THE importance of the family can be measured by the price people will pay for consoling substitutes. In Japan, lonely retirees whose children and grandchildren live far away or seldom visit can now hire make-believe relatives to take their place. For $1,130, plus transportation, they can rent a simulated "family" for three hours, complete with warm conversation, hugs, and even babies to cuddle.
Clients help to plan the "family reunion" by stating what kind of "family" they want and how they wish to spend the time together. The make-believe relatives are actually entertainers who have received two years of training in acting and psychology. So far at least 25 clients have used the service, provided by the aptly named Japan Efficiency Corporation. More than 80 people remain on a waiting list.
One retired couple whose grandchildren are grown rented a "son," a "daughter-in-law," and an infant, because the woman said she "wanted to touch the skin of a baby once again." A computer salesman in his 30s, claiming he can't find time to visit his parents even though they live just 10 minutes away, hired a stand-in. A working mother who is too busy to see her own mother on a regular basis rented a "family" to visit her.
Nor are older people the only ones craving family ties. A young couple paid for a substitute grandfather and grandmother for their two-year-old son, whose real grandparents live at a distance.
The instant family - just add money and stir. Satsuki Ohiwa, president of the company, explains the poignant appeal of her service by noting that clients are "thirsty for human love." She adds, "Our purpose is to fill a hole in the heart."
For lonely or isolated people with less money to spend, another possibility exists for filling a hole in the heart. A fake cat called Mew, which retails for $92, meows and wags its tail when it hears a voice. Already more than 100,000 have sold in Japan. A spokesman for Takara Company explains: "Mew drives away loneliness."
The Japanese, of course, have no corner on loneliness or on a yearning for kinship. Although no American entrepreneur has started a rent-a-family business - yet - the longing for domestic stability and security intensifies as more families are separated by physical or emotional distance.
And even in "real" families role-playing exists. What parent does not, on occasion, feel forced into playing the stereotypical parent? What child does not feel cornered into playing the stereotypical child? No wonder family "experts" use TV sitcoms as the frame of reference and TV talk shows as family seminars. On Oprah, Phil, and Geraldo, the pop sociologists - John Bradshaw, Marianne Williamson, and Leo Buscaglia, among others - tell family members to repeat "I love you," while bumper stickers enjoin f ellow drivers to hug somebody.
In the United States, the family stands as a primary symbol of Campaign '92. The stage at the Democratic convention spilled over with three generations of candidates' families, as if to suggest an ideal of hearth and home.
The scene will be repeated at the Republican convention, when Barbara Bush extols the virtues of family life, surrounded by her five children and 13 grandchildren. "Family values," after all, reign as a central political theme, even if no one is exactly sure what the term means.
Perhaps it is enough for now that the topic is in the air, signaling an end to brave talk about "new" families that supposedly have no need for traditional conventions of marriage and mutual support. Yet simply romanticizing the "old" families of the '50s, when talk of "togetherness" masked problems, will never solve the needs of parents and children in the '90s.
The concept of family values is too important to be converted glibly into an election-year slogan. Words slip and slide these days until they practically describe their opposites. Voters should ask themselves in all seriousness: "What is my definition of family?" And second: "What are my values - in the family and out?"
The questions are easier to ask than they are to answer. Struggling to find true meaning behind the two words should keep politicians honest - and families of all sorts occupied - between now and the election.