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Love in 2-D: Men Who Love Body Pillows

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Lisa Katayama for the New York Times: Nisan didn't mean to fall in love with Nemutan. Their first encounter -- at a comic-book convention that Nisan's gaming friends dragged him to in Tokyo -- was serendipitous. Nisan was wandering aimlessly around the crowded exhibition hall when he suddenly found himself staring into Nemutan's bright blue eyes. In the beginning, they were just friends. Then, when Nisan got his driver's license a few months later, he invited Nemutan for a ride around town in his beat-up Toyota. They went to a beach, not far from the home he shares with his parents in a suburb of Tokyo. It was the first of many road trips they would take together. As they got to know each other, they traveled hundreds of miles west -- to Kyoto, Osaka and Nara, sleeping in his car or crashing on friends' couches to save money. They took touristy pictures under cherry trees, frolicked like children on merry-go-rounds and slurped noodles on street corners. Now, after three years together, they are virtually inseparable. "I've experienced so many amazing things because of her," Nisan told me,
man holding 2d body pillow girlfriend
rubbing Nemutan's leg warmly. "She has really changed my life."

Nemutan doesn't really have a leg. She's a stuffed pillowcase -- a 2-D depiction of a character, Nemu, from an X-rated version of a PC video game called Da Capo, printed on synthetic fabric. In the game, which is less a game than an interactive visual novel about a schoolyard romance, Nemu is the loudmouthed little sister of the main character, whom she calls nisan, or "big brother," a nickname Nisan adopted as his own when he met Nemu. When I joined the couple for lunch at their favorite all-you-can-eat salad bar in the Tokyo suburb of Hachioji, he insisted on being called only by this new nickname, addressing his body-pillow girlfriend using the suffix "tan" to show how much he adored her. Nemutan is 10, maybe 12 years old and wears a little blue bikini and gold ribbons in her hair. Nisan knows she's not real, but that hasn't stopped him from loving her just the same. "Of course she's my girlfriend," he said, widening his eyes as if shocked by the question. "I have real feelings for her."

At 37, Nisan is already balding, and his remaining hair has gone gray. "I can't eat meat because of my diabetes," he said, chomping on a forkful of lettuce and okra. "I'm just an unlucky guy." As Nisan and I talked, Nemutan stared demurely at her pumpkin soup. It was a national holiday, and the restaurant was packed with young families. Several mothers gave Nemutan inquisitive looks, but the majority seemed not to notice her.

Nisan told me that not long ago he had a real girlfriend, but that she dumped him. He carries Nemutan almost everywhere he goes, though he is more self-conscious about it than he may seem at first. "Some people don't find this funny," he said, "and it also takes up a lot of room." He treats her the way any decent man would treat a girlfriend -- he takes her out on the weekends to sing karaoke or take purikura, photo-booth pictures imprinted on a sheet of tiny stickers. In the few hours we spent together, I watched him position her gently in the restaurant booth and later in the back seat of his car, making sure to keep her upright and not to touch her private parts. He doesn't take her to work, but he has a backup body pillow with the same Nemutan cover inside his desk drawer in case he has to work late at his tech-support job. "She's great for falling asleep with on an office chair." Nisan has seven Nemutan covers in total -- he buys them at Internet auctions and at fan conventions whenever he finds a good deal (he paid $70 for the original). If one gets too faded and dirty from overuse, he layers a new one over it. On the day that I first met Nisan and Nemutan, Nisan was carrying a new Nemutan cover in his bag in case she needed to look fresh for a photograph. He knows it's weird for a grown man to be so obsessed with a video-game character, but he just can't imagine life without Nemutan. "When I die, I want to be buried with her in my arms."

Nisan is part of a thriving subculture of men and women in Japan who indulge in real relationships with imaginary characters. 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.

According to many who study the phenomenon, the rise of 2-D love can be attributed in part to the difficulty many young Japanese have in navigating modern romantic life. According to a government survey, more than a quarter of men and women between the ages of 30 and 34 are virgins; 50 percent of men and women in Japan do not have friends of the opposite sex. One of the biggest best sellers in the country last year was "Health and Physical Education for Over Thirty," a six-chapter, manga-illustrated guidebook that holds the reader's hand from the first meeting to sex to marriage.

Most 2-D lovers prefer a different kind of self-help. The guru of the 2-D love movement, Toru Honda, a 40-year-old man with a boyishly round face and puppy-dog eyes, has written half a dozen books advocating the 2-D lifestyle. A few years ago, Honda, a college dropout who worked a succession of jobs at video-game companies, began to use the Internet to urge otaku to stand with pride against good-looking men and women. His site generated enough buzz to earn him a publishing contract, and in 2005 he released a book condemning what he calls "romantic capitalism." Honda argues that romance was marketed so excessively through B-movies, soap operas and novels during Japan's economic bubble of the '80s that it has become a commodity and its true value has been lost; romance is so tainted with social constructs that it can be bought by only good looks and money. According to Honda, somewhere along the way, decent men like himself lost interest in the notion entirely and turned to 2-D. "Pure love is completely gone in the real world," Honda wrote. "As long as you train your imagination, a 2-D relationship is much more passionate than a 3-D one." Honda insists that he's advocating not prurience but a whole new kind of romance. If, as some researchers suggest, romantic love can be broken down into electrical impulses in the brain, then why not train the mind to simulate those signals while looking at an inanimate character?

Honda's fans took his message to heart. When he admitted to watching human porn at a panel discussion in Tokyo in 2005, several hundred hard-core 2-D lovers in the audience booed with shock that their dear leader had nostalgia for the 3-D world. Later, in an interview with a Japanese newspaper, Honda clarified his position, saying that he was worried 2-D love was becoming an easy way out for young otaku, who might still have a shot at success in the real world. "I'm not saying that everyone should throw away hopes of real romance right away. I am simply saying that guys like me who have gotten to a point of no return can be happy living in 2-D."

In Japan the fetishistic love for two-dimensional characters is enough of a phenomenon to have earned its own slang word, moe, homonymous with the Japanese words for "burning" or "budding." In an ideal moe relationship, a man frees himself from the expectations of an ordinary human relationship and expresses his passion for a chosen character, without fear of being judged or rejected.

"It's enlightenment training," Takuro Morinaga, one of Japan's leading behavioral economists, told me. "It's like becoming a Buddha." According to Morinaga, every male otaku can be classified on a moe scale. "On one end, you have the normal guy, who has no interest in anime characters and only likes human women," he explained. "The opposite end, of course, is the hard-core 2-D lover." Morinaga, a self-described otaku, didn't have much luck with women until he became a well-regarded economist. Now he has a wife and a private office in a fancy apartment building near ritzy Tokyo Bay. "I'm a 2 -- I still like human women better," he said, a wide grin forming. "But there are many men who are on the opposite side of the scale. I understand their feelings completely. These guys don't want to push ahead in society; they just want to create their own little flower-bed world and live there peacefully."

For Nisan, who would probably score an 8 or a 9 on Morinaga's moe scale, 2-D love is a substitute for real, monogamous romance. For others, just as fanatic as he, it can be a way of having more than one girlfriend at a time. Whatever a particular 2-D lover's bent, there is a product made for him. Moe subculture has spawned a substantial market of goods centered on the desire to live in 2-D, from virtual girlfriends to body pillows to busty desktop-size figurines to cafes with waitresses dressed up as video-game characters. Every day, 2-D lovers come from all over Japan to Tokyo's Akihabara district just to scour specialty shops and attend fan events in search of new character girlfriends to add to their collections.

I first met Ken Okayama one brisk and unusually windy Sunday morning in February, in front of a towering business hotel adjacent to Akihabara station. A tall and rather good-looking 38-year-old man, Okayama lives with relatives and works at a rural paint-application company in western Japan. He flies to Tokyo two to three times a year for the newest anime-related paraphernalia. "We don't get a lot of anime in the boonies," he said as he led me through a maze of nearly identical, unnamed side streets to the Gee! Store, sandwiched between a nondescript apartment building and a row of coin-operated lockers in a narrow alley. The walls were covered with kitschy posters, pillows and paraphernalia featuring wide-eyed, multicolor-haired anime girls in frilly panties and bikini tops. "There are two things you should be mindful of when buying a body pillow," Okayama whispered as we combed the aisles, trying not to disturb the handful of other men perusing the merchandise. "First, there's image quality. And then you have to choose one that feels good on the skin." Polyester, for example, is less desirable than smooth knit.

Okayama was an early adopter of 2-D. He discovered anime about two decades ago when he was new to the work force and feeling suicidal. "I was having a lot of trouble," he told me over coffee, making a slicing gesture with his hand by his neck. That's when he encountered Sasami, a blue-haired, 10-year-old cartoon character from the anime "Tenchi Muyo!"

She lifted him right out of his misery. "It's hard to explain in words, but it's a feeling similar to romance. Sasami gave me the will to keep going." Since then, Okayama has turned to 2-D for all his emotional needs -- the desire to buy new anime helped him get through a period of unemployment in 2003, and his body-pillow girlfriends, whom he dates two or three at a time, consoled him when his first real-life girlfriend dumped him in 2007.

"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."

Okayama's flings were unconsummated, but for others 2-D love is a full-fledged alternative sexual lifestyle. Several hours after parting with Okayama in Akihabara, I met Momo at a fan convention. Momo, who makes X-rated body-pillow covers and sells them through his one-man club, Youkouro, which translates roughly as Furnace of Child Love, was there on business. The convention was being held inside a stuffy warehouse filled with boxes of 8-by-10, pamphlet-style, home-brewed manga and swarmed with thousands of anime fetishists, mostly men. Many 2-D lovers are unsatisfied with what the market has to offer, so they custom-make their own fantasy goods and come to conventions to barter and socialize with the like-minded. We left the warehouse and made our way to a fancy shopping mall, where we sat down on a bench. Momo began to flip through a catalog of more than a dozen prints of prepubescent anime characters with giant doe eyes in erotic poses. I flinched when a 5-year-old girl and her father plopped down behind us, but if Momo felt uneasy, he didn't show it. On the contrary, he seemed giddy from the great sales he'd made. "I sold four pillow covers today," he said proudly.

Momo, whose real name is Toru Taima, has more than 150 body-pillow covers at home. His current favorite is Karada-chan, a copper-haired sixth grader from the anime "A Direction in the Day After Tomorrow." She's fully clothed in the cartoon, but in Momo's imagination and thus on his pillow cover, she appears naked, her cheeks flushed, her prepubescent nipples hidden by her forearms, her white panties rolled down to her ankles. A translucent square etched onto the pillow cover censors her hairless vagina.

Every night, Karada-chan and at least two other animated preteens, drawn with large pink nipples and exaggerated labia, share a mattress with Momo, one on each side and another on top. "They're so cute, I can't stand it," he said shyly. "It's like my favorite girl comes to marry me every night. I just can't stop thinking about them." 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." Does he have sex with her? "Yes." Is he interested in real women? "It's not like I'm completely uninterested. But the last girl I really liked was when I was 12 years old."

Momo told me he never looks at child porn. He lives with his sister and his 3-year-old niece, whom he insists he has no sexual feelings for. "I am not doing anything to harm anybody," he said adamantly. "To me, these are works of art. They're cute girls that live in my imagination."

Momo says he hopes that one day soon, there will be a 3-D version of Karada-chan. In March, Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology unveiled a 5-foot-2, 95-pound girl robot made "for entertainment purposes," with an anime face and human proportions. The robot girl walked, batted her eyelashes and spoke basic Japanese. Momo is hopeful and confident that, in the very near future, this technology will be marketed. "I don't care if people understand or not," Momo said. "I just want them to leave me alone. I don't have any nostalgia for reality. I'm happy living in the 2-D world."

But not all 2-D lovers, as Toru Honda recognized, are ready to cast reality aside entirely. I couldn't help remembering what Nisan told me, Nemutan held tightly in his left arm, as we walked out of the restaurant to the parking lot. "Of course I want to get married," he said as we drove back to West Hachioji station listening to his favorite Eurobeat CD. "But look at me. How can someone who carries this around get married? People are probably wondering what psychiatric ward I escaped from. I would think the same thing if I saw me." He widened his eyes in self-ridicule, then, the next moment, his expression became somber. "I'm pretty conflicted inside. People say there are some otaku who don't want to get married, but that's not true. Some have so little confidence that they've just given up, but deep inside their souls, they want it just as much as anybody else."

If he ever does find true three-dimensional love, Nisan said, he hopes that his wife will accept Nemutan for who she is: "She is my life's work. I would be devastated if that was taken away from me."

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9 comments so far | Post a comment now
lucysma08 July 23, 2009, 4:55 PM

Disturbing. But I guess they’re happy?!

AnthonyIac July 24, 2009, 11:57 AM

Seriously this is pretty effed up. What’s even more effed to me is, why 10-year old anime girls? Can’t they at least be in their 20’s? I mean, even that would be a little better…right?

justin July 27, 2009, 8:00 PM

Looks like a few in Japan need a hefty dose of intolerance to nudge them back onto a healthy path.

Anonymous August 3, 2009, 8:43 AM

Who cares? It’s their business. How could something like this possibly get an article? Sure it’s exciting making fun of people, hoping many people will look down on him but isn’t their something more productive to write about?

Ben August 23, 2009, 3:54 PM

does this fetish only apply to men? If the statistics about virgins in japan is correct it seems that there are an equal number of men and women that aren’t getting any. if that’s the case they should just get together. and have pillows and people.

Anonymous January 16, 2010, 1:02 AM

Those guys or ladies just need to have more confidence in themselves. I’ve seen really ugly guys get really gorgeous/ decent looking girls and vice versa. So it’s not impossible

bhallmar March 1, 2010, 7:52 AM

@anon - there are many reasons to write about this. I care because I’m interested in human sexuality and love in general. you’ve gotta admit that this is a pretty weird phenomenon. Japan is on the forefront of the breakdown between the real and the virtual on many fronts and stories like this really highlight how strange things can become in the modern world.

Hana Pio January 30, 2011, 10:39 AM

Lovely just what I was looking for.Thanks to the author for taking his clock time on this one.

Bernard Shoulder February 15, 2011, 10:33 AM

I don’t know much about it, but I shall be trying to enlarge my ordinary knowledge.


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