Shukan Asahi (June 15) takes us to a “retro café” in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi where nine men and nine women are engaged in light banter. It looks like – and in fact is – a “konkatsu party,” a party for people in quest of a marriage partner.
This one’s a little different though. First, the talk is remarkably animated, with few of the awkward silences that generally bedevil these gatherings. Secondly, though the language is unmistakably Japanese, a Japanese eavesdropper – if we dare imagine such a thing – might have difficulty following the conversations. What’s “BL”? Or “fujoshi”?
BL means boys’ love and “fujoshi” are women who like manga and anime with BL themes. Are we oriented now? This is marriage-hunting among the otaku – those who, mostly with pride, shun as much as possible the physical, three-dimensional, living, breathing, sweating world and indulge instead their all-absorbing interest in manga, anime and computer games.
Otaku by now are so pervasive they are almost mainstream. The word is understood worldwide. Abroad they are “cool Japan” personified. And yet at home, not everyone takes to them. Cool they may be, but women looking for mates have tended to look elsewhere. Otaku themselves – the males at any rate – were notoriously skittish when it came to the opposite sex.
Not anymore, says Shukan Asahi. All of a sudden otaku men find themselves much sought after. One sign of changing times: organizers of the Nihonbashi café event report 30 applicants for every place available. Another: within two hours, five couples have formed and gone off on their own. That’s more than half, and better by far than the 30% rate typical of non-otaku konkatsu events.
Why are women, otaku and non-, lately reversing themselves on the desirability of otaku men as marriage partners? It all boils down, according to experts Shukan Asahi consults, to a shift in women’s aspirations. Once they demanded “the three highs” in a man: high academic background, high income, and high height – better a tall husband than a short one. That’s out now. In instead are “the three heis.” The character “hei” means average, mediocre, ordinary. The three heis are ordinary appearance, average income, and mediocre lifestyle.
It was the bursting of the economic bubble in the mid-1990s that deflated the three highs, and the 2008 Lehman Shock that inflated the three heis. The Lehman Shock brought Japan to the abyss of economic collapse. It was a shattering experience. High living suddenly came to seem like skating on ultra-thin ice. Better lower one’s sights, thought many women. A man with a modest salary is less likely to throw his money away. A plain appearance means other women will leave him alone. An unimposing lifestyle keeps a man content with the humdrum but after all satisfying pleasures of home and hearth.
Otaku men may be unimposing and unthreatening – but does their immersion in virtual and cartoon worlds leave them time and energy for husband- and fatherhood? It’s a point and a concern, women concede. Hardcore otaku might not fit the bill. “Otaku light” is what they hope for.