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'Baby tech' spreads in Japan but faces challenges from parenting norms

This photo provided by parents from Chiba Prefecture shows a prototype of "ainenne," a device that uses artificial intelligence to estimate why a baby is crying, in use.

TOKYO -- "Baby tech" that supports child rearing with the full use of the latest technology including artificial intelligence (AI) is gaining attention in Japan. The Mainichi Shimbun went to find out what it is and how it aids parenting.

    Japan is undergoing what's being referred to as its baby tech year zero as general household products and apps flourish in 2021.

    In February at the remotely-held International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the world's largest annual tech show, a Japanese company surprised the world with its rounded, 15-centimeter tall device designed to pick up a baby's cry with a microphone and analyze it to inform nearby adults why they are crying. It even won the Innovation Award recognizing notable products in each field.

    The device displays five emotions -- hungry, sleepy, uncomfortable, angry and bored -- in a proportional format, such as "65% sleepy, 35% uncomfortable." Developed by Tokyo-based baby tech company First-Ascent Inc., the AI was exposed to the cries of over 200,000 babies from 150 countries to make it possible for the device to come up with the estimates.

    When placed near a baby's bed, the device can also be used as lighting for nighttime diaper changing. The light gradually gets brighter towards morning, and also helps adjust the baby's circadian rhythm to make it easier for them to fall asleep. General sales of the product, "ainenne," began in Japan on July 30 and they cost 43,780 yen (about $400).

    First-Ascent was initially developing a smartphone app to record childcare-related information, but decided to make the device upon hearing from people telling them things including, "My baby won't stop crying and I don't know what to do."

    Touching on his own parenting experiences, CEO Tomoyuki Hattori, who was involved in the product's development, said, "Many parents are troubled by their babies crying and getting them to sleep. We made it possible to tell based on scientific evidence babies' physical conditions and emotions, which has relied heavily on parents' intuition and senses."

    The term baby tech was first proposed at the CES held in the U.S. in 2016. It supports a wide range of fields such as pregnancy, childbirth and infancy, and there are many devices and apps that can be linked to smartphones and the internet.

    For example, when a user inputs what time their baby went to sleep on the app "Lullaby," developed by Mitsui & Co. Ltd.'s Moon Creative Lab Inc., it detects their sleep cycle based on their age and other factors and suggests when they are most likely to fall asleep on a daily basis. There is also a paid function allowing users to consult directly with specialists such as doctors and midwives.

    Other examples include: a "diaper sensor," which can be attached to a paper diaper to detect how wet it is and inform the user when to change it via a smartphone app; a "baby monitor" that uses a sensor to detect a baby's movement when asleep and monitor their breathing; and an app that proposes baby foods according to a baby's age and growth.

    In the United States, where baby tech is seeing greater adoption, the market is estimated to be worth 4 to 5 trillion yen (roughly $36 billion to $46 billion), according to a source close to the matter. Kenji Ajishi, president of Osaka-based baby product shop operator Akachan Honpo Co., said, "There is a high potential need (for baby tech) in Japan, and the market for general households may expand to be worth 100 to 200 billion yen (about $912 million to $1.8 billion) in a few years."

    Regarding child-rearing in Japan, the number of double-income households and nuclear families is on the rise, and issues such as parenting without the help of a partner and postnatal relationship crises have become social problems.

    In addition, the coronavirus pandemic has made it difficult for parents to go out and engage with friends and the local community. Midori Matsushima, associate professor at the University of Tsukuba, surveyed a total of around 5,000 people in May-June and October 2020 about the state of mind among mothers less than a year after giving birth. It was possible about one in four had postpartum depression -- the figure is usually said to be around 10%.

    However, there is a psychological barrier against baby tech's uptake in Japan. The Cabinet Office's 2020 edition of the white paper on measures against the declining birthrate points out, "Since there is deep-rooted sense that taking time (to parent) is considered affection, there are psychological barriers such as feelings of guilt over saving time (using baby tech). For instance, many people feel negative about using mobile phones while raising children."

    Tokyo-based baby tech information website operator Papasmile Co.'s president Tetsuya Nagata said, "You don't entrust all child-rearing to baby tech, it's just a tool for support." He stressed that by using tech and "letting it take care of some things it is capable of, users can relax their minds and spend more time on the things they want to work on."

    (Japanese original by Koki Mikami, Business News Department)

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