With a dwindling birthrate that saw its population drop by a record 244,000 people in 2013, Japan has the most rapidly decreasing population in the world. With a current populace of 127 million, some estimates put that by 2060, there will only be 87 million people in Japan – a staggering decline of 40 million. Nearly half of those remaining will be over 65, which will put unprecedented pressure on their taxpayers, with the very real potential to collapse Japan’s economy as the fiscal pyramid is inverted and their ability to provide financial support for retirees diminishes. The issue, which is getting a huge amount of coverage in Japan, has seen the Japanese Government invest 3 billion yen (roughly $30 million dollars) into matchmaking services, financial incentives, free healthcare for couples and the organisation of special ‘singles’ parties in an effort to stimulate the reproductive instincts of its disenfranchised generation. One politician, who was subsequently lambasted, went as far as seriously suggesting the sale of punctured condoms to newly-wed couples.
Whilst it is a multi-faceted issue, the “herbivore” phenomenon is considered by the Japanese government as the primary contributor to their population problem. The social movement is seeing millions of Japanese men shunning sex and marriage, preferring the company of digital girlfriends, sex toys and the stimulation of adult entertainment media. Herbivores, many of whom can also be referred to as “parasite singles” (those who live at home well into their 20s and live off their parents whilst enjoying a life of self-indulgence) have played a major role in the renaissance of Otaku culture. The term “Otaku” which was once used in a derogatory manner to describe individuals with obsessive interests rarely venturing from their rooms, has evolved to a point where 40% of Japan’s students now identify with the term. The culture, which is estimated to be worth ¥2 trillion annually ($18 billion) is now used to described a gamut of interests, focused mainly around manga, anime, gaming, figurines, idols and cosplay.
Akihabara is the spiritual home of Otaku culture and is considered by some to be hallowed ground – a pseudo-sacred district catering to Otakus in every way imaginable. Giant billboards of anime gods look down over the main strip full of manga churches, anime strongholds, SEGA temples, giant TV screens, colourful poster-clad walls, deafening pachinko parlours, electronic department stores, vending machines, street cleaners in knee-high socks and young girls dressed as maids trying to lure you into their cafes. Your over-stimulated senses find little sanctuary as you walk through an assault of sirens, bells, music, lights, cars, energetic women screaming at you through microphones and masses of people walking in every direction.
In the middle of this maelstrom, tucked away down an alleyway off an alleyway, is the surreal sanctuary of ‘Soineya’ – Japan’s first cuddle café. Not really a café at all, its existence helps demonstrate both a cause and symptom of the sociological issues currently confronting Japan. Whilst the desire for sex and relationships has dwindled, the market for some level of platonic human connection and intimacy, albeit measured monetarily, evidently still exists in the heart of even the most devout Otaku worshipper.
The inauspicious entrance to this gateway of human connection was an unglamorous, mouldy black wall above a door with a sandwich board displaying a few highly photoshopped images of Japanese woman in various states of undress and costume. We made our way up the stairs lined with pink fluorescent lights and after standing in the doorway behind a plastic sheath for five confused minutes with our interpreter trying to work out if they accepted foreigners, they finally let us in. Upon entering we were greeted by white light globes, polaroid photos of girls, golden stars, Christmas decorations, plastic flowers, paper lanterns and novelty plasticine moons; there was also a large plastic green frog emitting water vapour into the air which set off a certain atmospheric kitsch kawaii charm. I sat down and the middle aged male proprietor with shoulder length hair in a blue button shirt, expensive looking belt and tidy jeans passed me what was essentially a menu of creature comforts and stood there with a pad and pen taking my order.
After much translating we worked out that I would be getting my ears cleaned for fifteen minutes ($30), staring directly into my companion’s eyes for a minute ($15), holding her hand whilst she petted my head for three minutes ($15), lying down with her on my extended arm for a couple minutes ($15), kneeling and having her head on my lap for three minutes ($30), receiving a polaroid photo with her ($15) and hugging her whilst standing for five seconds (reasonably priced at $2 second). For an extra twenty bucks I could also choose to dress my hug-tician from a long list of outfit options including business shirts, sailor moon outfits and cats etc. I decided to roll with the schoolgirl ensemble, and even this came with customisable options, I chose a brown chequered skirt, matching cardigan and a white shirt.
My new friend came out with a smile. She was short, slim, attractive, slender faced, pig tailed and wearing Hello Kitty jelly sandals. Her china-white complexion was punctuated with huge black pupils which allowed her eyes to appear totally colourless. She took my hand and led me into a corridor walled with pastel pink and yellow drapes. Each of the cubicles were made up from a mattress, lined with sheet walls. I lay down alone in the room staring up at the sheets blowing around gently in the breeze from an oscillating fan. The music, which was somewhat hypnotically drifting through this surreal scene, sounded like someone had just opened a musical jewellery box. Surrounded by cuddly bears, anime action figures, draped plastic ivy, pink pillows, kids toys and LED lights – the cacophony of kitsch could only be described as an adult nursery for men longing for infantile comfort.
My hostess walked back in, kneeled down, placed a brown towel on her lap and motioned for me to place my head on her legs. She began gently exploring my ear with her earbud in a gentle, methodical and assuring manner. Cleaning every conceivable alcove of my ear, knowing exactly how deep she could go – she went from the ear canal and all around the outer ear, spending a liberal seven and a half minutes on each side. It was so relaxing I caught myself half drifting off to sleep in a haze of nursery rhyme music and pastel coloured light.
Next was the staring, a full minute of unadulterated eye-to-eye connection. As we both lay on our sides a small diamond encrusted heart fell out from her blouse. I couldn’t help but wonder who had gifted that to her. I guessed she had a partner and I wondered they felt about me longingly gazing through the endlessly deep pool of their girlfriend’s colourless eyes. In the midst of our reassuring stare, it did occur to me why a lonely guy in this unfathomably vast city who spends all their time working manic hours, obsessively reading Manga and voraciously masturbating would place a value on an intimate experience such as this. There is something innately soothing about losing yourself in somebody’s eyes, because it’s not an experience analogous to any sensations outside of human to human contact.
After our visual kinship, I noticed that each menu item I had chosen was being timed to the second on a novelty plastic tomato stopwatch that would beep at the end of every position. Between each separate paid activity she would go back to her little pad of notes to see what I’d ordered. After the staring we both sat up and it was time for the simultaneous handholding and head patting whist sitting facing each other on our knees. I asked her if I could cup her hands in both of mine and she agreed. I felt a bit cheated about paying all the money for the staring because this went for three times as long and we were more or less staring at each other the whole time. I felt slightly smug, like I’d found a bit of a loophole in their pricing system.
Things were about to get serious as it was time for her to put her head on my lap. I placed a towel on my right thigh and she gently placed her head down. This was about as intimate we’d got so far. For three minutes I watched her tiny ribcage expand and contract inside her brown cardigan as the warmth of her head permeated the towel and reinforced that this person was not just an object of affection but a living, breathing human being with all the same desires, dreams, insecurities and fears as me. She looked so delicate and vulnerable as her tiny pale legs rested on each other and moved around as she fidgeted with the black leggings on her feet. I could still feel her body heat lingering on the towel when we changed positions and she rested on my arm for the next three minutes.
It was time for the grand finale. The real reason I’d come: the embrace. In what position would I enjoy these heavenly five seconds? Five seconds of realness. Five seconds to forget everything. Five seconds to remember forever. We stood up, she came towards me. It was like our first kiss. Did I put my head to the left or right? Did my arms go around or under or over? Oh god, what if I made a mistake? What if I wasted a precious second not getting it right? Every second counted. We went in, her arms under mine and I could feel her tiny heartbeat against my chest. I closed my eyes, I felt warm. Time stood still. Everything went hues of red and orange. I had been transported back to the womb. I felt safe. Defended. Perfect. Untainted. Virginal. Void of desire, I was pure and I had my whole life in front of me. I’d come full circle. I was finally home. I could see something in the distance, something I’d longed for my whole life without knowing – it floated towards me – closer – closer – I could nearly touch it – I could sense I was on the edge of some kind of cosmic revelation, some mysterious piece of the puzzle of existence that until this point had eluded me was about to fall into place when the buzzer went off and shook me from my fleeting dream. Dejected, all that was left to do was pose for the Polaroid. I put one half up of the heart up with my hand and she did the same; two star-crossed souls brought together by her need to pay rent and my desire for material.
Walking back down onto the streets of Akihabara, the day had now turned to early evening and the glow of the video screens illuminated the streets with an artificial daylight. What did Japanese men starting to value platonic affection over sex say about them? Human reproduction aside, who’s to say this is actually a negative undertaking? Is it just part of our devolution towards inevitable extinction? Was it even a bad thing that Japan would have 40 million less people in 50 years? Wasn’t the world overpopulated already? Where did this obligation to continue our bloodlines and perpetuate humankind even stem from? Economics? Years of my own meaningless sex and a list of lovers half of whose names I struggled to remember had only left me feeling emptier and emptier and more desirous of the same maternal simplicity I had just forked out over $100 for.
After all, is there any force stronger? Anything more affirming? Any act more reassuring than an embrace? In times of grief and celebration we express affection and sympathy by holding each other as close as we can. There is no gesture more universal where the shared burden of existence is more implicit, than a hug. Standing there at a crossing with hundreds of businessmen staring into their iPhones; I contemplated our frustration at being misunderstood manifesting as anger, our rebranding of understanding as love, our ego’s desperate desire for confirmation and my own search for an infinite cradle to lay my laboured psyche down in. Then, as the warm summer rain fell the light turned green, the throng of humans lurched forward across the road in unison and the phrase, “just needs a hug” had never made more sense to me.