Love Dolls

A surrogate for flesh-and-blood women, the love doll was conceived as a receptacle of raw male desire, possessing no will and no need for affection. But technological progress has brought evolution, and the replicants now meet a range of fantasies and needs.

My first meeting with what was then the most elaborately-made love doll came on a visit I made to Orient Industry in 2010. Based in Ueno, Tokyo, Orient is Japan’s largest manufacturer and seller of love dolls, having produced them since 1977. Founder Tsuchiya Hideo, who still heads the company, was born in Yokohama in 1944. Beginning his career as an ordinary salaryman, he switched to managing an adult goods shop and soon operated two stores in Asakusa. A popular item was the love doll, known as a ‘Dutch wife,’ which could be inflated like a toy.

Priced at 10-20,000 yen, the Dutch wife had a body like a vinyl balloon with a cartoonish plastic face stuck on to it. But it sold well. However, many of the products were shoddy, leaking air or bursting as soon as they had to bear weight. Another shortcoming Tsuchiya discovered was that many of his customers, rather than being sex maniacs, were men who suffered physical disabilities or emotional scars from the loss of a partner. They found it difficult to have intimate contact with women, and were seeking another sort of human connection. This set him on his quest to create not only a sex toy, but what he calls a “presence who will be there for you, and give you peace of mind.”

Tsuchiya launched his original love doll in 1977, which he named Hohoemi, or ‘Smile.’ Utilising soft vinyl for the face and breasts, it was reinforced with urethane around the waist. The other parts continued to be made of inflatable vinyl. In the 1980s, the company introduced a full-body latex series, and in the 1990s, Orient and other Japanese makers picked up on the development of high-end silicone dolls (Real Dolls) by a Californian firm, and shifted their focus to these.

Dolls made of latex, soft vinyl or silicone have now been supporting customers’ fantasies for 40 years. Orient refers to completed dolls it ships as ‘brides-to-be,’ while the status of those needing repair or which are returned because owners can no longer keep them is ‘homecoming.’ The company suggests the facial expressions of such cast-off ‘brides’ are different from those of dolls that have been treated with loving care. This attention to detail suggests to me a peculiarly Japanese sentiment around communication with dolls.

A successful modern doll is a complex balance of realism and art. A sculptor at Orient Industry told me that merely imitating a beautiful woman does not make for an attractive doll. “If you try to mould a doll exactly like a human body, you end up with a corpse,” he said. “If you don’t deform the beauty of the human form in a good way, you won’t get a desirable result. Everything needs manipulating, from the size of the face, to the colour of the skin, to the fullness of the breasts and the tint of the nipples. Real nipples are not really so pink, but we cannot forget we are making a ‘dream woman,’” he said with a laugh.

The company’s line of thinking may be that just as a fashion model with ‘ideal’ looks might fail to move us on the theatrical stage, there is a certain face and body that’s perfect for the sofa or bed. The people working on the dolls were devoted to fulfilling deeply human desires, quietly crafting companions that can be found nowhere else. Seven such dolls born at Orient Industry are waiting for you in this museum. Like the silent angels in Kawabata Yasunari’s ‘House of the Sleeping Beauties,’ they make no demands.