By Xavier Bensky and Usman Haque
She has her own regular spot on a radio talk show, she has already come
out with two hit singles and now she has a music video in which she
dances and shows off her supermodel physique. In coming months, she is
scheduled to make live television appearances and star in soap operas.
Who are we talking about? Meet Date Kyoko, Japan's first "virtual idol" explicitly manufactured to be adored. Actually, she began as DK-96, Hori Production's first creation in the "Digital Kids" project. She is not based on any real individual, but was rather created polygon-by-polygon from an image supposedly based on the idol in demand today.
Young men all over Japan are falling in love with Date Kyoko. They write to her, they download her video clips from the internet, and some even plaster their PCs with her pictures. Her web pages have interviews with her (she's remarkably erudite), horoscopes and now one can even find her on the cover of magazines.
She's not the only one; if you prefer Enka singers ("country" ballad music), click your way over to Yuki Usui, who has her own novel posted on the internet. These "virtual-idols", manufactured predominantly for ecstatic consumption by men, are cropping up everywhere; virtual love is big business in a culture which has become more and more dependent in recent times on instant gratification.
And yet, the irony is that these idols provide the precise counter-point to gratification as normally understood: the love and devotion offered by these youths is *always* unrequited. Photos of the idols, though alluring, are barely erotic in anything other than a teasing way.
The pleasure of adoring a virtual Venus does not lie simply in explicit titillation.
If there is any gratification at all (and there must be, since the phenomenon is so popular) it lies precisely in the unattainability of the loved one. Unreciprocated love is often the most passionate and it could be argued that the ardour of infatuation is simply making up for a loss somewhere else. The situation is somewhat different from the pin-ups and pop-stars of latter days, where there was still the remotest chance that the beloved might respond by falling in love too; in the case of the virtual idol, the impossibility of a relationship is assured and there is no fear of rejection because it is already clearly written out from the start that no coupling will ever ensue. Lover continues to love, beloved continues to ignore: a comfortable agreement.
Enter tamagocchi (tah-mah-goh-chee).
Tamagocchi is a pet unlike any you've seen before; it's housed in an egg-sized casing and needs nurturing throughout its short lifetime. Wildly popular among high school students and rapidly winning the hearts of office workers and business people, these 'adorable' pets are almost always sold out and are in such demand that a black market has emerged (at up to twenty times list price). They have spurred the creation of a myriad mailing lists, websites and discussion groups. They've even crossed the oceans, having recently been featured in CNN, the Washington Post and Daily Telegraph. By May 1997, they will be available in Europe and North America as well.
Why so much attention?
These cute pets, just like Date Kyoko and Usui Yuki, are *virtual* and live in the land of bits and bytes.
By acquiring a physicality (they may be carried in one's pocket or, as is popular now with high-school girls, dangled from one's neck) and by requiring human interaction, Bandai Corp.'s tamagocchi have overturned the "virtuality" of virtual love and have challenged conventional notions of producer and consumer in mass culture. The consumer has now become active in the development of the adored object. The pets need to be fed, cleaned, played with, scolded (when necessary) and vaccinated(!). This is done by pressing small buttons below the LCD screen through which the tamagocchi is depicted. The critters are raised from birth and experience childhood, adolescence and adulthood within the space of one week; alas, they usually expire within ten days.
In this respect, they are ideally suited to the busy lives of
contemporary Japanese, who lack the space but urgently need the
emotional outlet. In a country where owning a pet is a luxury many
cannot afford, either in terms of time or money, tamagocchi is available
for the mere price of a movie ticket (under 2,000 yen). Of course, for
single office workers who can't care for a cat or a dog at home,
tamagocchi is the perfect solution.
However, unlike virtual idols, tamagocchi strikes at the very heart of the unrequited love paradigm: instead of romanticism or passion, they take the option of a more mature, selfless, almost maternal love. No longer a relationship of titillation, these pets are appealing to a much broader audience among both men and women. Caring for tamagocchi, like any pet, requires a platonic devotion which, in its altruism, reaffirms one's own importance; just as religious devotion elsewhere has often emphasised love through selflessness, so does tamagocchi free itself from a love of masochism, jealousy or obsession.
Indeed, tamagocchi have acquired a spiritual domain: a virtual temple now exists on the internet. When your pet dies, you can go to the "temple", give offerings, and leave prayers in a funerary bulletin board. Within the tamagocchi mailing list, bereaved owners reminisce about their dearly departed pets. "Sorry for not cleaning up after you enough", mourns one high school student. An office worker sighs: "You were so much fun. If only I hadn't turned the sound off I would have heard your cries of hunger."
Tamagocchi is not simply a toy: the act of "going to temple" legitimises
the relationship and distinguishes it from a mere plaything. Date Kyoko
and other idols involved a one-way relationship: one's narcissistic
fantasies were projected recursively upon the idol. Interestingly,
stalking has been on the increase in Japan... Tamagocchi, on the other
hand, reinforces one's own identity by engaging the owner into a
dialogue with an Other. Identity is reaffirmed because the relationship
emphasises the distinctness, as well as the co-dependency, of owner and
pet. As the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas has said: "I am
concerned with the other; inasmuch as he is a stranger, he is my
brother". Thus, there is a shift from simple 'projections of desire' to
a more sophisticated 'acceptance of otherness'.
This is a crucial shift in the context of Japanese society. It has long been argued that young Japanese people today are suffering from a so-called "identity crisis" which springs from the ongoing conflict between traditional values as espoused in dominant political and social narratives and the influx of other influences. The crisis consists of young people dealing with their own cultural hybridity, in which their identity is put into question. In this respect, caring for tamagocchi is fundamentally an identity-affirming action.
Version 2 (Tamagotch Shinshu Hakken - "New Species Discovered") was released on February 1st. At the time of this writing, no-one (but Bandai Corp., presumably) knows what the first generation will look like.
One thing *is* sure: this phenomenon is bound to have a significant impact on Japanese society, even if only because office workers will be spending so much more time away from their desks, hiding in the bathrooms to care for their darling Tamagocchi.
Usman Haque: Architect, etc. living (for the moment) in New York City.
Copyright © 1997 Xavier Bensky, Usman Haque and Neo-Tokyo Magazine. All rights reserved. This document is for your own personal use. Please do not distribute it or repost without express written permission from the Editor.
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