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Japanese Masculinity and Two-Dimensional Girlfriends

July 29, 2009

Recent online discussion of a New York Times article about men with “pillow girlfriends” has largely ignored the role of the construction of masculinity in the development of what the Japanese call moe. The men who turn to 2-D love are not considered successful men, either by themselves or by the people around them.

Consider the man profiled in the New York Times article. Nisan lives with his parents, which isn’t unusual in Japanese culture but he also needed to sleep on friends couches when taking his pillow girlfriend on a trip: clearly he hasn’t been able to achieve the level of income necessary to be considered a successful man. Nor does he meet the physical standards of attractiveness. Patriarchy is cruel to those men who do not meet the standards to be patriarchs. Women have been taught not to consider such men as potential partners. Moreover, a man may simply believe that finding a partner is impossible for someone who is insufficiently “masculine”.

Then again, these men might have better luck if they did not seek a patriarchal ideal of womanhood. Their pillow girlfriends represent this: submissive, silent, thin, and cute. Of course, part of the reason men want to date such women is because dating so helps them come closer to the masculine ideal. With a pillow girlfriend, these men can achieve that, if only in their own minds.

Ultimately, it is neither productive nor interesting to label these men freaks or perverts. Whether they are, individually, misogynists, matters little. What is important is that, though they are a small minority, they do reflect in a highly visible way the same social forces that impact the lives of the majority.

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  1. Katie permalink
    August 2, 2009 7:25 pm

    I’d also love to see someone critically examine these articles in the Western media for some of the racist tropes that are used to describe and delineate the masculinity of Asian men. I didn’t feel that the Japanese men were connected to the larger narrative of people who find virtual love through game characters. I definitely wondered why on earth this was news, why it was appearing in the NYT, and felt like it was one in a string of articles that seeks to otherize the sexuality and personhood of Asians, particularly Asian men.

    • August 3, 2009 5:57 am

      I think too there’s a tendency for the Western media to focus especially on stories like this from Japan more than from other Asian countries because in many ways it’s harder to maintain the otherness of the Japanese. (It isn’t uncommon to hear industrialized nations defined as the West and Japan.)

      One of the ways that this other-ing is achieved is by portraying something unusual within the culture as, if not common, then at least universally accepted. One example of this in the NYT article is when the man profiled goes to a restaurant with his pillow girlfriend, and the reporter notes that “[s]everal mothers gave Nemutan inquisitive looks, but the majority seemed not to notice her.” The implication in the article is that the vast majority of people accept his pillow girlfriend, but in a culture that tends to discourage direct confrontation, an “inquisitive look” may actually be a fairly strong expression of disapproval.

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