© Ichijinsha | © Violence Tomoko - image used with permission

Interview with Violence Tomoko, creator of the manga “A Love Story in Virtual Reality”

Virtual reality technology, already a staple of science fiction literature, continues to be a popular theme in manga and anime. Works like Accel World or Sword Art Online are good examples. However, reality has partly caught up with fiction. With the advent of commercial VR headsets in the last few years, along with social communities like VRChat, a growing number of people are exploring virtual worlds as avatars, meeting other people, spending time together, making new friends, and sometimes more. This, in turn, has inspired new work.

The manga 「VRおじさんの初恋」VR Ojisan no Hatsukoi: A Love Story in Virtual Reality by Violence Tomoko 暴力とも子 has become a viral hit in Japan. The protagonist, ナオキ Naoki, is the titular VR ojisan (a middle-aged man who uses VR) of the story. Single, 40 years old, balding, and a temp worker, he enjoys virtual reality with the avatar of a schoolgirl. Disillusioned and not comfortable socializing in the real world, he goes to VR "to be alone." His most recent haunt is a beautifully designed world on the verge of closure due to failed monetization. This is where he meets ホナミ Honami, whose avatar is a tall and beautiful girl who acts playful and innocent. In reality, Honami is an older man who has had a successful life. Married but now separated from his wife, he is well-traveled and socially adept. His grandson Aoi 葵 taught him how to use VR and he was just beginning to use it when he met Naoki. Thus begins a bittersweet love story that bridges virtual reality and the real world.

VR Ojisan no Hatsukoi: A Love Story in Virtual Reality was initially serialized on the smartphone manga service マンガコネクト Manga Connect between 2018 and 2019, and then published on the author's note blog (available here) between December 29th, 2019 and January 3rd, 2020. In March 2020, it was recognized with the BuzzFeed Award in the 2020年代の未来予想図 (2020 future forecast) contest co-organized by note and withnews, BuzzFeed Japan, Business Insider Japan, and BLOGOS.

In August, 2020, it was then published on Ichijinsha's Zero Sum Online. The second part, exploring the relationship between Naoki and Honami in the real world and introducing Honami's grandson Aoi, made its debut there in September 2020, and the completed work was finally compiled and published as a hard copy manga by Ichijinsha in February 2021. (Available at Amazon.co.jp). For its unique subject, its touching story, the way it examines the evolving nature of romance in a technologically mediated world, and for its serious and ultimately un-science-fictiony focus on the love between Naoki and Honami, the manga quickly gained attention on social media.

© Ichijinsha, Inc. | © Violence Tomoko

We interviewed Violence Tomoko to learn more about this fascinating work. This is followed by a mini-interview with independent Vtuber and VR researcher バーチャル美少女ねむ Virtual Bishōjo Nem who shares her insights on the state of actual romantic relationships in VR.

Interview with Violence Tomoko

Please note that this interview contains heavy spoilers.

grape Japan (Ben K):
This story is set against the backdrop of Japan's unique socio-economic history. Naoki is from the ロスジェネ rosujene, the "lost generation" born in the '70s who faced limited job prospects after the bursting of the bubble economy in Japan in the '90s. In your afterword, you explicitly express your hope that the story will reach this generation. But what if VR Ojisan no Hatsu-koi: A Love Story in Virtual Reality becomes available in translation? The Lehman Shock of 2008 did not have much of an impact on employment in Japan, whereas in the U.S., for example, its impact was profound. American readers born in the '90s may be more capable of imagining the hardships Naoki went through in those days but they may have to use their imagination to account for the feeling of resignation towards society that Naoki experienced later in life. The U.S. is just an example, but what do you think about the fact that your work may be read by foreigners who are unfamiliar with Japan's "lost generation"?

Violence Tomoko:
As you said, there is a similarity between (Japan's) lost generation and the Lehman Shock in the sense that it caused economic damage to the lives of many ordinary people, but I think they are too different to talk about them on the same axis. In particular, I believe that the feeling of resignation experienced by the lost generation is rooted in the self-reflective nature of the Japanese people, so it would be difficult for foreigners to understand that feeling as it is.

However, as a narrative structure, I believe that the relationship between Honami and Naoki is a simple story of "the successful and the socially vulnerable" that fully stands on its own without requiring deep consideration of the historical background. Depictions of poverty differ from country to country. Some people may think that Naoki is not so poor since he owns VR equipment. However, I also portrayed other facets such as Naoki's poor reputation at work, or his status at the bottom of the clique hierarchy when he was a student. I hope that people will be able to get some sense of it.

At the time you began writing the story, VRChat was not as popular as it is now. Had you experienced VR and did it serve as a reference?

I had experienced VR games through Play Station VR, for example. I remember having a bad case of VR motion sickness. I didn't get around to trying VRChat. But what I do remember was being impressed by the "reality" of being in that world and the simulated feeling of touching something that wasn't real. Also, at the time, celebrities were shown experiencing VR games on Japanese TV. I was interested in observing how people who are not normally familiar with video games would be moved when they experienced them in VR. That was a big hint for me. If anything, the experience of observing the impressions of others when they tried these games may have been more useful than the sensations I felt in my own VR experiences.

Do you think the impact and meaning of your work have changed now that the novel coronavirus pandemic has occurred? If so, how has it affected you?

The novel coronavirus pandemic is a historical event that has fundamentally changed our world, but I don't think it has had a profound impact on the theme of this work. In the epilogue, I depicted (Aoi's) mother, who was working from home, wearing a mask before going out, to make the reader feel that the world of the manga is connected to their reality. However, this is not meant to be more than a gimmick to emphasize that this story could happen in real life. The pandemic is a major disaster, but I didn't want to give too much meaning to it in the story. A disaster is just a disaster.

I suppose you could read it as suggesting the possibility that people who can't meet in reality because of the pandemic will choose to communicate through VR, but I prefer to leave that to the readers' interpretation.

I'd like to ask one more question as an extension of this one. After Honami says goodbye to Naoki at the end of Part One, Naoki can't accept it and goes to see Honami in the real world. It looks like he wants to continue the relationship "whether it's in VR or real life," as Naoki says. But did they meet in real life because Naoki was unable to tell Honami that they should continue to meet in VR, or because meeting in real life was essential for the story you wanted to tell? I'd like to ask this because, as you just indicated, the pandemic has suggested the possibility of a world where you want to meet but can't in reality to maintain social distance.

The reason is that Part One of the story was serialized between late 2018 and early 2019, so at the time of writing, the pandemic had yet to occur. In the story, the pandemic occurred between the last episode (episode 13 of the book) and the epilogue. Therefore, Naoki's actions in Part One are in no way influenced by the pandemic.

However, I'd also like to point out that by the end of Part One, we can see that Naoki's state of mind has gradually changed. At first, Naoki wants to respect Honami's intention to say goodbye. He tries to spend an enjoyable day at the beach, which he has never done before, but then he clearly realizes that what he wants now is not a better life, but to continue to communicate with Honami. Like Peter in Dawn of the Dead, he rejects moral self-sacrifice and tries to be true to his impulses.

However, Honami is no longer logged into VR at that point, so Naoki makes the drastic move of hacking into Honami's account to obtain his personal information and learn his address. The reason why he didn't use e-mail or snail mail is that he thought it would allow Honami to gently refuse Naoki's request to meet him again. In the climax of Part Two, Naoki makes a bold move on Honami by suggesting they get married in VR, but it is also a testament to Naoki's personality that he can take such desperate measures and act with abandon because he is a weak person with nothing to lose in society.

© Violence Tomoko | Image reproduced with permission from © Ichijinsha Inc.

Naoki proposes to Honami in VR.

Some people argue that バ美肉 babiniku (short for バーチャル美少女受肉 bācharu bishōjo juniku, literally "virtual girl incarnation," a term referring mostly to men who choose female avatars in VR) is an expression of gender identity. Both Honami and Naoki take the form of girls in VR. In your blog, you said that for Naoki, women are a fantasy, and for Honami, they are an object of respect and esteem. Are you open to the possibility that they are both expressing a female identity in VR?

© Violence Tomoko | Image reproduced with permission from © Ichijinsha Inc.

Naoki remembers how he envied the girls in his class who seemed to be enjoying life while he was getting bullied. Honami suggests that was the reason why he chose his avatar, to which Naoki bashfully admits he hadn't even realized it until then.

Even though Naoki uses a female avatar, there is basically no significant change in his mentality. He has never had deep communication with women, so he doesn't really recognize the difference between male and female sensibilities in the first place. For Naoki, using the avatar of a girl means nothing more than simply looking cute and being able to temporarily abandon his normal appearance. It's based on his admiration for the girls in his class when he was a student, but it doesn't go any further than that.

Honami, on the other hand, uses a female avatar to acquire a distinctly female identity. The difference in personality between Honami, as a man in the real world, and Honami, as a female avatar in VR, is not described in detail in the story, but it does exist in the setting for the world I created. Honami, in his female avatar, is more curious than real-world Honami and is more aware of the fact that he has an alluring smile. The biggest change occurs when Honami feels love for Naoki in VR, and this feeling includes a sense of motherly affection that Honami could not have in real life. This segues into feelings of jealousy towards Aoi in Part Two.

Since the story is told from Naoki's point of view and Naoki himself is insensitive to the subtleties of other people's feelings, Honami's state of mind is not described much in the story. Honami both enjoys and is confused by the difference between how he feels in reality and how he feels in VR, which leads to his monologue in the final episode (Episode 13 in the book). There are signs in the story that the femininity that Honami has learned through his contact with women in the real world has matured into another personality within Honami through his continued use of the female avatar in VR.

© Violence Tomoko | Image reproduced with permission from © Ichijinsha Inc.

Monologue: "Our bodies are determined by our hearts. Whether we want to our not, our genders, ages and health conditions determine the contours of our hearts. But in VR, we can meet with bodies other than our real ones. We can make promises to each other that we can only make with those bodies."

Naoki chose his schoolgirl avatar because he admired the way his female classmates communicated freely and seemed to enjoyed life back in those days. But if Honami respects women, why does he always dress so revealingly? At first, Naoki acts like he doesn't like it, but is he secretly happy about it? In the scene where Honami is trying on virtual clothes, he says wearing revealing outfits "cheers him up." Does he says this from a female viewpoint or is it because he enjoys it from a male gaze?

I think this is a very delicate question. Differences in perceptions of gender issues exist everywhere, and I believe that it is difficult to generalize values. For example, there are differences in the way people perceive gender issues in the U.S. and Japan, just as there are differences in the way Naoki and Honami think about "respect" for women. Basically, this work doesn't label the characters' ideas as superior or inferior. Therefore, the ideas of the characters depicted in this story are not necessarily morally correct.

On that premise, Honami has always been the type of person who considers showing off physical charms as a positive thing, regardless of gender. Therefore, he wears revealing outfits as a way to "show off vitality" and "enjoy youthfulness." Honami is also aware of the sensibilities of people who don't like such outfits, but in the early part of Part One, he is so excited by the fact that he has become a different person. His exuberance and desire to joke around get the better of him. That's why he acts like this towards Naoki. In Episode 3, when Honami is getting used to the physical sensations of a woman, he doesn't try to cling to Naoki as much, but in Episode 4, when he is more aware of his own romantic feelings, he wants physical intimacy with Naoki as a confirmation of his closeness to him.

As for Naoki, he really doesn't like Honami's physical advances in the first two episodes of Part One. He has an aversion to familiarity as well as to outfits that (to Naoki, at least,) show off too much of the female figure. In Episode 4, however, Naoki has already started to develop feelings for Honami, so he accepts his approaches as flirting with someone he has become close to.

© Violence Tomoko | Image reproduced with permission from © Ichijinsha Inc.

When Naoki first encounters Honami in the beginning of the story, he is suspicious of Honami's intentions partly due to the revealing outfit and he tries to run away.

Why did Honami's grandson Aoi also choose to take the form of a woman in VR? Did he try out Honami's avatar and mimic it? Or was there another reason?

Aoi's choice of a female avatar does not have such a deep meaning. (It doesn't mean he imitated Honami either.)

To talk about this, it's important to understand that it is not uncommon in Japan for male VR users to use female avatars. (This is true not only for VR but for avatar-based games in general). Some users do so for the somewhat immediate reason of "I want to enjoy looking at a female avatar," while others do so out of a desire to transform themselves into a different gender from their male selves. The reason for the choice is different for each person.

Aoi is 12 or 13 years old and has just started junior high school, but he has a complex about his immaturity compared to his classmates. This is why I chose an avatar that is exceptionally tall and has a unisex look. For him, it's important to look taller and less gendered while maintaining the impression of his normal self. So, actually, there wouldn't have been a problem for the story setting if he had used a male avatar as long as it looked similar to his current avatar and could be customized to his satisfaction.

In Part Two, Honami loses his voice after an operation, presumably due to cancer in his throat. He communicates through an electrolarynx (EL) in the real world and his PC keyboard when he's in VR. The way the onomatopoeic sounds "ga-ga" (for the EL) and "tak-tak" (typing keys) are included in his speech balloons makes this change stand out. With so many diseases in the world, was there a reason why you chose to focus on one that robs the voice?

As with gender issues, the portrayal of illness is also a delicate question.

Honami had been suffering from laryngeal cancer, but the stage of cancer had progressed without him realizing it. Until Episode 5 of Part One, he had coughed and actually vomited blood from time to time in his life, but he was able to speak and had a natural voice.

Why did I choose laryngeal cancer? It was important to me that Honami would lose one of his means of communication, his voice, through surgery, and that the change would be irreversible. Honami feared that the loss of his ability to speak in VR would put pressure on Naoki to constantly pay attention to him. But as it turned out, it was no obstacle for Naoki, because he only wanted Honami to be present. This is also an expression of the difference in thinking between Honami, who wants to show himself to be a good person when dealing with others, and Naoki, who wants to be with the person he loves to become a good person.

Laryngeal cancer is relatively prone to metastasize to the lymphatic system, and I wanted to make it so that people who are knowledgeable about the disease would be able to foresee the need for continuous examinations and imagine it might have already metastasized. The first part of the story does not have a straightforward happy ending, but since the real world continues, I wanted to create something with a quiet sadness.

In your depiction of the VR world, looking at the way Naoki and Honami move and the poses they take, there seems to be much more freedom of movement than what was actually possible in VR circa 2018. Is that because the setting is in the future, or does the visual depiction reflect Naoki and Honami mutually compensating for any limitations with their imaginations?

In the setting of the story, I tried to create a world in which technology is a few years ahead of the VR of the time. Real life is still the same as it was in 2018, only VR technology is a bit more advanced than it actually was. However, even if you read the story with the setting that Naoki and Honami are compensating with their imagination, it doesn't create any problems for the main storyline, so I think it is better if readers interpret the story in the way they feel comfortable.

© Violence Tomoko | Image reproduced with permission from © Ichijinsha Inc.

As the train makes a stop on Saturn's rings, Honami reveals that he had been informed of his disease before meeting Naoki and that he will be having an operation next week. Naoki asks if it's a curable condition...

There seem to be several references to film and fiction in VR Ojisan no Hatsukoi: A Love Story in Virtual Reality. For example, in Naoki and Honami's journey on a space-faring train headed for the final destination (and end) of the virtual world, I thought I recognized the influence of Kenji Miyazawa's novel Night on the Galactic Railroad as well as Leiji Matsumoto's manga Galaxy Express 999. Aoi is wearing a uniform very similar to that of the conductor in Galaxy Express 999. And just like the conductor, he is tasked with watching over Honami and Naoki's journey (departure?). Come to think of it, there's something of Maetel, with her experience in life and travel, and the young and inexperienced Tetsuro, in Honami and Naoki, isn't there?

© Violence Tomoko | Image reproduced with permission from © Ichijinsha Inc.

Aoi makes his first appearance in his own avatar.

I was surprised when you pointed out that Aoi's clothes look like a conductor. You are right. Aoi's role in the story is to see how the relationship between Honami and Naoki will turn out, so that's where I got the idea.

The costume is based on a real Japanese conductor's costume and blended with some old Japanese kimono designs. This is due to the fact that Aoi is inspired by recent Japanese games like Kantai Collection and Touken Ranbu. Aoi is unfamiliar with Galaxy Express 999, but in a meta sense, the conductor of Galaxy Express 999 contributed to his image. The relationship between Naoki and Honami also draws inspiration from the relationship between Tetsuro and Maetel, as well as the relationship between Giovanni and Campanella (from Night on the Galactic Railroad). It's an expression of my respect for those great works of the past.

There was one more thing that caught my attention. The setting of a final trip to the "end of the world," the depiction of a world of experiences which can be shared through the use of "glasses," and the scene at the end of their road trip where we see what looks like Ayers Rock in Australia... Could this be the influence of Wim Wenders' film Until the End of the World? Also, you mentioned Gran Torino in your blog on note. Would you say Honami's face may have a trace of Clint Eastwood in it?

© Violence Tomoko | Image reproduced with permission from © Ichijinsha Inc.

Naoki and Honami arrive at the "end of the world"

I'm afraid I hadn't seen Until the End of the World. However, some readers said they were reminded of Wim Wenders, so I think there is something in common. I will definitely try to see the movie.

When it comes to science fiction works, there are a few I had in mind. One is Poul Anderson's novel Tau Zero, in which a crew travels to the ends of the universe in an uncontrollable spaceship. In addition, the science fiction films Contact, which spins a love story about the vastness of the universe and human relationships, and Interstellar, which depicts what lies beyond a black hole, greatly influenced my portrayal of "the end of the world."

Honami may have a Clint Eastwood vibe, but this was not an intentional design. Rather, my design for the character was based on the idea of having a face that looked a little foreign to Japanese sensibilities. So it's a coincidence. But perhaps I had imagined it in my unconscious mind.

I also found the "end-of-the-world" image very interesting. At one point, the train seems to run on the rings of Saturn, which in Western astrology means old age, the passage of time, death, and rebirth. The "end-of-the-world" symbol also looks like a simplified version of Saturn. Moreover, when Naoki and Honami see it from a distance, it's a "no sign" {⦸} (with a diagonal line from upper left to lower right) but when they actually arrive at the destination in Episode 11, it has turned into an empty set symbol {∅} (with a diagonal line from upper right to lower left). Was there intentional symbolism in this?

© Violence Tomoko | Image reproduced with permission from © Ichijinsha Inc.

© Violence Tomoko | Image reproduced with permission from © Ichijinsha Inc.

As I mentioned above, a major source of my inspiration was the black hole depicted in Interstellar (based on relatively recent research). However, my intention here wasn't to provide scientific evidence but rather to create a sense of mystery through the visual image. The symbol's resemblance to Saturn is intentional and adds to this effect. I had never heard that Saturn symbolized old age in Western astrology but I was a little aware of Saturn's role in life and death. (Naoki and Honami actually walk on Saturn's ring in Episode 5 of Part One).

I did not consciously include any symbolism in the fact that the "end-of-the-world" sign changes in appearance in Episode 11 (Episode 12 in the book). I designed it so that when you look at it from a distance, it seems three-dimensional and has a strong glow, but when you get up close, it instantly becomes flat and gives a slightly eerie impression. However, when I looked at it in the way you pointed out, I thought it was interesting to see how it could be seen as a "no sign" changing into an empty set symbol.

Although they don't appear in the story, the creator of the end of the world exists in the setting of the story. It's interesting to consider that this character who has yet to appear in the story may have included something in it that I, the author, was unaware of.

You mentioned in your blog that you would like to create another VR-themed manga, this time where a woman takes on a male avatar, but are you still planning to do so?

Yes, I'm still working on my next project. It was conceived after I wrote the first part of VR Ojisan no Hatsukoi: A Love Story in Virtual Reaity and it's a story of a woman who takes on the form of a man in VR. Compared to the previous work, the characters will be more assertive, and the story will be more directly related to real-world events. The theme of the story will also change, instead of simply flipping genders. However, I think the mood will have something in common with my last project since it will be created by the same author.

It is still in the conceptual stage, so how VR Ojisan no Hatsukoi: A Love Story in Virtual Reality is received by the public will have some influence on the direction it takes. I hope people will continue to discover it and enjoy it.

At the end of the story, Honami has a memorable line in his final monologue: "When your body changes, the way you connect to other people changes too." Do you think that VR gives us more possibilities to bond with our fellow human beings?

© Violence Tomoko | Image reproduced with permission from © Ichijinsha Inc.

Honami: "When your body changes, the way you connect to other people changes too."

I think it definitely gives us the possibility. There are still many technical barriers that need to be overcome before ordinary people with limited computer knowledge can easily use VR. But it is a fact of life that at some point, multiple technologies suddenly coalesce to create a cultural zeitgeist. Just like when video game consoles, the Internet, and the iPhone were introduced, these technologies become commonplace before we know it.

However, it's only a possibility, and I don't think it necessarily means that VR guarantees human happiness. When VR becomes easily accessible to everyone, you may be able to scan your own image and bring in "reality" as it is, or you may be able to enjoy VR as a new you, a complete opposite of yourself. Which choice will bring a brighter future for that person?

The people who are enjoying VR now are very technologically literate and curious enough to enjoy the shift in values. But when any technology becomes generalized, at a certain stage it suddenly begins to seek universality. Nowadays, Twitter no longer has the free and rough atmosphere it used to have, and people are criticized if they don't Tweet messages reflecting a sense of moral correctness. As more and more people come into contact with the VR world, I believe there will eventually come a time when it will be impossible to separate it from the erosion of social values. When this happens, how acceptable will it be to use avatars that are far removed from our real selves? I'm very interested in that.

In the last year or so, it seems that osatō お砂糖 (a euphemism for romantic relationships used by Japanese VR users meaning "sugar," in other words, a "sweet relationship") has become popular, especially in VRChat, and recently, NeosVR. Some people believe that it is becoming more common to experience romance in a more casual way than in reality. If that's the case, are you concerned that this trend takes something away from the "specialness" of Naoki and Honami's relationship in your view?

This overlaps a bit with my previous answer, but I personally think that the ease with which osatō culture took hold in VR has something to do with the fact that there are still relatively few VR users in the world. To make "love" more efficient within the community, humor and just a bit of forcefulness can help lower the threshold for romance. This behavior tends to occur naturally within a small group of people, regardless of gender, and when it becomes a large group, it turns into a so-called clique. I think osatō could be a transitional culture in that process.

However, this is just a vague feeling I have. Maybe casual love regardless of gender will become a major trend in VR. Maybe we'll see a new communication technique to mitigate the damage of a breakup by adding the humorous word oshio お塩 (salt) to it (as opposed to sugar). The truth is that we can't know what will happen in the future unless we continue to observe.

As I mentioned earlier, although Naoki and Honami's romance borrows from the bizarre subject of VR, it is essentially structured as a very classic love story: two people at opposite ends of society meet by some miraculous chance and form a bond that reaches the depths of their hearts. Naoki is not Gregory Peck, and Honami is not Audrey Hepburn, but I believe that in a way, the story can be seen as such. I heard that some of the editorial staff at Ichijinsha, who published the second part of this work, mentioned similarities to recent Japanese films such as April Bride (2019) and The 8-Year Engagement (2017). The setting of VR Ojisan no Hatsukoi: A Love Story in Virtual Reality is complicated, but it is fundamentally a simple love story. In a positive sense, even if society should change in the future, I don't think the feeling you'll get from reading it will change much.

Whether in reality or VR, it is two individuals who create a relationship. There is no superior or inferior, no advantage or disadvantage. However, as the author, I believe that Naoki and Honami had a relationship that could only have been realized at that point in their lives and at that moment in time.

Mini-interview with Virtual Bishōjo Nem

Virtual Bishōjo Nem バーチャル美少女ねむ is the self-professed world’s first independent Vtuber. Active since 2017, she contributed to the Vtuber boom. She actively promotes the World Bishōjo Project, positing that humanity can achieve an ideal society if everyone takes on a bishōjo (beautiful girl) avatar. Her range of activities includes Vtuber evangelist, virtual economy critic, cryptocurrency investor, blogger, novelist, singer, and actress, among other things. Since last year, she has also played an active role as HTC's official VIVE ambassador. Her appearance on the NHK show "Nehorin Pahorin" in January 2020 helped to popularize the term バ美肉 babiniku (virtual bishōjo incarnation).

Reproduced with permission from Virtual Bishōjo Nem バーチャル美少女ねむ

What do you think about the relationship depicted in VR Ojisan no Hatsukoi: A Love Story in Virtual Reality?

Virtual Bishōjo Nem:
According to American scholar Jared Diamond, human sexual behavior of forming male-female couples is very rare among primates. It’s a very unique feature that allows us to raise infants born in an undeveloped state and create a stable community and society. I believe that romantic feelings are a protocol that defines the foundation of the human psyche and society, which is why humans acquired them.

In the world of VR, we can take on any form we want as avatars, and communicate freely with people in remote places. This sometimes gives rise to completely new modes of romance that transcend the boundaries of gender, age, and social status. I believe that this will eventually bring about a decisive change in the way our society works. To study this situation, I have been conducting interviews with and surveys of couples who are actually in romantic relationships in VR.

At the heart of VR Ojisan no Hatsukoi: A Love Story in Virtual Reality is a sweet and sad love story that transcends biological gender and social status. I have seen this kind of relationship among the osatō couples I interviewed in the real VR world. Of course, the realistic psychological portrayal in the story is wonderful. However, I believe that the manga has become such a hot topic because of the great interest in and expectation for these new modes of romantic relationship in the VR world which are not just science-fiction fantasy but are now flourishing in reality.

In a survey which you conducted on Twitter last year, you asked: "If you had a relationship with someone in the virtual world, would you want to meet them in the real world?" 62.1% of the 214 respondents answered: "I would like to meet them." Do you think this means that many current Japanese VR users who read VR Ojisan no Hatsukoi: A Love Story in Virtual Reality find it natural that Naoki wanted to meet Honami in the real world?

Since this survey was not conducted only for people who are actually in a romantic relationship in VR, I think a part of the survey is influenced by existing ideas, such as: "Of course they will want to meet offline (in real life) eventually, just like in a traditional online romance.” To be honest, it's rather the 37.9% of respondents answering: “Romantic relationships can thrive, even exclusively in VR” which surprised me the most.

I don't know the percentage of people who actually have a romantic relationship in VR because the population is still small, but my impression from my interviews is that there are three patterns for such couples: 1. They actually meet and have a romantic relationship in real life (sometimes transcending gender barriers), 2. They can't be lovers in real life because they are different people (due to gender and other barriers), but they can get along well as friends, and 3. They don’t meet in real life (because they are either afraid that their relationship will fall apart or they live too far away from each other). Just as depicted in VR Ojisan no Hatsukoi: A Love Story in Virtual Reality, there are numerous cases in which the end result of a romance born in VR is a meeting in real life, which makes that scenario very realistic for VR users.

Violence Tomoko suggested that osatō culture may be a "transitional” cultural phenomenon as the population of VR users grows, or it may be a sign that casual romantic relationships will become a major trend in VR. What do you think?

Virtual Bishōjo Nem: Based on my research on actual osatō culture, I have the strong impression that new types of relationships that were previously unthinkable in the real world continue to appear in VR. Some of the more extreme cases I observed were: A married couple in the real world who had romantic relationships with different partners in VR to both their knowledge and permission. In another case, just like something out of a manga, a married woman had her husband willingly "submit to feminization" in VR and enjoyed putting him to work as a girl in a VR yuri cafe. To me, it doesn't seem like an imitation of real-life romantic relationships, but the beginning of a whole new society and a new approach to relationships.

I believe that the era of creating deep relationships more easily and casually by transcending the barriers of gender and distance has already begun. Love in the VR world allows you to meet and feel the presence of the other person, and unlike traditional online love, the endpoint is not necessarily offline (real world). There are many cases where the relationship stays in VR. In many cases, people end up having a deep relationship with someone they would never have thought possible in the real world. When you meet someone as a VR avatar, which I think of as your "soul form" that reflects your ideals, you can achieve "soul-to-soul contact" that is not limited by physical appearance. We may be entering an era in which the attitudes of our hearts are tested (in VR) even more than with romantic relationships in the material world.


  • 「VRおじさんの初恋」VR Ojisan no Hatsukoi: A Love Story in Virtual Reality on Zero-Sum Comics Online
  • 「VRおじさんの初恋」VR Ojisan no Hatsukoi: A Love Story in Virtual Reality on note - Episode 1 (includes links to Episodes 2-6)
  • Violence Tomoko on note
  • Violence Tomoko on Twitter
  • Virtual Bishōjo Nem on Twitter
  • For further reading, see our interview "Being Bishōjo: A dialogue between independent Vtuber Virtual Bishōjo Nem & kigurumi artist Takurō".

We would like to sincerely thank Ichijinsha, Violence Tomoko, and Virtual Bishōjo Nem for their time and cooperation.

Update (June 29, 2021): For those who are interested in reading Japanese, an abridged version of this article, focusing on the interview with Violence Tomoko (originally conducted in Japanese) is now available at our sister site Grape:

バ美肉同士の純愛を描く『VRおじさんの初恋』 暴力とも子さんが込めた想いとは

By - Ben K.