Admirers at a "love doll" exhibition in Tokyo are a far cry from the stereotypical image of an introverted pervert fulfilling his dark fantasies with an anatomically correct plastic companion in his lonely apartment.
Visitors at the venue can be heard praising the beauty and life-like appearances of what are essentially toys used by men for simulated sexual acts. These accolades often come from women.
In fact, women account for 60 percent of the 4,000 people who have visited the exhibition called Ima to Mukashi no Ai-Ningyo (Love dolls of today and the old days), held at the Atsukobarouh gallery in Shibuya Ward.
Some experts say women are increasingly showing an interest in love dolls because attitudes have changed toward what is considered indecent.
In addition, the dolls today are much more sophisticated than the previous blow-up incarnations called "Dutch wives," giving the modern versions an artistic element.
Still, the number of women at the exhibition has surprised even the organizer of the event, love doll maker Orient Industry.
"When the dolls were called Dutch wives, they were considered the possessions of perverts," said Hideo Tsuchiya, 73, president of the company based in Tokyo’s Ueno district. "When we were thinking of how to improve the image of the dolls, skilled doll artists began to gather. We also studied how to make the dolls’ makeup appear more like humans.
"But I had never imagined that the time would come when so many women would be interested in love dolls."
The exhibition, held to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Orient Industry’s founding, started on May 20 and will run until June 11.
Visitors include groups of women, couples and tourists from overseas. Some take selfies with the love dolls, and the atmosphere is cheerful, not sleazy.
"The dolls are cute," said a 25-year-old female company employee from Chiba Prefecture. "I had forgotten that they were manufactured for erotic purposes. They look close to real women, but they are different, so I can see them as works of art."
Orient Industry also held an art show featuring its love dolls in Tokyo’s upscale Ginza district in 2016. Half of the 8,000 or so visitors were women.
The transformation of the dolls took off around 2000. They initially were made of plastic filled with air. Now, they consist mainly of silicone to make their surfaces feel like human skin.
Orient Industry is showing 17 love dolls at the exhibition in Shibuya, from the early versions to the latest models.
Allowed to touch some of the dolls, people line up to rub the resilient skin or caress the shiny hair made from real human locks.
In recent years, graduates of art universities have gravitated toward careers in the love doll industry.
Tomomi Shibuya, associate professor of gender theory at Tokyo Keizai University, said a practical awareness is spreading mainly among young people that what is being presented is clearly different from reality.
As an example, she cited the results of a survey conducted on junior high school students by SEAN, a nongovernmental organization, in 2013.
One question asked, "What do you think of the many magazines and advertisements that feature nude models or women in swimwear?"
About 13 percent of the female respondents said such images are distasteful, a sharp decline from about 38 percent in 2006.
Shibuya also said many women are attending the love doll exhibition partly because it is not billed as a display for certain fetishists.
"The event has been publicized and the dolls are exhibited in a lighthearted manner, and the sense of indecency or immorality is thin," she said.
Shinobu Myoki, associate professor of sociology at Tohoku University, who has detailed knowledge on sex-related exhibitions, offered other reasons for the high female turnout.
"There are women who study the images of ideal women under the male viewpoint and how those images change with the times. There are also women who admire the beautiful makeup," Myoki said.
"They are not taking a passive attitude but are looking positively at the exhibits, talking about them and enjoying them," she said. "Such a mind-set is spreading."
However, she noted that many people still feel uncomfortable about the fact that the dolls’ images are limited to what men find ideal, and the production and exhibit of the dolls are based on such notions.
"We must not forget the existence of those people," she said.