More and more Japanese millennials are opting for virtual relationships over real ones. That’s right, instead of dating a human being, they’re dating their favorite film or anime character, even a meme or character in a video game. It’s a cultural trend that’s sparked the creation of a multi-million dollar “virtual romance industry” in Japan. And it has Japanese sociologist Masahiro Yamada rather frightened for his country’s future.
New figures show that more than 70% of unmarried Japanese men and 75% of women have never had any sexual experience by the time they reach 20, though that drops to almost 50% for each gender by the time they reach 25.
According to Professor Masahiro Yamada, a sociologist at Chuo University in Tokyo, who has coined the phrase “stranded singles” for the phenomenon, the rise in virginity rates is matched by a rise in the lack of interest in having any kind of “real” relationship.
Recent research by the Japanese government showed that about 30% of single women and 15% of single men aged between 20 and 29 admitted to having fallen in love with a meme or character in a game – higher than the 24% of those women and 11% of men who admitted to falling in love with a pop star or actor.
The situation Yamada lays out isn’t all that far off from the one most American sociologists have pinned on our own millennial generation. Lacking income stability, Japanese millennials remain safe in their parents’ nests, hesitant to take risks in both career and relationships. Quite frankly, it’s easier to stay in your childhood bedroom and create a virtual world through your computer where you can and always will remain in control of everything – including your romantic partner.
While most young people still accept marriage as a cultural inevitability, a growing number Yamada dubs “parasitics” are opting out of real life for a virtual one, a trend not limited to the Japanese. Last March, Vogue chronicled the rise in the popularity of virtual boyfriends among single women in America thanks to Japanese gaming companies like Voltage that rake in the millions from women across the world looking for simulated love lives.
Virtual companionship, once a niche Japanese subculture, has mushroomed into a lucrative global industry. The first wildly popular virtual romance game created specifically with women in mind, called Angelique, was released in 1994 by a team of female developers at the Japanese gaming company Koei. Since then, others have been quick to capitalize. Voltage, the leading company in the Japanese market, currently offers 84 different romance apps.
The same year 40% of Japanese millennials dubbed dating “bothersome” the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that there were more singles than marrieds in America. Companies like Voltage fill the emotional void without any of the nasty baggage. As Vogue explains, “fantasies can be explored without consequence.”
Then again, maybe not. Scientists and science fiction writers alike have long warned about the dangers of too much virtual-reality escapism. Sociologist Yamada attributes the decline of Japan’s birth rate to the rise of virtual romance. Similar to porn addiction, virtual romance is a direct threat to two-parent family life as well as the mental and physical health of the addict. When it comes to virtual romance, the question inevitably becomes what is scarier, the potential for heartbreak, or the inevitability of physical decline and early death?