Japan loves to not have sex. A perfect storm of a career-prioritizing culture, rising unsteady employment and more traditional mores about breadwinners and dating has resulted in a third of Japanese 30-somethings having no sexual experience whatsoever. This abstinent generation has contributed to a rapidly aging population and an uncertain future for the island nation.
But even celibate workaholics need the occasional cuddle or nut, and Japan's loner love economy has exploded as a direct result of the dwindling interpersonal contact. Cafes have begun opening offering a la carte non-sexual intimacy menus. Sex toy company Tenga has grown immensely over the last decade, selling more than 10,000 units of their disposable masturbator products in Japan each day, which accounts for 80 percent of the company's total sales. Even captive hologram AI girlfriends have hit the market, offering a dystopian product somewhere between Amazon's Alexa and Spike Jonze's Her.
No product is more encapsulating of Japan's sexual frustration than the dakimakura, or "hug pillow." While body-sized pillows have been around for centuries, dakimakura began to take on their more familiar companionate forms in the mid 1990s as otaku culture flourished in Japan and proliferated worldwide, courtesy of the internet. Before long, pillow screenprints of every anime, manga, J-pop and hentai fan favorite were available for purchase, and the dakimakura became forever enshrined as a punchline about the virginal neckbeard weeaboo.
Though the pillow may be among humanity's oldest and most analog inventions, the dakimakura has evolved with the times. Already more socially progressive than mainstream Japan, LGBTQ-aimed dakimakura—particularly in the gender-bending and transsexual futanari genre—were being sold long before public attitudes about such orientations shifted toward acceptance. Naturally, the tech-obsessed nation has found numerous ways to digitally upgrade the humble hug pillow.
I visited Akihabara, a Tokyo neighborhood dedicated to all things otaku, to investigate the future of dry humping.
For the most part, the dakimakura sections of the shops were relatively baseline. Rows of pillow covers with anime girls (who may or may not have been characters of note) lined shelves behind locked walls of glass, folded to hide all but the expectant faces of these waifus. Real estate-hogging novelty pillows like the world's longest or largest dakimakura were nowhere to be seen, nor were the tangential but equally fetishy lap and face-sitting pillows.
There were, however, a few tech-infused products for sale, but only pulled from back rooms once I'd asked the shop clerks to show me the good shit in a whispered aside.
I was first informed of the video game Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth, which offers a companionate double-sided dakimakura cover in its Collector's Edition package. Curiously, this item is only available in the European-region edition, with Japanese customers having to settle for some lame art book that will likely be only a little bit harder to jack off to. Unfortunately, the game won't be utilizing the pillow in the interactive way I'd imagined, offering rhythm game-style points for dexterous grope combos. It's just your average dakimakura, included to drum up sales.
Closer to the mark for interactive pillow gaming was Capcom's recent release of Incinerated Palm, a smartphone romance simulator starring a hunky prisoner, Haruto. In response to the game's popularity, the publisher began selling a modifiable Haruto dakimakura that can be disrobed alongside its on-screen counterpart.
For those who need no pretense of narrative, there were a few varieties of pillows with silicon fuck holes attached. One of the few not strictly relegated to online sales and actually available in Akihabara was the Kuu-Pillow, which is essentially an inflatable raft with a hole in the center that holds one's preferred masturbation toy, classic or electronic, and can be dressed up with whatever animated gal, guy or monster pillow cover happens to be on hand.
By far, the standout marriage between dakimakura and technology on display in Akihabara were the talking pillows. The brainchild of Kouchi Uchimura, these pillows come with sensor pads attached to a central relay that pairs to the user's smartphone. After placing the pads on key zones around the pillow (breasts, butt, genitals), the user can caress it and hear—in one of 200 available voices—their bedtime companion coo, moan and even scold, should the groping get too rough.
When he came up with the idea in 2015, Uchimura told RocketNews he wished his longtime dakimakura could talk and "wanted to make that a reality." Now, for about $175 U.S., Uchimura's dream can become your reality.
Surprisingly, though VR-paired sex robots are a foregone conclusion in the western world (with sex doll retailers like Real Doll investing in A.I. futures), there seems to be not much in development that would take dakimakura interaction into the Oculus and Vive shops.
The closest product I was able to find for sale or in development is a smartphone VR app that utilizes one of the aforementioned lap pillows to simulate an encounter with a character from the manga series Re:Zero. This lack of interest in the space is surprising, given that the Tokyo Game Show 2016 organizers had to issue a blanket ban on all VR groping after one developer's demonstration mannequin caught too much lascivious attention.
But perhaps dakimakuras staying away from VR is a good thing. The TGS groping ban speaks to the underlying issue behind all the pillow iterations I saw over the course of my day. While the objectification of women is a global issue, without a doubt, it's a seemingly latent and passive one that's being gradually corrected. The innovators in Japan's dakimakura market, on the other hand, are actively pursuing objectification as their end goal. And as more relationship simulacra like these become available to a young population increasingly ill-equipped to handle IRL romance—where both parties have agency, needs and consciousness—one can only imagine what sort of population problems this may cause for Japan's future.