July 24, 2009

REMEMBER WHEN FOLKS THOUGHT JAPAN WAS THE NEXT SUPERPOWER?:

Love in 2-D (LISA KATAYAMA, 7/26/09, NY Times Magazine)

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.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 24, 2009 9:11 AM
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