Family relationships have been changing for a long time. Kids move out as soon as they can scrape together a deposit on an apartment, older parents are planted in nursing and retirement homes to go to seed, and married couples pursue individual careers and lifestyles.

It's happening in Japan, too. Satsuki Oiwa views it from a different perspective. "Since the war, Japan has been so busy manufacturing products that we've forgotten about the human heart. We have been good at `hard services' but we lack `soft services.' "That is why five years ago she founded a company called Japan Efficiency. It's basically a Love-R-Us toy store for the lonely. For $375 an hour, an elderly woman will be met by a family on a Sunday afternoon, given children to play with, conversation and love. Lunch is included.

Oiwa's service provides a grandmother for parents of small children who do not have anyone to fill the role. She will set up a sympathetic person for stressed-out executives as well as for people who are ill with the need to rant and rave to someone.

She also offers personal assistants to recognition-starved homemakers. These are rental maids who don't actually clean house so much as they listen to the homemaker, go on shopping excursions with her and "coo over her while she tries on clothes."

Amazing, isn't it? We live in a world where communication has never been more sophisticated. You can lift your arms in any room in the house and knock a phone off the hook. We have twice the number of cars as people, and yet we have individuals out there who call Larry King at night asking, "What do you think of the Bulls?" They don't really want to know about the Bulls. They're lonely.

There was a time in the world when we acknowledged that we needed one another and we had responsibilities toward these needs. Everyone had something to contribute to a family, ranging from humor to wisdom, from money to caring. Now we are independent of one another and too busy to deal with one another's problems.

We have the same situation as Japan. We're just a little more subtle about our solutions. When people feel the need to talk in this country, they go on "Geraldo" or to a support group where they dump on strangers.

Not a day goes by that I don't read a treatise on what went wrong with America. When I read that a 75-year-old Japanese woman who rented a couple with a child said, "I wanted to touch the skin of a baby once again," I think I knew. It began when we lost our ability to acknowledge there is something bigger and more important than ourselves - a family.

1992 Erma Bombeck

Distributed by Universal Press Syndicate