Falling in love with caricatures of girls and women, such as blow-up dolls or pillows imprinted with female characters, is still on the margins of Western culture, but it's getting noted enough to merit a recent New York Times Magazine story about the phenomenon in Japan.

"2D love," what the phenomenon is called in Japan, emerges from a subculture of people who have real relationships with characters in the imaginary worlds of video games, anime, and manga (cartoons and print comics popular in Japan). The NYT Magazine story featured 37-year-old Nisan, a single man who fell in love with the video game character Nemutan. He has a stuffed pillow with her image imprinted on the fabric. He calls Nemutan his girlfriend and takes her out on dates and extensive road trips.

Japanese analysts think the trend reveals the difficulty men (in particular) have negotiating relationships with 3D women. It's easier to control a relationship with an inanimate object than with a real woman who can talk back and will from time to time have her own ideas. A similar explanation has been used to explain the attraction many males have to pornography in the States.

A particularly dark side of 2D love is the sexual obsession men have with prepubescent female characters. Momo, who makes and sells X-rated anime images of prepubescent females, says he has sex with his imaginary lovers. He also says he neither views child pornography nor is attracted to his young niece. Whether or not this trend will translate into harmful behaviors toward young girls is to be determined, but the question has at least been raised. Regardless, being obsessed with 2D images says something has gone terribly awry.

While the first impulse may be alarm, disgust, or laughter at ...

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