When lonely men and misogyny collide

Okay, here’s the thing. This New York Times Magazine article about men in Japan who have romantic relationships with imaginary characters inspires nothing if not pity.

These 2-D lovers, as they are called, are a subset of otaku culture– the obsessive fandom that has surrounded anime, manga and video games in Japan in the last decade. It’s impossible to say exactly what portion of otaku are 2-D lovers, because the distinction between the two can be blurry. Like most otaku, the majority of 2-D lovers go to work, pay rent, hang out with friends (some are even married). Unlike most otaku, though, they have real romantic feelings for their toys. The less extreme might have a hidden collection of figurines based on anime characters that they go on “dates” with during off hours. A more serious 2-D lover, like Nisan, actually believes that a lumpy pillow with a drawing of a prepubescent anime character on it is his girlfriend.

That’s sad, undoubtedly – and the men profiled in this piece are clearly very lonely, so it’s difficult to begrudge them a fantasy life with an imaginary character. But here’s the thing – not only are the men who indulge in these “relationships” lusting after characters that are supposed to be somewhere between 10 and 12 years old, one of the reasons they like them is because they’re devoid of annoying things like opinions and personality. So is the perfect woman a blank-slate little girl?
Much like the Real Doll enthusiasts who tout sex with their “girlfriends” as “just like sex with an organic woman…who doesn’t say anything and is brimful of Quaaludes,” much of the attraction here seems to be the ability to imbue any kind of personality (or lack thereof) onto an inanimate object. And then believing that object is better than real human interaction.

“I was steps away from getting married,” he explained earnestly when prodded about his experience. “You have to make sure you don’t hurt a real person; you have to watch what you say, and you have to keep your room clean. In Japan, it’s not O.K. to like another person if you’re already with somebody else. With an anime character, you can like one character one day and a different character the next.”

But this is all stuff we’ve discussed before (in fact, I discuss it in my book!). In this particular piece, it was the age of the characters that really got to me.

When Momo talks about Karada-chan, his mousy face lights up like a kid opening Christmas presents. “Her existence to me is like daughter, younger sister and bride all put into one.”

Not. Okay. Assuming these men develop relationships with real women – will it be women that they’re actually looking for, or little girls?
Related: She’s Twelve, She’s Scantily Clad, And a Thirty Year Old’s Dating Her. She’s a Pillow.

Join the Conversation

  • j-doug

    I’d theorize the video culture is a result of the negative aspects Japan’s culture at large, specifically the persistence pervasiveness of rigid gender roles and favor for repressing healthy sexual interaction and communication. I’m not sure that the video games necessarily reinforce it. Would be an interesting study (that probably already exists somewhere).

  • A male

    “There’s something sad and wrong about it all, but the author just reports it at face value.”
    “Come on NY Times! You don’t have to present this like it’s just another lifestyle choice.”
    Sensational or not, perhaps that is an attempt at objective journalism, and readers make their own judgments.
    If these people are not harming others (e.g., stalking or assaulting real women) and have otherwise “normal” lives like holding down jobs (the interviewed men are probably not hikikomori), what makes this not “just another lifestyle choice?” There are many other examples of EXTREME male and female fan behavior, as well as people in our own culture who have emotional attachments to their inanimate objects like their beloved cars, or fictional characters like Harry Potter.

  • A male

    “I’ve met guys like that who were scared, actually SCARED, of me.”
    I lived in Japan for twelve years. Traditional Japanese men regardless of age are intimidated by more modern thinking women, particularly white women from North America, the UK, western Europe, and Oceania.
    I’m Japanese-American and I passed as Japanese while in Japan when I was also 5’7″ and 130 lbs. Simply introducing me as American instantly affected people, down to making children up to senior high school age turn and run. It’s the gaijin thing.

  • A male

    “Furthermore, it is very clear that these men are not just suffering from personal troubles, but that there is a societal issue with gender roles and relationship expectations.”
    There are commenters who point out how strange these men are, because women do not have emotional attachments to pillows, dolls, or sex toys. And why would they? Traditional thinking would lead women to seek the opposite of what these men are seeking: real live men with authority, money or power who are of “higher” standing than themselves. Perhaps they’d even like to be taken care of.
    Which is what many women actually do, and in the US it is considered normal.

  • Eurekamoment

    That sounds pretty good. Would it help around the house?

  • spike the cat

    But what about a woman who for whatever social reason is incapable of finding a partner?
    I thought the point of the doll is because some of these folk have trouble with a real life situation? So it seems to me that there could be plenty of women in this position. The real difference is economics. In places where men outearn women it makes sense that you’d have all of these dolls, robots and other objects catering to the male market.
    But surely there are plenty of women in the same boat? So are these women bying the “sugar daddy” robot and pillow then?

  • Concerned Marsupial

    I think some men who use real dolls don’t necessarily want real, actual women to be empty and passive. They want a relationship with a female-bodied entity that is passive and whose preferences (whether actually experienced or merely expressed) are (ideally) completely aligned with theirs (or that have their own personalities, but such that any conflicting preferences from such entities could be overridden without harming the entities). A cuddly p-zombie, if you will. There is a difference. They recognize that real women cannot provide such a relationship and could never be such entities, so instead of emotionally abusing real women and trying to make them something they are not, they use real dolls and project their desires onto them.
    Whether it’s particularly bad or not to wish that such entities existed is a good question. It has yet to be demonstrated that it harms other people more than any other arbitrary preference concerning relationships (and we all have those).
    I think most of us want our SOs to correspond to our preferences, but we would think there could be no such thing as a real relationship with a p-zombie, so we naturally think it’s disturbing when people want such relationships. And yet if our SOs were replaced with perfect p-zombies without our knowledge, we would be completely convinced we are in a valid, bilateral relationship with an actual person. So if some people are able to suspend the knowledge that they are having a relationship with a p-zombie or something similar, and enjoy such a relationship, more power to them, IMO.

  • Concerned Marsupial

    You make a good point about outlets for pedophiles. That’s why I think the UK’s decision to ban cartoon child porn is bullshit.
    I have a lot of sympathy for pedophiles who are not child molesters, actually. Most people use the two terms completely interchangeably, and if someone were to out themselves as a pedophile, they would likely be judged as a horrible and evil person regardless of their behavior (and likely become a victim of violence). Most of us are lucky that we can enjoy sex that’s not morally problematic, so we certainly shouldn’t be making the lives of those who cannot any harder than they already are.

  • A male

    “I thought the point of the doll is because some of these folk have trouble with a real life situation? So it seems to me that there could be plenty of women in this position.”
    As one can see in the comments here, and elsewhere, one attitude about these men is it is favorable for some men to be out of the gene pool. I agree.
    OTOH, tell me, what kind of women would we be referring to, that would be doing the world a favor (probably not by choice) to be removed from the gene pool? Is there a feminist viewpoint on that?

  • A male

    “The real difference is economics.”
    I believe the difference is what people expect out of a partner, or the things to which they choose to become attached. Some men claim to have a human like attachment to their dolls, figures, or some fictional character.
    In fact, young unmarried women are a driving force in the Japanese economy, because of their level of DISPOSABLE income; and have been since the last economic downturn. If not for young, MIDDLE CLASS Japanese women spending on travel abroad or Louis Vuitton bags, Japan would have been in a deeper hole. It used to be claimed that the equivalent of one woman in three in Japan owned Louis Vuitton (based on volume).
    There are women who are more attached to foreign name brand items (and spend much more on them), than these even the most extreme of these male fanboys. Ta-bo (who does have a normal job) is known for spending about $170,000 on his over 100 love doll collection. I’ve seen and heard of middle class women who are head to toe Chanel, fill entire rooms with Louis Vuitton, or lust after Hermes. An exclusive Hermes bag in Japan going for $17,000 each.


    Judgemental much?


    I have to agree with you here.
    Wouldn’t the world be a better place if pedophiles simply masturbated about their fantasies with inanimate objects, instead of wrecking the lives of real live children?
    Perhaps this would be a good “harm reduction” strategy to retrain pedophiles so they have a safe harmless outlet for their sexual urges that keeps real live children safe from abuse – because it’s fairly obvious that the present methods of dealing with pedophiles Simply Do Not Work.


    Ah but it is another lifestyle choice!
    And it’s not up to you – or to me – to judge these guys.
    They’re happy and they’re not hurting anybody – so what’s the problem?
    Not everybody is cut out to have the conventional husband-wife-2.5 kids-dog-minivan life!


    Why is that hard to believe?
    In much of the world opposite gender friendships are unknown – in most of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, the American concept of men and women being friends, or of any relationship between men and women other than marriage or being a relative, is an outlandish foreign concept.
    I’ve personally known men who were born in East Asia who had never had a friendship with a woman in their entire lives.
    They had wives, and they had female relatives, but no female friends in the American sense of the term.
    There are parts of this country where opposite gender friendships are unknown as well, so it’s really not that hard to understand at all.