Originally published in Sneaky Magazine.
Photography: Rahkela Nardella
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 be as few as 87 million people in Japan – a staggering decline of 40 million individuals. 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. Including 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 who rarely venture 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 describe a gamut of interests, focused mainly around manga, anime, gaming, figurines, idols and cosplay.
Akihabara, Tokyo, 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 god-like anime characters 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 human connection and intimacy, albeit measured monetarily, evidently still exists in the heart of even the most die-hard Otaku devotee.
The inauspicious entrance to this gateway of platonic 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, out of season 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 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 a translated back-and-forth we established 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 companion 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, pigtailed 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 linen 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 – this infantilising cacophony of kitsch was essentially a large adult nursery for men longing for maternal 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 thighs. She began gently exploring my ear with her earbud in a gentle, methodically 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 the 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 gold heart fell out from her white blouse. I couldn’t help but wonder who had gifted that to her. I guessed she had a partner and I wondered how 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 stare 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 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 whilst 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.
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. 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.
Now, it was time for the grand finale. The 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 looked directly into my eyes as 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? What if I made a mistake? What if I wasted a precious moment not getting it right? Every second counted. We went in, her left arm under mine. Her pigtail pressed against my face and I could smell the fragrance of her hair. Our alternate heartbeats found each other’s and throbbed with their own syncopation. She was incredibly petite, her tiny frame almost felt bird-like and my arms wrapped entirely around her body. I noted the smooth texture of her cardigan on my arms, the way her unsettled fingers pressed into my back. Did she garner any pleasure from this? Did she get anything from this experience at all? I closed my eyes, I felt warm. Time stood still. Everything went hues of red and orange. I had been transported. 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…
…but the rent is expensive around here and the familiar drone of the plastic tomato timer sounded and shook me from my fleeting bliss-state. It was easy to forget exactly how calculated this whole thing was, which I guess is the point when you’re paying for affection. I couldn’t help but spare a thought for a legitimately lonely guy, and how’d they’d feel when so rudely expelled from their dose of tactility. But now, the long-haired, blue-shirted proprietor had arrived smiling and holding his Polaroid camera. He gestured for us to stand side by side and create a heart with our hands. I put one half up of the heart up with my hand and she did the same; two star-crossed lovers brought together by folding currency, curiosity and the disenfranchising nature of the modern world.
After exchanging lots of smiles, nods and arigatou gozaimasus’ I made my way back down the stairs and out onto the streets of Akihabara. The day had now turned to early evening and the glow of the video screens illuminated the streets rammed full of rush hour pedestrians with what felt like an appropriately artificial daylight. In this sea of humans, I wondered what Japanese men starting to value platonic affection over sex said 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 fewer people in 50 years? Wasn’t the world overpopulated already? Where did this obligation to continue our bloodlines and perpetuate humankind even stem from? 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 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 gesture where the shared burden of existence is more implicit than an embrace?
Standing there at a crossing with hundreds of businessmen I looked up towards the glow of Tokyo as the summer rain started to fall. Remembering the Polaroid, I reached into my pocket, pulled out the now-developed photograph and considered how unusual it was that something as tokenistic as this could actually mean something real and significant to someone else. As challenging as it can sometimes be to suppress our Western reactions to perceived Japanese eccentricities, one would do well to stay present to the fact that in a country with one of the highest suicide rates in the developed world (where 71% of those are male) an experience like this could genuinely be what keeps the eternal darkness at bay for someone at the end of their string. With this in mind, I slipped the photo back into my pocket. The light turned green, and as the throng of crooked-necked smartphone staring humans that had amassed at the crossing all lurched forward across the road in lifeless unison, the phrase, “just needs a hug” had never made more sense to me.