Social Issues

Still life: Death and love dolls in Japan

By Dai Kurokawa

Osaka, Japan, Sep 9 (epa-efe).- Customers are asked to keep conversation to a minimum upon entering Leiya Arata’s home studio in Osaka. By the time make-up and costumes are done, they are expected not to utter a single word, their transformation into a doll now complete.

“I wanted to be beautiful and be possessed by someone. Not to be dominated, but to be loved and cherished, like sex dolls are,” Ai Kaneko, a 39-year-old single nurse who traveled down from Tokyo, tells epa.

Kaneko says the ‘factory’ saved her life from suicidal thoughts she began to have 15 years ago after finding the body of her boyfriend, who had hanged himself.

“For many years after my boyfriend’s death, I was very unwell. I tried to kill myself many times,” she says.

Arata’s unique services have provided her with more stability.

“It has become a place to cling to,” Kaneko says. “When I feel like I can no longer go on, knowing that I have this place makes me strong, very strong.”

The strain Kaneko feels is, sadly, quite common in Japan’s highly regimented society.

As the Japanese proverb ‘The nail that sticks out will be hammered down’ implies, people in Japan are under enormous pressure to conform and avoid becoming that nail — an outlier from the rest of society. Many feel suffocated having to live within the confines of such strict social norms.

That is where Arata and her ‘factory’ of fantasies come in, catering to those with desires and dreams that might not be welcome in mainstream society.

As well as providing the chance at regenerative transformation with the human love doll package, Arata offers another peculiar ceremony in which people can say their final farewells to love dolls or sex dolls, which have become dear companions to many people in Japan, a country known for its high rates of social alienation and isolation.

The issue has even led to a phenomenon known as “hikikomori” (Japanese for “pulling inward”) — reclusive adolescents and adults who have completely withdrawn from the rest of society.

Starved of human companionship, many in Japan grow emotionally attached to love dolls, going so far as holding funerals for these life-sized plastic partners.

Sat in front of a coffin containing the body of a sex doll named Ran, Lay Kato, a transgender Buddhist monk-turned porn actor, carefully handles a 3-foot-long Japanese samurai sword that is ceremonially given to the dead to fight the evil spirits on their way to the afterlife.

In the corner of the room, two of Arata’s own sex dolls appear to mourn the ‘passing’ of Ran.

A central aspect of Japan’s Shinto religion is animism, the belief that spirits inhabit all things, big and small, natural and manmade.

Holding funeral rites for sex dolls rather than merely disposing them as garbage is an extension of ‘ningyo kuyo’, a common Japanese practice of holding farewell ceremonies for dolls, says Kato, who plays the role of undertaker.

“A Buddha statue is a ‘thing’ but we worship it because we believe Buddha lives inside of it. The same goes for everything that we love and cherish, including sex dolls,” she says.

Using the samurai sword, Kato points out that Buddha is neither male nor female. “Buddha teaches us to accept and love who we are. We have to learn to love ourselves.”

Arata agrees that her services conform to Buddhist beliefs, and says she wants to help sex doll owners have best possible way to send off their loved ones.

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