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Sunday, Sept. 19, 2010

BIG IN JAPAN

No sex please, we are otaku!


Shock, gasp, horror. Aya Hirano is not a virgin.

Wait, there are larger issues involved. But first, Aya. She's the voice of Haruhi Suzumiya, heroine of the anime series of the same name, and as such an idol to thousands if not millions of young otaku men on whose affections flesh and blood women have little claim — because, presumably, they're flesh and blood women, not idols or cartoon characters. Haruhi Suzumiya, according to Wikipedia, is "a beautiful but eccentric and headstrong high school student" who "possesses unconscious godlike abilities to change, destroy and reshape reality to her desires."

In real life, what's left of it, Aya is a 22-year-old woman, and on a "girls' talk" TV show last month she made an admission to the effect that . . . well, there is "a person I like."

To what time and place must we go back for an analogy to the indignation that swept otakuland? To the prudery of 1950s America? To Japan's modernizing Meiji Era (1868-1912), which somewhat artificially grafted onto the native culture the mores of the puritanical West? Or beyond that, to Japan's only native puritanism, which took shape in the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) as polygamy gave way to monogamy and aristocratic libertinism to martial contempt for the softer passions?

There's nothing martial, of course, about the otaku (fan boy) movement. Quite the reverse — the adjective most frequently used to describe otaku men is "herbivorous," suggesting the once carnivorous male defanged. And Aya's fans, responding to her "betrayal," showed not so much rage as hurt feelings.

"An idol must embody men's ideal," a 23-year-old fan tells Spa! magazine. "To otaku, virginity is an ideal."

Spa!, not without misgivings, proclaims a "virgin boom." Virginity is in, sex appeal is out. Why does there even have to be such a thing as sex in the world? TV personality Kumiko Shiratori, the last word in unsexy cuteness, claims to have understood at puberty that sex was "filthy," and at 28 has yet to change her mind. She evidently strikes a chord.

Spa! has been chronicling Japan's waning interest in sex for years. Back in 1998 it ran a feature titled "Who Needs Sex?" Who indeed? "If we love each other," said a 33-year-old trading company employee, "what do we need sex for?"

Western veneration of virginity goes back to the Virgin Mary. Japan escaped that obsession. The 17th-century Osaka novelist Iiharu Saikaku introduces virgins among his "Five Women Who Loved Love." One, all of 12 years old, "knew nothing of the ways of love;" her unabashed eagerness to learn earned her much praise and no blame. When a man who chanced to glimpse her fell desperately in love with her, his ardor fueled her own before she had even set eyes on him. This was fortunate for all concerned. Had she demurred, the man might have died of despair, leaving his ghost to wreak dreadful vengeance.

Religious curbs on unsanctified lust never captured the popular Japanese imagination. Modern manga and anime have captured it, of course — to the point of draining eros itself from the veins of young adults, for whom anime characters live while people are shadows and Haruhi Suzumiya is more real than Aya Hirano.

Why this shrinking recoil from what used to be called real life? Why the mass opting into a kind of perpetual childhood? Because real life is vile?

Let's take that as a working hypothesis and see where it leads. An episode Spa! reported last March seems to embody everything degraded about "reality" — including the fact that no one is to blame, unless everyone is. If evil is the theme, it is a kind of innocent evil.

It's a mother-and-child story. Mom is 26, a single parent, a sex worker for want of a better opening. One day a man she'd been exchanging e-mail with via a deaikei (encounter) site wrote, "Let's see some pix of your little girl. Don't need her face; just nude from the waste down." The girl is 2. "Tell me your bank account number, I'll pay in advance" — ¥20,000 for 20 shots.

"It's not like I forced her or anything," mom tells Spa!. "I photographed her when she was sleeping, or running around playing. What's so bad about that? . . . She's 2 years old. She won't remember anything and nobody'll recognize her."

One thing "so bad" about it is that the man began demanding more provocative poses, threatening to expose the mother to the police if she balked. Finally she talked a neighborhood tough she knew into frightening the man off. His price was ¥300,000. Now the poor woman is in debt. "If I'd had somebody strong behind me to begin with," she says, "this wouldn't have happened."

Maybe the virgin-haunted, anime- obsessed crowd have the right idea after all.



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