Hikikomori, AI Girlfriends, and VR Porn Booths. Why is one of the most digitally connected countries also the most socially isolated?

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Throughout my studies of Digital Asia this semester I have learned that “the number of internet users in Asia is now equivalent to those in the rest of the world combined,” (Athique, 2019.) Looking specifically at Japan we see that “93% of the population uses the internet today which equates to more than 117 million people,” (Kemp, 2021.) Despite being one of the most digitally connected countries in the world, there are many emerging digital practices that indicate a society that struggles with real-life connections. 

These unique digital spaces in Japan are likely a result of certain socio-cultural practices and principles. I personally believe that many of these spaces are rooted in the rise of modern-day hermits known as hikikomori. “Hikikomori is currently viewed as a sociocultural mental health phenomenon, rather than a distinct mental illness,” (Ketchell, 2020.) It is a phenomenon that is currently affecting half a million people in Japan, causing individuals to recluse and withdraw from all social contact, often not leaving their homes for years at a time. (Gent, 2019.)

There is much debate questioning if internet addiction is the cause for hikikomori, however many disagree stating that it is a far more complex issue that is deeply rooted in Japan’s societal shame and trauma. Furthermore, many experts point to the internet as an important tool as the solution to this problem through the use of social connectivity and online counseling.

This deeply worrying issue might be the cause for the invention of some unique digital spaces in Japa. The first being the emerging pay-by-the-hour Virtual Reality (VR) Porn Booths located in Akihabara, Tokyo. These are public masturbation booths that are available to be rented, which contain “a computer, VR headset, wall-mounted tissue dispenser, towel, clock, and a vacuum cleaner.” (Anahori, 2018.) 

Yoshiaki Nomoto, the president of Japan’s biggest Adult Entertainment company, ‘Soft on Demand’ (SOD) points to Japan’s culture of shame as the driving factor behind the success of these booths. Stating; “To be honest Japanese people still feel embarrassed when it comes to sex and adult content because of our strong culture of shame. That’s why there are private spaces like video booths or the VR trend,” (DW Shift, 2020.)

It was said very succinctly by Charlie Forrest from the Sex Tech Guide “Space is a valuable commodity, but it would seem that in Tokyo at least, so too is the privacy to masturbate,” (Forrest, 2018.) 

The second unique emergence in Digital Asia that I would like to discuss is AI Girlfriends. Japan has a history of the popularity of dating simulators, however, technology has yet again taken it one step further. The most developed AI Girlfriend used in Japan is Xiaoice, a Chinese-made AI chatbot. “Xiaoice’s persona is that of an 18-year-old in Japanese school uniform, joking and sexting with users as her algorithm evolves to make her their ideal companion,” (Seah, 2021.) 

It is thought that the popularity of Artificial Girlfriends and dating simulators stems from Japan’s celibacy syndrome. Japan’s celibacy syndrome would further explain the population of VR Porn Booths. 

To conclude, for such a digitally connected nation we see a lack of interpersonal communication in Japan, particularly in regards to romantic and sexual relationships. Whilst this raises concern for the mental health of isolated youths and Japan’s population growth, it also created an incredibly unique and fascinating digital sphere to cater to the individual’s new needs. As technology continues to advance and the coronavirus keeps us more isolated than ever, I’m sure we will see this digital space expand, for better or for worse. Perhaps for both. 

References

Athique, A & Baulch, E 2019, Digital Transactions in Asia: Economic, Informational, and Social Exchanges 1st edn, Routledge, Milton.

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