I-POT l Japanese kettle sends e-mail

By Emi Doi, Knight Ridder

TOKYO - Sliding open a lattice door to his traditional-style wooden home in the old part of Tokyo, Kazuo Kijima greets a visitor warmly. The wooden screens near his entry are decorated with Japanese brush painting, the kind fewer and fewer homes here display.

But more and more Japanese these days are like Kijima: elderly and living alone. Still, Kijima, 83, a widower with no children, does have someone watching out for him via a bit of technology embedded in his kitchen.

His electric kettle, an ``i-pot'' (for information pot), not only boils water for his instant miso soup and green tea but it also records the times he pushes a button and dispenses the water. A wireless communication device at the bottom of the i-pot sends a signal to a server. Members of the service can see recent records of i-pot usage on a Web site. In addition, twice a day the server e-mails the most recent three usage times to a designated recipient.

For Kijima, that recipient is neighbor Tadahiro Murayama. ``Once, I didn't use the i-pot for a day, and I got a phone call from Mr. Murayama,'' Kijima said. The i-pot, he said, helps him feel he's not alone.

Electronics maker Zojirushi began the service four years ago. The company rents the pot for a $50 deposit and charges $30 a month for e-mail and Internet service.

In graying Japan, more than one-third of households have members over age 65, and 4.8 million households are elderly couples. An additional 3.4 million people live alone, according to Ministry of Health Welfare and Labor figures for 2002, the latest ones available.

Increasingly, solitary lives give way to solitary deaths. The nation was alarmed to find that after the great Kobe earthquake in 1995, hundreds of people who lost their families, jobs and houses later died alone in temporary housing. In Tokyo in the past 10 years, the number of unattended deaths among the elderly doubled, reaching nearly 2,000 in 2003, the Tokyo Medical Examiner's Office reported.

But it was one family's sad story, not the statistics, that spurred the invention of the i-pot. In 1996, Tokyo neighbors found the bodies of a 77-year-old woman and her 41-year-old disabled son more than 20 days after they died of starvation. According to the woman's journal, she could have asked for help from social welfare services but chose not to. The contents of her wallet amounted to 28 cents.

The deaths shocked many people, including Hiroyuki Amino, a physician who cares for elderly people. Amino asked electronics maker Zojirushi to create a system to keep an eye on elderly people living alone.

Five years later, Zojirushi, Fujitsu and telephone giant NTT rolled out the i-pot. It fit perfectly in Japan, where hot water for tea is a regular routine of daily life. And the pot is so simple to use that it doesn't give people a sense of being monitored.

I-pots send reassuring messages to people in North America, Europe and Asia about their relatives in Japan. More than 2,200 families use them.

Keiko Kubovcik of Annandale, Va., read about i-pots in a Japanese magazine and got one because she worried so much about her mother in Japan. Kubovcik would panic every time she called and got no answer. The i-pot messages, she said, give her a ``sense of security and comfort.''

Her mother, Kaneyo Takahashi, 76, wakes up every morning at 6, cleans the bathroom, wipes the kitchen shelves and cleans her i-pot. When she turns it on, it sends a ``good morning'' message to Kubovcik.

``Your mom is healthy and alive today,'' announces Kubovcik's husband, Ronald, when he turns on his computer in the morning in Virginia.

``I can't read Japanese, but I can read the time,'' he said.

Kubovcik moved to the United States 15 years to train as a patent lawyer and ended up settling in the United States.

``I felt a devastating sense of guilt leaving my mother alone,'' said Kubovcik, whose father died 10 years ago after suffering a heart attack.

Her mother tried living in the United States for three months, but she spoke no English, found the food too unusual and missed her friends.

Could the i-pot catch on elsewhere? Maybe in a different form: How about the i-fridge?

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