Women in Japan get love bytes from virtual hunks

A fan of dating simulation games playing the popular Ikemen series last week. The app, which has been downloaded some 15 million times, offers different scenarios for users to create their own love stories.
A fan of dating simulation games playing the popular Ikemen series last week. The app, which has been downloaded some 15 million times, offers different scenarios for users to create their own love stories.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Phone apps letting users enjoy romance simulations worth $190m

TOKYO • Japanese book editor Miho Takeshita is having an affair. But the recently married 30-year- old is not worried about getting caught - her boyfriend exists only on a smartphone.

She is a fan of romance simulation games, a booming market in Japan that is winning the hearts of women looking for some unconventional loving.

"It's very addictive," Ms Takeshita said. "Even though the game characters aren't real, you start to develop feelings towards them."

That is the whole point, said Ms Natsuko Asaki, a game producer at Cybird which created the popular series Ikemen - a Japanese term for handsome guys.

"The story is most important, as well as the characters, and the twists and turns," Ms Asaki said.

AN ESCAPE FROM REALITY

A Japanese woman making the first move is not viewed favourably... They use these simulations as an outlet, a place where they are not betrayed, and where ideal love and the perfect lover feed the illusion.

MS AI AIZAWA, a marital relations specialist, on how dating etiquette in Japan may be a reason for the immense popularity of virtual romance games there.

The Ikemen app has been downloaded some 15 million times since its launch about five years ago.

The company has also released an English version.

Mirroring the smartphone boom, female-targeted virtual romance games have ballooned into a market worth about 15 billion yen (S$188 million) annually in Japan, according to the Tokyo-based Yano Research Institute.

The games do not rely on complicated algorithms but, instead, offer multiple-choice scenarios that let players escape into a world where they create their own love stories with digital hunks.

Ms Takeshita does not see anything strange about flirting with her smartphone sweeties.

In fact, she can engage with them whenever she likes - something real-life spouses do not always provide.

"The games also have sexual overtones but they're expressed less crudely than in simulations made for boys," Ms Asaki said.

"It's an ideal love story. There are no female rivals and no sad endings."

The success of these games may be partly linked to dating etiquette in Japan, where men are expected to take the lead when it comes to romance.

"A Japanese woman making the first move is not viewed favourably," said Ms Ai Aizawa, a marital relations specialist at the All About website, which offers daily living advice.

And even those women who have found a soulmate are often not satisfied romantically, she added.

"They use these simulations as an outlet, a place where they are not betrayed, and where ideal love and the perfect lover feed the illusion," Ms Aizawa said.

Some smartphone applications such as Tokimeki kareshi (emotion buddy) or Sumakare (smartphone buddy) let users exchange texts with digital boyfriends, making the experience all the more real.

But is there any risk with a bit of smartphone hanky-panky?

"Becoming an addict," said a female fan, who asked to remain anonymous.

"You can even start to feel a little guilty if you do not play regularly. It's a bit dangerous for teenage girls who are still immature."

Romance games are one of the culprits behind a trend that has seen some young Japanese lose interest in finding a real partner, according to a study last year by the Meiji Yasuda Life Foundation of Health and Welfare.

"The relationship that does not happen in real life happens perfectly in the game. That can lead some people to give up looking for love, at least for a time," said Ms Aizawa.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 12, 2017, with the headline 'Women in Japan get love bytes from virtual hunks'. Print Edition | Subscribe