Plastic fantastic: Japan's doll industry booming

Plastic fantastic: Japan's doll industry booming PHOTO BY KOHJI SHIIKI

TOKYO —

At Kiyomizu Kannondo temple in Ueno, a funeral is underway. A dozen or more monks kneel chanting Buddhist sutras, their voices building into a roaring crescendo as they move to put another soul to rest.

But the “soul” they tend to this day is that of a doll — specifically, a well-used “love doll” being returned to its maker after the owner got married. The ceremony is called “ningyo kuyo,” or a doll funeral, and commemorates sending the unit to the factory for dismantling.

“She was glowing with love from her owner,” says Yoshio Nakamura, 63, one of several employees of doll manufacturer Orient Industry who attended the event. “Now she will return to her factory home, like ‘satogaeri’ — the ex-wife going back to her family.”

Nakamura’s intense affection is characteristic of doll lovers in Japan (often called “dollars” but preferring the term “doll users”), whose ranks are at least 20,000 strong and growing. Even as sex dolls draw criticism and disappear from Tokyo’s backstreets, benign sellers running the gamut from collectible to huggable, from love dolls to porcelain pieces, are doing brisk business as the image of dolls and their users steadily improves with positive media exposure.

Japan has used dolls for religious and ceremonial purposes since around 1000 AD, and in the Edo Period, the country was quick to pick up on such Western innovations as “karakuri ningyo” robots and “Dutch wives.” According to Takatsuki Yasushi’s “From Dutch Wives to Love Dolls,” a rudimentary “azumagata ningyo” appeared in Ryugoku’s Yotsumeya in 1626 and fast became part of the establishment.

By the 1950s, the government began using sex dolls to enhance the lives of its workers in remote outposts such as the South Pole. A string of movies in the 1960s and manga in the ’70s, including Reiji Matsumoto’s “Sex Droid, Ishinomori Shotaro’s Sexadoll” and Osamu Tezuka’s “Yakeppachi no Maria,” cemented dolls in the popular consciousness.

Dream dolls became physical reality

It was at this time that Orient Industry burst onto the scene with the manifest of turning dream dolls into a physical reality. Its 33 employees make just one product, dolls, and manage the process from the beginning of the production chain at their Katsushika factory to the final sales and customization in Tokyo and Osaka outlets.

Their Candy Girl series, supple silicon flesh over flexible metal skeletons, is legendary in Japan, so much so that Vanilla art gallery hosted Orient’s 30th anniversary exhibition in Ginza in June 2007.

“That event was something of a coming out for us,” says Nakamura, the Ueno showroom manager. “We aren’t targeting ‘otaku’ or people with a doll fetish. That boom has come and gone. Now we are getting a lot of healthy, normal people.”

It is Orient’s policy never to reveal its sales figures, but sources say that the company sells at least 50 dolls priced between $1,300 and $6,900 each month, shipping them to destinations in Asia, Europe and the U.S.

A conservative estimate, then, is that Orient makes over $200,000 a month on dolls alone, and when parts, accessories and service are factored in, this total jumps drastically.

Indeed, at Orient’s showroom in Ueno, staff conduct 130 tours per month for groups of 1-10 people. Entry is on a reservation basis and limited to 30 minutes per group.

Many don’t even make it past the door. “Some people get the mistaken impression that this is a toy store or rental space, but we turn these people away,” Nakamura says. “We are near Akihabara here, so young people come down en masse looking for fun.”

Orient’s newest and most expensive line, Diva, is sculpted to be anatomically correct in every way — similar to the U.S.-made Real Doll — but the Petite series of child- or anime- like characters is the more popular choice.

That’s the case at a doll rental space in Shinjuku, established in 2005 when there were some 150 such shops in Japan — but now the last of its kind in Tokyo.

“I run a ‘burasera’ [used uniform] shop, so I know well what the customers want,” says “Ace-san,” 54, who asked that neither his nor his store’s name be revealed. “I partnered up with doll producers to provide them with proper uniforms, not just cheap costumes, and still have these connections. I am also a friend of the man importing Real Dolls, so I can get a better price.”

That’s one reason he manages to hang on as one of the last 20 doll rental establishments in all of Japan.

Negative image attached to sex dolls

The reasons for the industy’s decline are many, including the negative image attached to sex dolls, the inability to control how customers use or abuse them, and the high cost of maintenance and replacement.

Ace-san has bought four Real Dolls and two Candy Girls in three years, or about $85,000 worth of merchandise, but has only 50 regular customers. The rent for the room housing each doll, a hidden alcove inside a high-rise apartment complex, is $1,000 a month.

There is no business incentive left to cater to doll users, Ace-san says. He nonetheless continues because he is convinced he is providing a service for people in need.

“I went to the Ward Office and told them I could help people who are handicapped or elderly and need these dolls,” he says. “Of course, the government cannot officially support the sex industry, but five of our customers come together with caregivers saying the Ward Office referred them. People may not like it, but this is a necessary thing so that some people can function.”

It’s debatable to what extent geriatric or disabled clients can manipulate the dolls, which weigh in at around 60 kg, but these two demographic groups have traditionally been the top customers. According to Orient, the most popular reasons for buying or renting dolls are physical ailment, advanced age, loneliness, fear of STDs and “being afraid of women, scandals or rejection.”

“Whatever else might be said, it is safe,” says one Orient customer, “Tanaka,” a member of the Doll Photography Society, whose members dress Orient products and pose them as models in exotic locales. “You know what you are getting, you know the possibilities and the limitations.”

Nakamura estimates this is precisely the kind of relationship customers want.

“A doll is soothing, ‘iyashi,’ which is exactly what stressed people need,” he says, pointing out that huggable body pillows emblazoned with anime characters sell out across Tokyo despite a $150 price tag. “Owners long for companionship.”

On the other end of doll user spectrum — the nonsexual end — feelings of purity and “iyashi” are among the top appeals for fans of Volks’ highly sought after Dollfie series.

“It’s very soothing for me to have my dolls watching over me in my room,” says Koji, a 27-year-old Dollfie enthusiast. “It used to be that men couldn’t even have dolls, let alone play with them. But with these, you can pose them, change their heads and clothes, you can make them as you want to. It seems natural for figure collectors to go to the next stage of more customization and posing.”

And fans pay for that upgrade — a standard Dollfie, before accessories or customization, costs between $500 and $1,000.

Resin-cast Dollfies were created in 1998 in response to the burgeoning domestic interest in expensive French imported dolls. Their manufacturer, Volks, was famous for its figurines and model business, and Dollfies’ combination of high quality and low price started a boom. The scene further exploded with the popularity of anime like the “Ghost in the Shell” TV series (2002) and “Rosen Maiden” (2004), the story of a boy who becomes slave to a doll. Another factor was the inclusion of ball joints, which make it possible to pose the dolls for pictures, a favorite pastime among users. Volks now has around 30 shops worldwide and boasts $50 million in annual sales — but is careful not to let the publicity turn sour and is distancing itself from comparison to sex dolls or association with “otaku.”

Not intended for the maniacs

“When the dolls started to go into limited editions, that is when the maniacs started to get interested,” says a Volks representative at the company’s Akihabara showroom. “However, our products were not intended to be for ‘otaku’ and are not limited to Akihabara.”

For their part, Dollfie fans also want to distance themselves from negative stereotypes, and seldom publicly display dolls. They further make a distinction between the majority of “dry users,” or collectors interested in how their dolls look, and the minority “wet users,” or those who make an emotional investment in their dolls, sometimes even publicly carrying, caressing and talking with them.

“The media thinks that we do this because we are perverts with sexual feelings for our dolls or something,” says “Dragon,” a dry user who owns some 20 limited edition Dollfies. “I like dolls because of their artistry and beauty. They are not cute like anime characters, but sophisticated and beautiful.”

Like Orient’s dolls? No way. To Dragon, they are to Dollfies what tigers are to cats.

Dragon is friends with many other users, but prefers to keep his avocation a secret and so only meets them at St Grace’s Court, a doll user-friendly costume café outside Akihabara, and dolpas, or doll parties where fans can get together.

The last one, Dolls Party 19, was held April 27 at Tokyo Big Sight and drew 15,000 fans to buy, sell and trade limited edition, fan favorite or even fan-produced dolls. For the first time, men comprised 30% of all attendees. The events held in Kyoto, the hometown of Volks, are far larger and more diverse.

A popular subsection of Dolls Party 19 was miniatures, such as Petite Ai and Volks’ own YoSD and Yo Tenshi, limited edition series fans can acquire only on Yahoo! Auctions or at doll parties. These little guys and gals are especially popular for carrying around and posing for photo shoots.

While Orient says users treat their dolls as wives, these miniatures are more often treated like family or children. Yo-sizes have very little body definition, and their slightly thicker stature make them incredibly child or baby-like. Many owners carrying Yos have them in turn carrying small toys and coo softly to them.

There are even smaller sizes—referred to as “tinys” — which mostly just sit pretty with their owners. Though a lot of owners treat tinys in a similar way to Yos, their unreal smallness imbues them with a sort of ethereal-like “pixie” or “fairy” quality that lends itself well to unorthodox posing.

Those who are more interested in the “wet” side of fandom attend doll “exchange parties” to talk and play with dolls among invited guests. Who is on the list and where the events occur are carefully guarded secrets shared only by members by cell phone.

Wet users are overall a shy bunch, but one young lady agreed to explain her activities.

“People can’t hear my friends [dolls] because they don’t believe,” says Mai, a 23-year-old college student from Hiroshima who has been talking to dolls since she was a child. “You can’t approach them like objects.” Unlike dry users, Mai and her friends would never dream of selling their dolls.

Dragon — a dry user who nevertheless has become hesitant to sell his merchandise and who has started attending doll exchange parties — thinks it may be time for him to take a reality check. “If I continue on this path I might go wet,” he said.

Is Japan on the same path? At least one man thinks so. “Buying a doll is like ‘yomeiri;’ it’s a serious investment like a marriage,” says Nakamura of Orient Industry. “Many Japanese have stopped getting married, so maybe this is what they need in their lives.”

Orient Industry
The first and largest showroom for Orient is located a stone’s throw away from Akihabara. Reservations are required for a 30-minute visit, but inside are dozens of models and lines, including some 15 variant faces. The atmosphere is decidedly disquieting, but under the gaze of hundreds of dolls one can test the weight, durability and flexibility of Orient products before buying.

Suguru Building, 2F, 5-23-11 Ueno, Taito-ku. Tel: 03-3832-4832. Open daily 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Nearest station: Okachimachi. http://www.orient-doll.com/top.html

Volks Akihabara Showroom
This shop on the sixth floor of the Radio Kaikan is the crowning jewel of the Volks doll empire — more a museum than a store. Walk the aisles and see completed Dollfies, consult experts and thumb through albums of photos taken by customers. The showroom also offers the latest information on dolls parties.

Radio Kaikan, 6F, 1-15-16 Soto-kanda, Chiyoda-ku. Tel: 03-5295-8160. Open daily 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Nearest station: Akihabara. http://tinyurl.com/6oh6vs

St Grace’s Court
This unique costume diner is a “sister café” where nuns alternate between serving tea and engaging in mock Catholic ritual. The staff and customers are all hardcore fan types, and the owner allows them to organize exchange parties and take pictures of their dolls. There is even a “doll set” (700 yen) of miniature tea and sweets on the menu for users to order for use in posing their dolls or offering them refreshments.

Chiyoda K1 Building, 1-B1F, 2-19-33 Kanda Sudacho, Chiyoda-ku. Tel: 03-5298-5947. Open Mon-Thu noon-11 p.m., Fri-Sun noon-5 a.m. Nearest station: Akihabara. http://www.st-gracecourt.com

Café Saya
A hotbed of doll user activity located outside Shinjuku, Saya is an antiquated café boasting an impressive lineup of doll events, including private exhibitions and sales, do-it-yourself workshops, and doll exchange parties. Like many such places, the space is typically only open when rented out for events, and these can be reservation-only or private affairs. Saya does, however, run a doll café most Saturdays.

3-37-1 Kamiya, Kita-ku. Tel: 03-3903-5462. Open noon-6 p.m. (different if there is an event). Nearest station: Higashi-Jujo. http://cafesaya.net/CAFE/

Maiden Doll and Dollfie Dream Gallery
These websites, made by users to display pictures of dolls, are among the hundreds in cyberspace. Fans submit reviews, share thoughts or send in their own images. Though most of the text is in Japanese, the beauty of the dolls and depth of activity on the part of users comes through. http://maidendoll.nobody.jp; http://dollfiedream.arcadiangarden.com

Dolls Party
For more information on Volks’ Dolls Party events, visit www.volks.co.jp/jp/event/dolpa_portal/index.html

This article originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

  • 0

    KitsuneYoukai

    "We are now getting a lot of healthy people." Now, how do they figure in this business?????? Where's the normalcy in this?

    This article is so, how can I put it, a little disturbing to say the least.

  • 0

    antizombie

    This article is one of the weirdest I have read about Japan.

  • 0

    Azrael

    Indeed, I also fail to see the normalcy in such activities.

  • 0

    KaptainKichigai

    If you held a blacklight over those dolls.....you could see them from space.

  • 0

    yabits

    What a fascinating article! Wonder how mileage is calculated on one of those rental dolls.

  • 0

    1keiron

    What can I say....whatever floats your boat...lol

  • 0

    jerseyboy

    And the government can't figure out why the birth rate is declining!!!!!

  • 0

    ohkami

    First off, I think many of these comments are very narrow-minded. While it's true that the idea of sleeping with a doll is creepy, it's their own personal life and many people have even stranger fetishes. There are many aspects to Japanese culture that aren't like those in other countries. Also, this article isn't only about those types of dolls. The BJDs mentioned, such as the ones made by volks, are made for a different purpose. It's true some people, referred to "wet" in this article, have a deep emotional attachment to their dolls, but we all have had something like that at one point in our lives. It doesn't matter if they are 15 years old or 50--it's far more sane than what other people obsess over sometimes. And the comment about the declining birth rate? Actually, studies have shown that it isn't the dollie boom that has led to this. If anything, everyone in Japan is just too busy. So, don't say such idiotic comments without doing some research. So, when it comes to what is normal and what is not normal, consider this: Normalcy is limited to an individual in relation to his or her society. What is normal and what is not normal changes from person to person, and from culture to culture. Keep that in mind.

  • 0

    KitsuneYoukai

    I'm sorry, but I don't think that growing up with dolls, playing with them as children, or collecting them is the same thing as buying life size ones to engage in real life scenarios, sex or the like is part of the normal human psyche no matter what culture your from. It's more like voidance of real social interaction which will eventually lead to diassociation and a disconnection with real human beings over time. One example is the problems arising with people obsesed with video games.

  • 0

    USAkuma

    Its intriguing to see how much effort went into trying to make this seem as normal as wearing uniforms to high school.

    Orient’s newest and most expensive line, Diva, is sculpted to be anatomically correct in every way — similar to the U.S.-made Real Doll — but the Petite series of child- or anime- like characters is the more popular choice.

    Yes, its true that here in Japan, anything is acceptable to some extent and I'm jaded enough to get over my shock at the "anatomically correct in every way" dolls being used by those in the article. But the Petite series... this seems to be something for pedophiles.

    Would these dolls encourage pedophilia or is it a way to keep a pedophile off the streets and in the closet?

    In the end, though, I feel that this is yet another excuse to stave off social training. No one plays with each other or learns social rules anymore, they hide in their rooms with games and dolls. This country needs serious psychological assistance, not more dolls to play with.

  • 0

    ohkami

    I wasn't using the idea of growing up with dolls to make sex dolls "ok". I was using the idea of growing up with dolls to say that BJD, or volks dolls, are okay and not weird at all. Look them up. They are not only way too small, but impossible to have sex with.

  • 0

    jerseyboy

    ohkami...The only one here making "idiotic comments" is yours truly. Please site ONE piece of research that supports your point-of-view -- That "wet" dolls do not take the place of a normal healthy physical relationship, and, that therefore their owners have just as likely to have children as the average J-guy does. You are right about one thing, however -- these guys are "too busy". Too busy living in a fantasy world to actually engage in real/normal relationships. And, no "normal" does not "change from person to person". Otherwise there would be no concept of societal or cultural norms. Individual behavior changes, but not whether it is normal or not. By the way, how many dolls do you own?

  • 0

    lou3993

    OhKami,

    I agree with your opinions that each culture has a different way of defining cultural norms. But there should be limitations put on those cultural norms especially in cases where dolls that are bought that resemble children. What the buyers do with these childlike dolls I do not want to think about. No matter what society in whatever culture that is not something positive.

    There are multiple factors contributing to Japans low birthrate. But supplying a lazy way to curb the need for a relationship does contribute what ever way you look at it. People are too busy, they work too hard drink too much Paying for education/a bigger place is too expensive, women now want careers over families. These are all valid points and you could go on forever listing different reasons!

    But if they have time to play with dolls then they have time to find someone with a pulse. The fact that some of these users are people that have difficulty forming friendships with the living also shows how easy it is to create a niche in the market and by doing so corrupt more than just that market.

    Dolls do not foster good social abilities in anyone, well that is of course unless you are a small child. It seems also to be something that you can get addicted to, The person Dragon claims to be a "dry user" but is starting to go to those exchange parties. The day when everyone needs the comfort of companionship of a doll over a real human being is something I hope we never see.

  • 0

    usaexpat

    Well as they always say differnt strokes for differnt folks. Whatever gets you by I suppose although I can't imagine a love affair with a doll would be less embarassing than an affair with a real woman. Quite the opposite I would think. If the PM were caught frequenting a sex doll rental operation that would strike me as more questionable than if we was caught with an intern.

  • 0

    MiyaMiya

    It seems strange to me that they would mention dollfies in an article about sex dolls. Even if their owners do become emotionally invested in them, dollfies are just little toys.

  • 0

    QueenOfKings

    I think the thing that disturbs me the most is that the sex doll industry almost exclusively targets men. There are very, very, VERY few male sex dolls, and those that are out there target gay men, not women. I've spoken to several women over the years who've said they would purchase a male sex doll if there was one available for them.

  • 0

    ghilie

    A few comments about dolls - Dolls have been an important cultural part of Japan since year 1000 or so. They have a doll festival every year, more widely known as girls day. (Learned this from Wikipedia.) So as far as cultural norms go, Japan is much more "pro-doll" than America.

    Second, I researched Orient Industries petite series. They are NOT child bodied, 3 foot tall representations of an eight year old, which is what I think some people on this forum think. They simply have smaller boobs and more child like faces. They fit in with all the XXX TEEN XXX that the US offers constantly; only in Japan, there is no actual teen being taken advantage of. The phenomenon of child faces on mature bodies is not unique to Japan - look at some of the fashion dolls produced in the US prior to Barbie.

    Third, the wet/dry owner thing was in reference to emotional attachment, not whether or not one has sex with dolls. Every person in this world has had an emotional investment in an inanimate object. It is a normal part of the human condition. Some men love their cars more than their wife! O.o

    Fourth, I love dolls and I have for as long as I can remember. I make soft dolls, rag dolls, collect ball joint dolls, make doll houses... and I don't think this makes me weird or takes place of human relationships. Being able to share with other people at doll meets lets doll owners make new friends. It's like any other hobby - it opens doors to the world. I certainly don't think people who collect BJD or even love dolls live their life in a closet, interacting with no one but their dolls. Like most of the population, they probably have good friends, go to the movies, go to work and school, etc.

    And remember, the first doll they talked about in the article had to go because the owner got married. So some of those Japanese guys actually have some time to interact with others. ;)

  • 0

    larsmcnut

    You know, it's nothing short of hilarious to watch people misconstrue an article and then run right into flaming each other in the 'comments' section. I mean, really? Come on now. I know It's easier to get enraged than it is to make an intelligent and relevant comment. It isn't entirely your fault though because this article, though still interesting, was not well written.

    The article fails the readers about halfway in. The segueway between the 'dolls you bang' and the 'dolls you don't' wasn't clear at all and fails to clearly state that the Volks line of dolls are in not sex dolls. Yeah, the relationship between people and their dolls is interesting and occasionally intense. Dollfies are more of a creative outlet of fashion design and appearance but are not marketed/intended for sex in any way, shape or form.*

    **The phenomenon of Super Dollfie is better explained by this Japanorama. It's done by the BBC3 and is hosted by Johnathan Ross. It covers dolls in popular culture in Japan and addresses the Volks Super Dollfie phenomenon and it's potential effects on the population.

    http://youtu.be/0LM0oyLFAOY**

    Yeah, it's strange (I think it is even considered odd in some ways among the Japanese since collectors hide their identities) but Dollfies (specifically) are not detrimental. If someone wants to collect dolls, let them collect dolls. If someone wants to take that to the 'unhealthy obsession' collecting limit then that's their business. If they don't want to contribute to the gene pool then that is their decision and I am totally fine with it.

    Other than falling under the heading DOLLS MADE IN JAPAN, Dollfie and the aforementioned sex dolls have absolutely nothing in common.

    • Of course there may be an exception to the rule but I knew stupid people in college who would do naughty things to anything from kitchen utensils to musical instruments. Let's hope they got help. Perversion is a general affliction and not related to collectable dolls in particular (just ask an ER nurse).

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