across age groups in percentage (Araki [28]).
Figure 3

The ratio of sexless people across age groups in percentage (Araki [28]).

In either case, this mismatch of desire could be a cause for lower QOL. Should such individuals just bear this burden? In the aforementioned surveys, when asked for their opinions on a person’s desire “to have an intimate relationship with a friend of the opposite sex, other than the spouse,” a significantly greater ratio of respondents in the 2012 survey answered “it does not matter unless such a relationship harms the relationship with the spouse” as compared to “such relationships should not exist” (Figure 4). The ratio of women who actually had intimate relationships, including sexual acts, with opposite-sex partners other than their spouse was 14% for the 40 s age group, 10% for the 50 s, 5% for the 60 s, and 1% for the 70 s; the ratio of men was 29% for the 40 s age group, 30% for the 50 s, 20% for the 60 s, and 17% for the 70 s.

Figure 4 The ratio of people who responded “having intimate relationship with a friend/lover of the opposite sex, other than the spouse, does not matter unless such relationship do any harm the relationship with the spouse” across age groups in percentage [28].
Figure 4

The ratio of people who responded “having intimate relationship with a friend/lover of the opposite sex, other than the spouse, does not matter unless such relationship do any harm the relationship with the spouse” across age groups in percentage [28].

In reality, of course, having an intimate relationship with an opposite-sex friend/lover other than one’s spouse does often matter, because such relationships do tend to harm the relationship with one’s spouse at least to some extent. Because inheritance of assets after death is a significant problem for many elderly Japanese people, marriage between two aged people often causes trouble with their sons and relatives.

There are more than a few elderly people who sexually harass nursing workers at elder-care facilities. According to a survey conducted by the Nippon Careservice Craft Union (NCCU) in June 2018, 29.8% of care facility workers experienced sexual harassment from the elderly [27]. Sexual harassment is not necessarily motivated by libido, but libido is also not totally irrelevant. It is natural to think that the cause of this behavior is at least partly due to the elderly’s unsatisfied desires.

Given this, taking virtual humans as partners can be an alternative for such people. A virtual human is a more “moderate” choice for the spouse who thinks “it does not matter unless the relationship harms the relationship my spouse has with me.” Both spouses’ QOL would thus be increased.

2.3 People with disabilities

People with disabilities can benefit from the adoption of virtual humans. According to Rembis, “Though there is mounting evidence that shows that many people with disabilities lead positive and fulfilled sexual lives, theirs is a sexual history characterized largely by oppression and discrimination” [28]. They typically face difficulty in finding partners in intimate relationship, including spouses. In government surveys, although the marriage rate of physically disabled people (60.2%) is slightly higher than non-disabled people (57.4%), mentally disabled (34.6%) and intellectually disabled (2.3%) people have both significantly lower rates [29].

In several countries, both for-profit and nonprofit entities provide various services to facilitate the fulfillment of disabled people’s sexual desires [30]. White Hands, Inc., is one of these nonprofit organizations, established in Niigata, Japan. In 2008, White Hands launched an ejaculation assistance service for severely disabled men in Japan. They framed sexual support for disabled people as self-esteem care intended to improve their QOL, not as “entertainment” or “fulfillment of libido [31].”

De Schildpad is a similar nonprofit organization located in the Netherlands. Its staff are “social workers whose role is to provide intimacy on a therapeutic basis or emotional befriending,” but sex “is considered only when, for whatever reason, the disabled person is unable to develop his or her own personal relationships” [32]. In addition, the Netherlands has a system in which severely disabled people can get government funding for sex 10–15 times per year.

However, the people involved in such organizations are often targets of severe criticism and disdain. A major reason for this is the controversy over real people providing the services; doesn’t that violate “traditional” morals? Isn’t it sexual exploitation of caregivers? Irrespective of whether such claims are appropriate or not, at least the adoption of virtual humans could be an alternative as well as a more moderate (and maybe acceptable) choice for these people.

3 “Socialification” of familyship

3.1 LTCI system and gender equality

In Section 3.1, the author looks back on discussion of the Long Term Public Care Insurance (LTCI) system in Japan in the late 1990s, and applies the logic of that discussion to adoption of virtual humans. What Japan experienced here, of course, was largely influenced by circumstances unique to Japan. However, if we take this as a question of how to support minorities or vulnerable people by changing the framework for seeing society and families, it will be helpful not only in Japan but also in many countries around the world.

Long-lasting discussion on LTCI was necessary in Japan because a preexisting idea – that nursing care for elderly individuals should be done at home by daughters-in-law or daughters – had to be changed. To break through the situation, advocates introduced the concept of “socialification” of nursing care. The author insists that the adoption of virtual humans can be viewed as a socialification of familyship, just as LTCI was a socialification of nursing care.

Nursing care for elderly individuals became a major social problem with the aging of Japanese society. Whereas elderly people constituted 4.9% of the population in 1950, that number rose to 14.6% in 1995, and is expected to reach 39.9% by 2060. Life expectancy at birth, which was 61.5 for women and 58.0 for men in 1950, increased to 84.60 for women and 77.72 for men in 2000.

During the second half of the 20th century, the problem of nursing care for elderly individuals in Japan was at least partially discussed in relation to feminism. There are several reasons for this. First, the majority of elderly people lived with their son’s family. During the pre-WWII era, Japan functioned under the so-called “house” (ie) system, which “is characterized by the dominance of the eldest male of the senior line-age, the subordination of its female members, and inheritance by primogeniture” [33]. This system closely resembled the family system of samurais in Edo-era feudal Japan. Because of Confucian morals, it was considered natural for the sons’ wives to bear the brunt of nursing care for the elderly people in the house. Even several decades after the end of WWII, when the old house system was legally abolished, the structure of Japanese families remained largely unchanged, especially in the countryside. Figure 5 shows the trend in the proportion of elderly people (aged 65 over) who lived with their children’s family. Although it decreased over time, even in the 1990s more than half of elderly people lived with their children.

Figure 5 The proportion of elderly people (aged 65 over) who lived with their children’s family. The Fiscal 2017 White Paper on Health, Labour and Welfare. The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare of Japan.
Figure 5

The proportion of elderly people (aged 65 over) who lived with their children’s family. The Fiscal 2017 White Paper on Health, Labour and Welfare. The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare of Japan.

For decades, gender equality in Japanese workplaces is lagging behind other OECD countries, and this constitutes another fact that made nursing care for elderly people a problem for women. Figure 6 shows the so-called “M-shaped curve” of the women’s labor force participation ratio (the percentage of women participating in work among women in the workable age group). A typical explanation of this is that many women quit their jobs upon marriage or childbirth. However, it is likely that caring for elderly family members was also a reason women quit or did not return to their jobs; even if they return, they typically choose part-time jobs. In a government survey in 1997, the number of women who quit their jobs amounted to 108,000. Partially because of the long working hours of Japanese men, daughters and daughters-in-law were typically expected to become the major providers of nursing care for elderly family members. Therefore, the growing need for nursing care for elderly people was considered a major obstacle to improving gender equality in Japanese society.

Figure 6 The ratio of women’s participation in the labor force (the percentage of women participating in work among women in the workable age group) across age groups. The Fiscal 2017 White Paper on Gender Equality, the Cabinet Office of Japan.
Figure 6

The ratio of women’s participation in the labor force (the percentage of women participating in work among women in the workable age group) across age groups. The Fiscal 2017 White Paper on Gender Equality, the Cabinet Office of Japan.

Feminists and other proponents of gender equality advocated for the concept of socialification of nursing care. Shimoyama defined the term as “the shift of primary responsibility for nursing care for elderly people from younger family members (typically women) in the household to society as a whole” [34]. They used the term “socialification” because they expected the service of nursing care for elderly people to be shared by society; specifically, both business- and nonprofit-sector entities would provide services with financial support from the public insurance system. Family members would also continue to provide services but the burden on them was expected to ease.

The idea of the socialification of nursing care faced severe opposition and reluctance from society and individuals, however. Higuchi described her experience as a member of the government’s Geriatric Health Welfare Council in 1990s. During the discussions at the council, many members (including a high-rank official of the Ministry of Health and Welfare) repeatedly expressed a strong opposition to the idea of the socialification of nursing care. When the Council’s report that Japan should introduce a public LTCI system was discussed in the Diet in 1996, it was the ruling party members who were the most reluctant [35]. They, mostly older men, insisted that nursing care should be provided by younger family members (effectively meaning daughters-in-law or daughters), as was “tradition” or the “Japanese style.” In the discussion at the Diet, they raised concerns about the financial sustainability of the system, but behind their statements were old views of the family.

Politicians were not the only ones to oppose introduction of the LTCI system. Elderly people themselves, the beneficiaries of the system, also showed considerable reluctance. The major reason for this was fear of the “intrusion” of “outsiders” into their family lives. This fear remains even now. Suzuki used factor analysis to extract 5 factors that make people reluctant to use care services provided by LTCI [36]. The most prominent were “Reluctance to change lifestyle” and “Relatives’ lack of under-standing or cooperation,” both of which relate to reluctance toward socialification of nursing care.

Table 2 shows the change in women’s opinions of the idea that! “Aged parents should live with their son’s family.” The idea implies that the sons’ wives would be expected to provide care for the elderly parents. The proportion of wives who agreed with the idea was higher with age, meaning that opponents to socialification of nursing care were not limited to men. However, compared to a 1993 poll, a 1998 poll clearly shows decrease in the percentage of wives who agreed and increase in the percentage who disagreed, regardless of age. Table 3 shows people’s opinions on willingness to live in elderly care facilities. In a 1995 government survey, over half of the people responded that they were willing to live in elderly care facilities. Typically, they expressed that they would not want their children to bear the burden of nursing care.

Table 2

Women’s opinions on “Aged parents should live with their son’s family” (Cabinet Office, Opinion Poll for People’s Lives)

Age of wife: under 2958.8%45.4%41.3%54.6%
Table 3

Opinions on willingness to live in elderly care facilities

TotalWillingUnwillingNot Sure
Total – men100.0%60.8%25.2%14.0%
Age of wife: 20–29100.0%52.0%22.6%25.4%
Over 60100.0%57.1%31.2%11.6%
Over 70100.0%52.0%38.8%9.2%
Total – women100.0%68.8%16.9%14.3%
Age of wife: 20–29100.0%56.0%16.8%27.2%
Over 60100.0%61.8%26.4%11.7%
Over 70100.0%54.1%34.6%11.2%

3.2 Socialification of nursing care

Under these circumstances, the proponents of the LTCI system deliberately persuaded various sectors of Japanese society by employing the concept of socialization of nursing care. They began by situating nursing care within a broad range of household activities and showed how family lives in society had already been socialified. Hattori classified socialification of household work into 4 categories (Table 4) [37].

Table 4

Four categories of socialization of household work

(A) Socialification in private sectorIntroduction/Expansion of goods that reduce the burden of household work (such as commercialized cooked goods and processed foods) and of services that replace household work itself
(B) Socialification in public sectorSupporting household work with greater social value, such as childcare, education, and nursing care, by collaboration with governmental services
(C) Socialification through mutual aid within local communitiesMutual support within local communities, in areas where for-profit activities by businesses work poorly
(D) Socialification in recognizing time-lossesSystems in which the society recognizes the “glosses” caused by engaging in household work such as childcare and nursing care leaves

According to this classification, the socialification of nursing care by the LTCI system would be a mixture of categories (B) and (C). By framing the socialification of nursing care within a broader perspective, as above, in which society develops toward a better state, people with various objections found it easier to accept the proposed changes. In the late 1990s, socialification of household work had already become popular in all the categories; it was clear that the LTCI system should be the next introduction in the sequence.

3.3 Socialification of familyship

How then can we apply the above discussion to the acceptance of virtual humans? Through this discussion on the LTCI introduction, Japan recognized that what had been perceived as a personal issue had an importance for society as a whole. The proponents succeeded in persuading opponents of various kinds through deliberate discussions. This experience in Japan will be helpful for the proponents who appeal to society to recognize the importance of intimate relationships with virtual humans. The argument applies not only to Japan but also to the rest of the world.

According to the classification in Table 4, the adoption of virtual humans into families as serious and intimate partners (in other words, the socialification of familyship) should be included primarily in category (A). In a household with mismatch in sexual desire between husband and wife, virtual humans can supplement or replace their unmet needs or desires. If a person cannot find a partner due to various disabilities or challenges, a virtual human can be a partner. Adoption of virtual humans would increase QOL for such individuals.

Of course, housekeepers can be employed to do household chores. However, people’s needs vary. Some people desire a partner for more intimate (including sexual) relationships, and other people simply do not want others to enter their houses. For these people, employing a human housekeeper is not the best choice.

It is highly likely that a virtual human, if actually developed, would be the product of a business enterprise and offered with necessary user support services. If, in the near future, having a virtual human as a partner becomes a human right, the government or local communities might bear some of the costs (and in such a case, it would fall under category B or C in Table 4). In this sense, the introduction of virtual humans is one step toward socialification of familyship, in which families are at least partially supported by society.

This change is not a fundamental one, like changing white into black. Looking back on the history of the family system, we see that families consisting only of couples and their direct children are not so traditional. In the early modern age, “The principal boundary circumscribed the kin, not its sub-unit, the nuclear family” [38]. When such “open lineage families” were common, families were more open to mutual help from “outsiders” within local communities, in part due to the high mortality rate of children and repeated difficulties such as famine. In early modern Japan before the Meiji Restoration up to the mid-1800s, during which a similar situation prevailed, the divorce rate was much higher than today, and practices for forming family relationships without blood ties, such as adoption, were common [39,40].

Ryan and Jatha argued that having multiple sexual partners was common and accepted before human beings started agriculture, saying that “monogamy is not innate sociosexual system of humans [41].” Although there are many objections to their argument, it is difficult to deny such a trait constituted at least a part of the diversity of human behavior at that time. Asking whether such a trait was innate or not represents the dichotomy that Haraway rejected [8]. We should remember that our society, until a few decades ago, had been denying that homosexuality has been a part of human sexuality since the prehistoric age; and even now, many people stick to an argument that a human trait should be innate for it to be justified, based on this dichotomic logic. Changing this does not destroy traditions nor infringe human rights.

The shift from larger families to small nuclear families should not be seen as a unilateral development, a move from a barbaric past to an ideal society. Rather, it is better seen as an optimization according to changes in the social and economic environment. We will now see another such shift in familyship.

In that sense, socialification of familyship should be considered from a larger perspective. In essence, socialification consists of a variety of diversifications of the social components of groups. There are several aspects.

3.3.1 Diversification of membership

In socialified families, members are not limited to parents and their direct biological children. Although relatives, who once had been members of families, have not yet regained their positions, members are not even limited to human beings. Pets seem to be included as members in many families [8]. Virtual humans will be the next candidates for family membership.

3.3.2 Diversification of member commitment level

Virtual humans typically have operating systems developed by their manufacturers. They require maintenance or even in some cases replacement. Thus, intimate relationships with them are necessarily accompanied by close ties with outside entities. These entities commit to the private lives of the owners of virtual humans through their products or services, but their level of commitment is low, since they are outside the family. This is similar to the case of providers of nursing care services for elderly people. They also commit to the private lives of elderly people but remain outside of the family. In both cases, the outside service provider can be viewed as a member of the extended family, with limited commitment.

3.3.3 Diversification of income source

A recipient of LTCI receives insurance payments, which comprise a significant portion of the person’s income. Thus, the socialification of nursing care involves the diversification of income source for the recipients. Similarly, if the use of virtual humans is recognized as a publicly important aspect of human rights, some, if not all, expenses may be covered by the public; this would be a diversification of income source for the family. It would be somewhat controversial for the government to pay for a sexbot; instead, paying for a partner robot that helps with its users’ household chores and is also capable of sexual activities might be more acceptable.

3.3.4 Diversification of bearer of burden

Maintaining a household requires various activities, and in most cases they are sources of both enjoyment and stress simultaneously. The two are interlinked and affect each other, and thus dissatisfaction increases with the mismatch of perceived balance of enjoyment and burden between couples. The LTCI system reduced the stress on female family members by improving the balance of the nursing care burden. If a virtual human is adopted as an alternative/complementary partner of intimate acts at home, the family member who suffers from the stress of unwilling intimate contact with her/his partner frees from the stress. In both cases, lower stress eases dissatisfaction [42,43] and raises a person’s QOL.

The adoption of virtual humans as the partners of serious and intimate relationships are similar to the socialification of both nursing care and household work and included in the socialification of familyship. All of these involve aforementioned diversifications raise the QOL of the beneficiaries.

4 Concluding remarks

In this article, the author provides a new perspective on intimate relationships with robots and AIs, defined as “virtual humans.” The technological potential for virtual humans draws criticism as a violation of traditional family values or catalyst for objectification of women. However, extended families including a few trustworthy outsiders as members existed in the past; therefore, the adoption of virtual humans is rather in line with tradition of many cultures. Additionally, virtual humans are not limited to female versions targeting male users. It is true that the majority of virtual humans are at present expected to be female-type targeting heterosexual males. However, if one asserts that virtual humans are only for these males, such an argument neglects other groups of people including females and LGBTs who wish virtual humans as their partners and thus constitutes discrimination against them. In addition, a virtual human is an anthropomorphized machine which benefits a person, not a human being susceptible to objectification.

Whether a person engages in a serious and intimate relationship with a virtual human is completely that person’s choice. Thus, adoption of virtual humans into our society would do no harm to people without such intentions, just as accepting same-sex marriages in society does not force anyone to marry a same-sex partner. These diversities in human activity do not infringe upon the human rights of those who oppose them. Rather, they improve the QOL of those who want such products/services. Rich diversity in society would enrich our culture.

Needless to say, the author does not claim that the adoption and spread of virtual humans will have no adverse effect on society. If the majority of people think of virtual humans as being more attractive partners than real humans, and thus real human couples become a minority, the birthrate might drop to a level at which the society becomes unsustainable. In addition, given that an awareness of animal rights has spread rapidly in recent years, the argument that we should take the rights of virtual humans into consideration will increase in the future.

However, this seems unlikely to occur, at least for the time being. A potential threat exists but would become an issue only in the long run. We have plenty of time to think about it. On the other hand, the QOL of sexual minorities, elderly people, and other groups with challenges is already a problem in the present.

Instead of pre-regulating virtual humans (who are not yet a reality), and struggling to prevent them from appearing in the world, we should consider how to successfully accept virtual humans in society. They would improve the QOL of minority groups in society, while having no effect on the rest. Emotional and ideological resistance distracts the opponents’ attention from the people who could be saved and the problems that could be solved by virtual humans.

The author would like to thank anonymous referees for helpful comments and suggestions and Editage ( for English-language editing.


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Received: 2020-01-16
Revised: 2020-05-30
Accepted: 2020-06-14
Published Online: 2020-08-03

© 2020 Hiroshi Yamaguchi, published by De Gruyter

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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