Remember the boyfriend pillow? Well, there's a whole subculture in Japan devoted to pillows with young girls on them — and it's about more than just sleep.

Lisa Katayama of the Times talks to several otaku, enthusiastic fans of anime, manga, or video games. Some otaku content themselves with merely consuming 2-D media, but Katayama's interviewees actually fall in love with the characters. 37-year-old Nisan carries around a body pillow whose case bears the image of Nemu, a female tween character from a computer game. He takes her out to lunch, and on weekend karaoke dates, and he has a backup Nemu in his desk for nights he has to work late. He says, "Of course she's my girlfriend. I have real feelings for her."


Nisan isn't alone. There's now a slang word in Japanese for the love of 2-D characters — moe. Some men balance their moe relationships with real-life ones, while others love only in 2-D. Toru Honda, who Katayama describes as "the guru of the 2-D love movement," was once booed at a convention for admitting he watches porn of real women. He advocates moe as an alternative to modern real-life romance, which he calls "romantic capitalism." He says love in Japan is all about looks and money, and "decent men" like himself get left behind. In one of his books, he writes, "Pure love is completely gone in the real world. As long as you train your imagination, a 2-D relationship is much more passionate than a 3-D one."

Honda's complaints don't sound that different from those of anyone navigating the dating world, but there's something subtly misogynistic about moe culture. "In an ideal moe relationship," writes Katayama, "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." Put this way, 2-D loves sounds like a way to have a girlfriend who never talks back, expects anything of you, or has her own opinions. It's also troubling that most of the men Katayama talks to love characters who are underage girls. Toru Taima, favors a pillow of a naked sixth-grader named Karada-chan. He says he does have sex with her, but that he never looks at child porn, that he has no sexual feelings for the three-year-old niece with whom he lives, and that "I am not doing anything to harm anybody."

Upsetting as some of its aspects are, moe love may be more about innocence than about pedophilia. Of men who love only 2-D characters, slightly less gung-ho 2-D aficionado Takuro Morinaga says, "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." And many of them may want a human girlfriend but have difficulty finding one. Love is tough in Japan: over 25% of Japanese people between 30 and 34 are virgins, and half say they have no friends of the opposite sex. Nisan says,

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.

Moe lovers may be making real-life relationships more difficult for themselves by falling in love with characters who will never argue, fight, or have feelings of their own. But, its upsetting aspects aside, the desire to give up on the rat race of romance and live in a "flower-bed" is a little sad — and a little sweet.

Love In 2-D [NYT]

Earlier: It's Getting Serious: My First Week With Brendan, My "Boyfriend Pillow"