Japan’s Anatomy of Love

While most people were too busy grappling with the science of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, I asked myself this: is love really the one thing that transcends dimensions of time and space?

Ok, maybe not.

But nonetheless, love is often depicted in Hollywood movies as the irrational yet propulsive force that drive our decisions (and plot points). An idea so fundamental to our motivation that without it, it seems, life cannot exist. I am not qualified to debate that assertion – but if anyone is up for it, the examples of Japan would make the perfect supporting argument of the contrary.


Image Source | A Screenshot from Interstellar

This is the last part of a mini-series on the topics that drew my attention during my exchange term abroad. In part one and two, I described Japan’s workaholic culture and its impending population crisis. Today, I want to focus on the country’s response to the aforementioned problems: an entire industry built on disassembling the components of a relationship.

Part Three: Japan’s Anatomy of Love

Economic stagnation in a shrinking country is a fatal combination. Yet, the biggest hurdle of all is that not everyone sees them as legitimate concerns. Instead of lobbying the government to address the underlying issue that is Japan’s outdated work culture, people grew more receptive to a host of new businesses that sell individual components of relationships.

What constitutes a relationship anyway? Companionship? Sex? Caretaking? The definition varies from person to person, but there are services in Japan that cater to almost all of those categories.

The most common option for foreigners to experience this unique culture of Japan is through one of Akihabara’s many maid cafés, where waitresses serve customers in a maid outfit and engage in singing or dancing performances. The menu selection is very standard for a café, but this is a place where lonely (and mainly older) men can come to replicate the feeling of love.


Image Source | Maid Cafe

I was also not immune to its appeal. I visited a maid café in Akihabara with some equally-curious students during my term, and it was incredibly awkward. The girls “cast magic” in front of you and you are expected to sing and chant along (I tried). It sounded something like this. I can see the draw of maid cafés as an experience, but I can’t stomach how locals can frequent these places regularly. But then again, you do get called a “master”.

If being served by overly animated girls is not your cup of tea (pun intended), some may choose to visit a hostess club instead. Hostesses are suave talkers who are paid to sit and talk with clients on anything they want. Unlike traditional concepts of the red-light district, there are no sexual favors involved. Instead, these businesses appeal to people with poor social skills and those who are just looking for someone to talk to (without having to worry about getting judged).


Image Source | Miyabi, a professional rent-a-friend

Maid cafes and hostess clubs are considered mainstream by Japan’s standards. But a few steps further into the love industry, and the scene changes quite remarkably. Due to the obsession with saving face in Asia, there are “rent-a-friend” services that provide human capital for many occasions. Common cases include having someone to cry at funerals or laugh at weddings, but you can also hire a person to be your girlfriend/boyfriend for a day (they will memorize details of your life to blend in). An interesting read here.

From traditional escort services to a long list of Japanese ingenuity, there are plenty of options to recreate the feeling of being in love. But as innocent as they sound, some are a gateway to a much scarier world. Human trafficking and drug rings are a common association with these businesses, where many of them are run by people with connection to the criminal world.

Japan has no shortage of novelty, but these temporary solutions are only delaying the meaningful changes that need to take place. If everyone takes these services as the norm and fall by the fallacy that “things have always been this way,” Japan will be on a steep slope with little to no recourse.



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