In a story made famous by the Roman poet Ovid, a sculptor named Pygmalion created a statue out of ivory who was so beautiful that he fell madly in love with it. He prayed to Aphrodite to grant him a real woman as beautiful as his creation, and the goddess of love heard his plea and transformed the ivory statue into flesh and blood.
It’s an old tale, and it has its parallels around the world. One somewhat unlikely place where a twist on this story comes to life time and again is a space on the third floor of a nondescript building in Ueno. It’s the showroom of Orient Industry, Japan’s leading manufacturer of high quality love dolls. Instead of Pygmalion’s ivory, these sexual simulacra – some of which sell for nearly ¥700,000 – are fashioned from silicone, and while Hideo Tsuchiya, the company’s CEO, does have a fondness for his creations, it’s his customers that fall in love with the dolls.
Some love doll owners have rented out apartments for them, take them on dates, and develop an intimacy with the life-size figures that goes beyond simply the sexual surrogacy that genital parts made from soft elastomer allow.
Orient Industry are the undisputed heavyweight in the world of love dolls, so we thought that Tsuchiya would be the perfect person to ask about the work that goes into each doll, and the affection that these uncanny creations inspire.
On average, how old are your customers?
Thirty years and older. We get some customers who are in their 70s and even in their 80s, if they still have their sexual energy. Really, the range in age is quite broad.
Where are the dolls made?
We have a factory in Okudo, about 30 minutes by train from the Ueno showroom. We have a staff of about 25 people who make the dolls.
What is it about the dolls that appeals to your customers?
The appetite for sex is a normal drive, like an appetite for food. It’s an important thing! In Japan, there’s a particularly developed culture around sex. For example, there are soaplands, and places like that … there are all sorts of different kinds of sex being sold in Japan. But for some people, when it comes to women, they might just have some kind of hesitation. Japanese people can be somewhat delicate, and simply, there are a lot of people who just aren’t very good with women. It seems like more and more men are having a hard time to develop relationships. And a doll doesn’t complain, and is quiet, and is easy to use.
Some of our customers have wives. Maybe they are living in sexless relationships. And once a couple stops having sex, it can be difficult to start again. Because men can be particularly sensitive – women can be quite tough when they say no! – rekindling the sexual relationship can be very difficult.
Is sex the only thing that your customers use the dolls for?
For some of our customers, it’s not just about sex … If a person lives alone, they might be lonely. And just having the doll there helps deal with those feelings of loneliness. Bit by bit, the customer starts to feel a kind of closeness to the doll. They might start to want to talk to it … there’s a sentimental feeling that develops.
What do you think contributes to this feeling?
One reason is that the dolls have improved. They almost look as if you could speak to them: that feeling is there. The dolls’ makeup and the modeling of the bodies is very realistic. The company switched from using latex for the dolls to silicone in 2001. From then, the dolls really improved – and the price really increased as well. Before [switching to silicone] the price was about ¥200,000. It increased by about ¥400,000 after that. Silicone is a much more expensive material to work with.
Do you feel a kind of closeness to the dolls as well?
Sometimes, when our older customers have to stop using their dolls – they might be moving in with their son’s or daughter’s family, or they can’t live on their own any longer – at that time, they can’t just throw the doll away because they’ve developed a feeling of love for the doll. In those cases, they bring the doll back to us. For us, when we sell a doll, it’s a bit like we’re giving a daughter away to be married. When we send a doll to our customers, we include a ring. So when a customer returns a doll back to us, it’s as if a daughter is returning to her family after she’s divorced. There’s a [Shinto] ceremony that’s held once a year for dolls that are being given back to eventually be gotten rid of. The dolls are too big to take back to the shrines themselves, but once a year, we hold a special ceremony for them.
Do you plan to add any new technologies to the dolls?
One of the simplest things we could do is add a voice feature to our dolls. But everybody’s sensibility is different. One person might see the doll as a wife, while another person might see the doll as a girlfriend … But if we used the same voice in the doll, it just becomes a machine. A doll without a voice can have different meanings for different customers … I want for each customer to be able to develop their own feelings and memories in relation to the doll. Also, if you were to add [more complicated] features to the doll, it would become a robot that could cost millions of yen. It wouldn’t be sold as a love doll. Even trying to develop a robot that could be used for sex would be very difficult and very expensive.
If a customer had a photo of a wife or a girlfriend who might have passed away, could you make a doll that looked like them?
We used to do that. Back in the generation when we were making dolls out of latex, we did. But now, if someone were to secretly take picture of someone else, like a stalker would, and brought a picture of someone they didn’t know, and had us make a doll, a picture of that doll might show up online, and that would be a crime. We have no way of being able to prove whether someone had gotten the photo legally or not – it’s a question of portrait rights. So we stopped doing that.
Do you have a favorite model, or one that you’re most proud of?
Honestly, we don’t know which model is likely to sell the best. Even if we make one that looks really cute and expect that it will sell, that doesn’t always happen. So for that reason, we make a lot of different varieties [in heads and body types]. It’s good for our customers to have a lot of choices.
Photos by Alec Jordan