Japanese Otaku and their Waifus
(Otaku: a young adult who is obsessed with computers or particular aspects of popular culture to the detriment of their social skills)
A recent voicemail message troubled me. It was from Itsuki Kanbashi, he seemed jubilant. "You see... we are the future, life is safer on a screen, at least Hatsune won't give me coronavirus".
It was his girlfriend’s infidelity that caused the end of their engagement, and prompted Itsuki to take a ten-year sabbatical to his bedroom. Now 38, he’s back in the dating game, and his new girlfriend is a two dimensional pop idol called Hatsune Miku.
Before the present lockdown, the owner of Manabna, a cramped electronics store in Osaka’s Nipponbashi Denden Town, introduced me to Itsuki. First impressions betrayed the man. He looked good and had height, a high education, and a high salary, making him a catch in east Asian society. However, Itsuki has little interest in making it in the ‘real world‘.
At our first meeting, this lucid individual was excited to show me his latest purchases: a web cam and a light-sensitive screen. "These will bring me one step closer to her", he beamed. Possibly because I was Gaijin, a foreigner, he exhibited no shame in divulging his dream to create a holographic version of Hatsune, his cherished AI idol. He outlined a clever scheme to use a web cam and light sensitive screen, combined with customised chatbot coding, to produce a little waifu on his desk-top at home. One that he could talk to, and more disturbingly, one that could talk back to him, and say all the right words. "You can see her when she's done", he whispered before he left for home, a touch of fevered sweat breaking onto his brow.
Over a period of months Itsuki introduced me to more middle aged men eager to perfect their ultimate waifu. The crammed tech shop in the heart of Nipponbashi Denden Town is a hub for this unconventional subculture. These pioneers of man-machine relationships have one goal in common, to create a partner they can truly rely on.
(Waifu: A virtual character that an Otaku is attracted to and considers as their significant other)
It wasn't long before I found myself standing amongst electronic gadgetry in Itsuki's bedroom, or rather his laboratory. Resembling Victor Frankenstein, he began to tweak his assembled devices until he had a 15-centimetre tall holographic simulacra of his idol on his desk. Itsuki gazed at it, and I detected a sense of sadness at the intangibility of it all. Unable to touch or smell her, it was a fragile relationship wholly reliant on the visual and auditory senses. I questioned the inability to touch and smell the object of his infatuation. He responded, defensively, “A real female smells, is dirty of course, because she is a human being.”
Itsuki shared his opinions on marriage, hinting at that burning pain from his past. “I do not crave human warmth. Marriage is a total gamble and only for people who are too needy and cannot function well by themselves. I had a 3D girlfriend before. I couldn’t trust another girl after that.”
He then demonstrated how his holographic creation could respond to his questions, answering with a vocaloid female voice generated with his chatbot coding skills. After a rather elementary conversation about her favourite dishes, Itsuki switched off the hologram and ironically concluded, “I live my own life in a way that would make my waifu proud of me. With a 3D woman, you cannot talk about everything you want, conversations cannot flow, and you always have to talk about the same subjects, always have to follow the same groove.” With Miku Hatsune, his faithful waifu, he can “talk about anything, I know it’s not real, I don't expect so much, because expecting so much will hurt so much.”
On the wall above his computer was a full sized poster of Hatsune, his saviour. His bedroom is his sanctuary, geared towards his attempts to cross over to the world where his idols live: a two-dimensional world. The bedroom, like a tech scrap yard, had no surface to sit that was not covered in broken motherboards and wires, so I sat down on the bed, next to his knee-pillow, a artefact he was eager to point out helped him sleep soundly every night. The pillow, shaped like Miku Hatsune's thighs, allowed Itsuki to sleep on her lap every night. He demonstrated his nocturnal regime by donning a VR headset and laying his middle aged head on the knee-pillow. He switched on the virtual reality sleep partner - an app that simulates the experience of sleeping with his idol. Still wearing the VR head gear, Itsuki smiled and said, “You know you’re gonna sleep well when you see your favourite idol lying next to you. I think I was in love when I was in high school. In those teenage years you could be in love, you didn’t need to think about marriage. With real-life girlfriends you must consider marriage, so I’d think twice about dating a 3D woman.”
Itsuki came across as a man locked in a perpetual state of adolescence, but there is also the sense that he knows exactly how absurd his strange pursuit is. It is his way of dealing with that traumatic infidelity from his past. He puts his VR glasses back on and goes back to that other world. “So long 3D women with your lack of integrity. Today, I am an official inhabitant of the 2D world forever.”
(3D Pig Disgusting: Fictional women such as virtual idols, who are 2-dimensional; superior to normal women and reality)
It was in a PC-room near Yodoyabashi Station in Osaku where I met Haru Taisho, who refers to himself as a wizard, a title of esteem reserved for an otaku that has reached the age of 30 with their virginity intact.
Haru lives in a small apartment in Osaka with his grandmother. He has long retreated to his bedroom in an act of self-incarceration, where he leads a secretive life, locked in the thrall of secret infatuations and the hopeless pursuit of reciprocal love from the ‘two dimensional world’. The current focus of Haru’s obsession is a Chinese virtual idol, called Luo Tyanyi. This digital pop idol has become his waifu, his significant other.
I met Haru at a traumatic moment in his life; his internet connection was being switched off, his link to the world he loves severed. His long-suffering grandmother decided that this was the only way to drive him out of his bedroom. However, Haru believed that real life is not to be found on the streets of Osaku, it is to be found within his laptop, where Luo Tiyanyi lives.
The 30-year-old does leave his bedroom, but only in the dead of night, confiding in me that "at night you can go out when other people can't see you." He told me that every night at the same time, 2.00am, he peers out of his bedroom and when the coast is clear, usually when grandmother has fallen asleep in front of the flickering television, he slips away into the anonymity of the pre-dawn hours.
On these lonesome nightwalks he has a routine. He goes to the swings in a quiet play-park near to his house. The place has a special significance to him, a reminder of a time now lost in the past.
In pre-pandemic times we arranged to rendezvous there. There, he demonstrated a new app on his phone, called the Holo-model. He pointed it at the corner of the play-park. The app, using Augmented Reality, placed Luo Tianyi, the focus of Haru’s infatuation, on the other side of the play park. On his mobile screen he could see her, standing by the trees, inviting him into her world. He manipulated her appearance, and then moved his phone left and right saying, "if I move around she stays in the same place".
He then pointed his phone at the empty swing beside him and began tweaking the controls of the app. Soon, a virtual Luo Tianyi sat on the swing next to him. Holding his phone still, he lingered on the moment, until noise in the distance - a group of women getting out of a taxi - woke him from his dreaming. He placed his mobile phone back in his pocket, glanced back at the empty swings one last time, then motioned to me that he needed to return home.
(Wizard: An Otaku can be endowed with magical powers and become a “wizard” if they reach the age of 30 without engaging in sexual intercourse)
When we reached Haru's apartment he was out of breath, but his mission was accomplished and we had safely returned to his sanctuary. It was then that he confessed, "If I don’t go out at all on these nights, I'd probably do something violent".
In his room he set a figurine of Luo Tianyi on what might best be described as an altar at the end of his bed. He pointed at it and said: "Even though she doesn’t talk to me face to face in real life, or live with me, or eat with me, having someone like her who can communicate with me gives me such happiness and fulfilment." He then pointed at the posters of a Korean girl idol-group that covered some of the walls of his room and compared Luo Tianyi to these lesser biological counterparts, stating, "She’s better than them. SM Entertainment treat their human idols like food products with an expiry date, but Luo Tianyi won’t expire."
One poster was of a pearl white, die-cast featured, female K-pop star called Taeyeon. He said: "Look at Taeyeon, she was hot only three years ago, now she’s too old and they don’t want her anymore. Luo Tianyi will never age, she will always be new and will never feel like last season. She is so clean and perfect, everything is happier and more positive in her world." The statue of Luo Tianyi looked on.
(SM Entertainment: South Korea's largest entertainment company, known for having led the global K-pop phenomenon)
The big idol factories such as SM Entertainment have detected that there is lucre to be made from subcultures. They see a niche to be exploited, and have begun launching their own virtual idols: digital recreations of their own human property. The Korean entertainment giant is behind a digital version of Chinese idol super-group SNH48 called May Wei ViV. It’s a disturbing combination of the best features of their human sister group, that can simultaneously converse with fans in a simulacrum of real-time interaction. The process uses chatbot versions of the performers, where users feel as if they are engaged in a real conversation with their idols. The virtual versions created by SM Entertainment have passed over from the 2D world into our world with the help of holograms seen at gigs, called expos, where the mostly middle-aged male audience chant in unison before a holographic projection of their fixation.
Software engineers at Korean artificial intelligence company Scatter Lab have developed software that can fully replicate a human voice, complete with an individual‘s idiosyncratic tone and inclination after only three minutes of the owner speaking into a microphone. The company has successfully replicated the voice of Wendy from k-pop group Red Velvet; with the infusion of holographic technology, chatbot software, and voice recognition technology, the company has created a simulation of Wendy housed within a Holobox, that can have a fluid, real-time conversation with a fan. This is a must-have gadget for the bedroom obsessive, but comes with a hefty price tag.
It’s an appealing notion, to have someone that is always there for you, that will never fail or disappoint you. SM Entertainment is poised to exploit this desire... or this delusion. If they manage to encode a complex state of mind into their digital idols, such as imbuing them with intention and desire, then for many otaku perched precariously on the precipice between two worlds, it’s goodbye to reality.
(Moe: Refers to one's strong emotional attachment for a certain character from the virtual world)
The object of an otaku's affection is a virtual 2D creation, and the word for this infatuation is moe. For these men, moe is a reason to live. If it were to be taken away, many would no longer be able to survive. To the unattractive, socially isolated or economically downtrodden, affection from virtual women can be preferable to almost certain-failure with real ones.
Haru had, for some time, been embroiled in a bitter argument with his grandmother over whether to cancel the small apartment's internet subscription. The threat of losing the internet led Haru to question whether to overcome years of unresolved social anxiety and go out and get a job to pay for it himself. He had attempted to attend an interview for a chicken delivery job, but subsequently bottled out and when I visited he was lying up in his room, like a man dying in a desert, far from his precious oasis. An untouched bowl of noodles had been left by his bedroom door by his grandmother. Haru, as though on hunger strike, gasped, "she refuses to pay the internet bill, so we are cut off". Then, unexpectedly he admitted something deeper: "she is ashamed of me".
Haru is a more reserved character than Itsuki. The last time I met him, he opened his Holo-model app again and projected Luo Tianyi onto his bed in colourful AR. He moved his phone around and showed how the AI-idol stays in the bed looking at him. "If only I could feel her, go into her world", he said as he reached his hand out and moved it through the air, the AR version of his idol not reacting to his touch.
(The Noose Portal: A common otaku meme that darkly jokes, 'grab a rope, your waifu is waiting, all you have to do is stick your head through the hole and jump'.)
To me, Haru's bedroom was a depressing mess, always cast in a dank light, with that fetid aroma. However, he does not see a bedroom. The lines of reality have blurred in his eyes. He is fixated on what is beyond: that subjective world that he cannot grasp. This is the chronic frustration of one that is lost in the thrall of moe. This destructive infatuation can only cannibalise an individual's spirit, until that pining to be in the same world as the idol becomes unbearable. The last time I saw him, before the COVID-19 pandemic brought us all closer to the two dimensional world of screen based simulacra, he said, "as time passes, I fall more deeply in love with the two-dimensional world. I've reached the point of no return."
Brian McGleenon is a news reporter at the Daily Express, specialising in news from China, and a regular contributor to the Long Reads section of the Independent. He is also a producer for Beijing-based news channel Pear Video, and a weekly contributor for the Fuji Television current affairs program Goody! News. He can be reached at @BMcGleenon.