Editor's Choice

Japanese 2-D lovers

Call me judgmental and intolerant if you must, but the Japanese guys (described in this NYT article, by Lisa Katayama) who have sex with body pillows with images of prepubescent cartoon characters stenciled on them in lieu of having relationships with human beings seem pretty pathetic. It's like appliantology from Joe's Garage. Judging by the NYT article, these men don't seem mentally ill or neurologically damaged, like the people who get married to roller coasters, but instead seem pathologically ill-equipped to deal with adult sexuality. The way Katayama describes them is fraught with ontological confusion: "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." What makes for a "real" relationship in these circumstances? Or is real just a gratuitous modifier here, like the word really. If these relationships are real, can there be a fake relationship? A non-relationship? If two living creatures are not necessary for a real relationship, than all the rules are inapplicable. Katayama continues in this vein in describing the 2-D lovers: "Unlike most otaku, though, they have real romantic feelings for their toys." As opposed to fake ones? As opposed to only pretending to be in love with a cartoon pillowcase?

It seems a little too convenient to argue that the 2-D phenomenon is a bellwether for the future of human relations in the digital age, where most of our time will be spent starring at screens of various kinds. And let's hope that that the Japanese "lost decade" of stagnation is not responsible for producing these men, as the U.S. could very well be entering a similar economic cycle. Katayama suggests that a crackpot, quasi-anticapitalist guru may be responsible for the rise of 2-D love:

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.”

The logic here is pretty interesting. Since human love has become commodified and plastic, saturated with status implications (as though marriage hasn't always been about status conservation; see Pamela by Samuel Richardson, among a million other examples), it's better to love an actual manufactured commodity, a product. As though marketers never designed products to exploit the insecurities of isolated, alienated individuals (like Honda). Perhaps the idea is that a relationship with a product is always already compromised, so one can't be disappointed or disappointing. And without responsibility to another person, one can indulge the logic of consumer capitalism -- novelty for its own sake -- to a much fuller extent in a more intimate corner of one's psyche. Consider this lover of pillowcases:

“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.”

These people are not resisting the effects of romantic capitalism; they are embracing them more completely. Romantic love began its migration to the center of the individual's consciousness with capitalism's advent in the 18th century or so, redefining the purpose of life for many as the ability to find a soulmate. Romantic love deeply ingrained competitive individualism and became the alibi for authorizing a certain righteous hedonism (expressed in the market through purchases) in the name of discovering who we really are.The 2-D lovers represent the completion of that arc; they have dispensed with the alibi and have moved directly to an open and virtually unashamed love for products instead of people. The complexities of reciprocal love among humans are too inconvenient and stressful, as the communal and civic responsibilities have proven to be for us (better to enact dyadic withdraw, enter the family cocoon, view neighbors suspiciously). A 2-D lover named Momo, the most disturbing of those mentioned in the article, puts it pretty succinctly:

"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.”

I am deeply bothered and creeped out by the phrase: "I don't have any nostalgia for reality." It's too easy to imagine a Matrix-like future full of Momos who want nothing more than to be left to their imaginary worlds and imaginary "real" relationships with cartoons, fueled by and sustained through a steady stream of special collector's items mass-produced by various culture-industry concerns. It's troubling that technology has been aimed toward making "I don't have any nostalgia for reality" something a person would even find it possible to say. It has now become conceivable that one can comfortably opt out of reality -- reject the construct of society altogether -- without recognizing the consequences, namely the foreclosure of the possibility of any sort of social change whatsoever.

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