Article
When is a Girlfriend Real?
Only In Japan

This is the first in our series on the changing nature of long-distance relationships today, as even the meaning of that idea and the terms that constitute it continue to morph.


“Why should our bodies end at the skin, or include at best other beings encapsulated by skin?” -Donna Harraway

As previously fantastic relationships with artificially intelligent beings are becoming increasingly plausible and of popular concern, perhaps it is time to take a step back and think about the roots of our concerns. In Japan, one man married a character on his Nintendo DS and the English speaking press expressed their concern and astonishment.

With the repeated phrase, “Only in Japan,” talk of the LovePlus Dating Simulation Nintendo DS game, or the romance-based visual novel, peaked in late 2010.

The male player could name himself in the game or simply be referred to as “I.” With three high school girls to choose from, you could court one of them and move from the stage of “acquaintance,” to “important friend” and finally, to the stage where she confessed her love. Once this happened, you and Nene, Manaka, or Rinko were together; you were boyfriend and girlfriend.

LovePlus integrated over 5,000 scripts and 25,000 voice expressions. You could play for the duration of a lifetime, or, until your console broke. With the LovePlus-tailored hotels in the town of Atami, you could even on go on vacation with your ‘girlfriend’. It was a real-time game – meaning she didn’t have time for vacation rendezvous during the school year – and you could spend all night talking, text-messaging, emailing her and playing “rock, paper, scissors” (when school was out for the day or for the year, of course).

Manaka, Nene, and Rinko spoke. They could express anger, annoyance, or hurt. You could ‘kiss’ your girlfriend for longer or shorter periods of time by touching them through the screen, or instigate different reactions from them by changing the speed and duration/method of touching (by circling, ‘rubbing’ or ‘tapping’ the screen). They would sometimes indicate what they were ready for. For instance, the character might turn her face to the right, offering you her profile: an opportunity to kiss her cheek.

According to the developers of the game, her personality changed according to the boyfriend’s likes and dislikes. Her personality was not constant or identical on different consoles but was partially dependent on what could be likened to life-experience: who they were involved with; she was able to “learn” and her actions depended on how she was treated. She performed the “girlfriend.”

When Atami opened its doors to Japanese men with their virtual girlfriends, English-speaking commentators reacted with a tone of incredulity and the majority explained away the going of real men to a real resort with a fake/virtual girlfriend, with an almost derisive turn of phrase: “Only in Japan.”

According to the news reports, LovePlus paraphernalia were sold throughout the town and you could scan your LovePlus game in different locations, gaining points with your girlfriend. (Does this remind us of ‘real’ relationships? How men get ‘points’ with their loved ones for taking them on a romantic getaway and perhaps taking them out for nice dinners?)

In these articulations and commentaries, there was no contestation: There was one common theme that remained closed and unquestioned in the English narratives: the articulation of the clear distinction between real and virtual girlfriends was emphasized, closed, and revelatory of a worldview.

Is Manaka any different from your online girlfriend?

If you believe Manaka is your girlfriend, is she your real girlfriend? At least in those moments, that you do believe that she is?

My question stems from the Turing Test, which essentially asked, “If you believe that the computer is intelligent, is it intelligent?”

Manaka expresses feelings of love, and the boyfriend may do the same. The real man texts loving messages and she writes back.

The girlfriend performs many of the same actions as your long-distance girlfriend can but maybe she does not perform all of them?

No one is “everything a girlfriend is” at any given moment, though.

You cannot touch a human body but nor can you touch some online girlfriends immediately, or ever. Manaka appears to her boyfriend as a hologram in Atami even closer to life than your long-distance girlfriend that shows up on your computer screen via Skype. What is missing, then? Why would someone be able to so clearly state that Manaka is not a real girlfriend – and otherwise argue that Bethany in Oklahoma – that John has only communicated with via instant messaging – is a real girlfriend?

Is the clear distinction between the real girlfriend and the fake girlfriend made easier because these men cannot have sex with their girlfriends on the Nintendo DS?

Is it true that we cannot have sex with a digital graphic? Does this idea of sex differ that much from pornography? The sexual excitement is considered real, is it not? What parts are not real? It is assumed that, through pornography, men are excited by real girls – even if the women are faking orgasms and dramatizing sexual positions, excitement or even love.

Is there a hierarchy when it comes to what kind of sex a man or woman should have with their girlfriend, in order for the sex or the relationship to be real? Is “insertion” necessary? Was your girlfriend in high school not a real girlfriend because you only went to second base? What about sex between women? Or with robots? Does it make a difference if the robots have grafted skin?

When is the sex real? When is the girlfriend real? What are the conditions that allow for something to be considered real, and by whom?

As sociologist Jeffrey Weeks says, “…historically sexual identities have been organized into violent hierarchies, where some positions are marked as superior (more natural, healthier, more true to the body than others).”

Is the main difference that is assumed between this form of sexual relationship exploration and sex with Manaka then, that there is not a girl with human flesh on the other side of the digital medium?

One might say that the real difference between Manaka and Bethany is the soul. Another might argue that the soul is a religious construction. If that is so, then how do the non-believers justify such a binary distinction of real versus not real girlfriends?

Any statement that insists that such virtual girlfriends are not real girlfriends can arguably be tied back to the Eurocentric concept of interiorization.

In the modern, English speaking world, it is largely believed that there is something internal, that exists prior to and regardless of the social: your driver, the unchanging little you that wills your body and mind to act in a certain way. This conception is tied back to the notion of interiorization. We feel comfortable dismissing the possibility of a virtual girlfriend being your real girlfriend, because we perceive the absence of this decision-making, central executive agent.

Is there a real, unchanging little you, though, that is your core driver? A distilled, essential, real you that remains the same regardless of your memories or brain damage or learned social practices?

Don’t some people disarticulate or strip agency and the core identity from their girlfriends that are right next to them, in flesh, when the woman is experiencing pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS), for instance: “You’re not acting like my girlfriend. You’re not acting like “you.” It’s the hormones,” a lover might say.

It makes us consider what other occasions we strip ourselves or others of agency, and how we explain away all the inconstancies in the performance of who we are, or who someone else “is” to us. In the same way, when a man misses Manaka and wants to see her but cannot touch her, perhaps in this moment, it is when he states: “She is not real.” Manaka and Bethany perform the girlfriend for moments –no one is performing the totality of the real girlfriend all the time.

In place of the soul granted by God, philosophers and psychologists, one of who was Descartes in the early 17th century, put forth the concept of the homunculus. For Descartes, mind was separate from Body, and he espoused rationality, along with detachment from tradition, the body, and from emotions – all virtues of the reformation and enlightenment. He brought in the concept of the automata, which could replicate human actions and posited that there must be an “immaterial” internal “us” to separate us from animal and machine, which would allow for creativity in conversation, for example. (These ideas partly inspired the Turing Test.)

Following people such as Hume, Nietzsche, and Foucault, Judith Butler argues that there is no “pre-given individual subject” in her discussion of gender: “…gender proves to be a performance-that is, constituting the identity it is purported to be. In this sense, gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to pre-exist the deed.”

In 1995, American Indologist Ron Inden, following on the historical philosopher R. G. Collingwood, commented on the age-old quest to find the stable and universal ‘essence’ of that which differentiates humans from animals. Then, later, machine. In line with the argument against the pre-existing subject, he states: “human nature consists of what people have done, of their activities. It is not an occult entity or a spiritual substance. Nor is it reducible to human biology.”

According to Charles Taylor, author of Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity, the idea of the real inner self… “Is, in large, part a feature of our world, the world of modern, Western People.” Our bodies arose only as mediators according to this notion. It is not a universal, says Taylor. Conversely, the idea “…had a beginning in time and space, and may have an end.”

If we look at Manku as a parody act of what it is to be a girlfriend, perhaps what we can take from this is a realization, or a re-realization, of the parodic, performative nature of the girlfriend subject, or the different “sedimented practices” that go into performing love/sexual/romantic relationships and ultimately, ‘who we are’ – or, even more interestingly, how we articulate who we are.

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    About The Author

    Mirna Wakf

    Mirna Wakf has spent most of her life in the Arab World but has always thought in English.

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