Japan’s youth choose virtual love over real

Pillow talk: a Japanese man takes his imaginary partner to a shrine. © Tech in Asia

For decades, single young Japanese have been rejecting human partners in favour of fantasy characters. New research confirms that virtual romance is here to stay. Should we welcome it?

Nisan has been with Nemutan for three years. They live together, go on holidays and rarely argue. It is a normal relationship in every way but one: Nemutan is not real. She is a cartoon drawing on a pillow case.

In Japan, Nisan’s case is common. According to recent government statistics, more single twenty-somethings have fallen in love with a meme or video game character than a celebrity. This emotional bond with a virtual person, which may have a sexual aspect, is known as moe. Anyone can feel it, but it is more closely associated with men.

The phenomenon was born in Japan’s 1990s subculture. By the mid-2000s, moe had become a marketing sensation. Today, films, games and comics are created with the sole purpose of promoting attractive characters. Their faces adorn clothes, pillows and stationery. Dating simulators that let the player flirt with cute high school students are everywhere.

At the same time, interest in real relationships has tumbled. The same statistics show that around three quarters of unmarried Japanese have had no sexual experience by age 20. At the current birth rate, Japan’s population will shrink by one third before 2060.

Sociologists have named this generation the ‘stranded singles’. They point to the country’s economic stagnation: good jobs are becoming rarer, and families harder to support. So people do not try. Instead, they retreat into fantasy.

When asked, however, moe fans tend to give different reasons for their choice of relationship. Human partners are too demanding; real dating is fraught with complex social codes. By contrast, fictional characters are easy-going. They can be anything you want them to be.

In any case, this trend is not unique to Japan. Indians can ‘practise’ married life with fictional wives on dedicated websites. Westerners can pay for the company of an imaginary male partner with the app Invisible Boyfriend. In the recent American film Her, a man falls in love with his computer.

Nisan’s case is extreme. But as technology expands, more may follow his example. Is this a good thing?

No love lost

Why not, ask some. We have been identifying with heroes in novels for centuries, and praying to gods for millennia. Just because they have no material existence does not make them meaningless. Similarly, fantasy characters help us understand ourselves, while providing us with a bit of harmless fun.

But it isn’t harmless, reply others. Unlike real people, these cartoons do not challenge or criticise us. If we spend our lives with them, we will never grow as people. And if we stop having real relationships, we will eventually die out as a species. With its falling population, Japan is heading that way already.

You Decide

  1. Watch the trailer for Her in Become An Expert. Does it look like an interesting film? Why (not)?
  2. Is it OK to be in a real and a virtual relationship at the same time?

Activities

  1. Choose a fictional character with whom you feel an emotional connection. (It doesn’t have to be ‘love’.) In three paragraphs, explain why.
  2. Without looking them up, write a definition for each of the following words: love, romance, desire, passion, affection.

Some People Say...

“Love is when the other person’s happiness is more important than your own.”

American author H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

What do you think?

Q & A

I think I’ve felt moe…
It’s possible. Remember: moe is not necessarily sexual, or even romantic. It can simply mean an affection for a character. Often, it will describe a sensation that one may not otherwise be able to express: for example, a man may feel a motherly love for a cartoon girl, but not for real girls. You can experience moe without having a full-blown relationship with the character.
Does fancying people on Tinder count?
Dating apps and websites are obviously related to virtual romance. But moe happens when you invest your emotions in a character that doesn’t have a full personality or realistic appearance. It is, in a sense, about escaping from everything that’s difficult about human society. So fancying someone on Tinder doesn’t really count, even if you never meet them.

Word Watch

Government statistics
See Become An Expert for more.
Twenty-somethings
People in their twenties.
Moe
Pronounced ‘moe-air’. The word was first used on 2channel, a popular Japanese online forum. It literally means ‘burning’ or ‘budding’, depending on the spelling.
Marketing sensation
In 2003, the ‘moe market’ was estimated at 89bn yen (roughly £650m in today’s money).
Dating simulators
One of the most popular simulators in Japan is LovePlus, a game for the Nintendo DS. Players choose to ‘date’ one of several high school students, whom they can buy presents for, go on holidays with, and talk to (using a microphone). In 2009, a man ‘married’ his LovePlus girlfriend in an official ceremony.
Birth rate
The average Japanese woman has 1.43 children in her lifetime. In England and Wales, the figure is 1.82; in the USA, 1.87. Japan’s population crisis is made worse by its very low immigration rate.
Economic stagnation
Since the early 1990s, the world’s third largest economy has struggled with deflation. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was elected on a promise to change this, has so far failed.

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