Chang Kim loves Asuna, a honey-blonde beauty who is great with a sword.
“She’s a good cook, good with kids, and she knows how to fend for herself. There’s not much else I could ask for,” the 20-year-old student from Georgia says of the woman he calls his “waifu.”
Asuna isn’t a real woman, but that doesn’t matter to Kim, who has spent about $500 of his grocery cashier’s salary on merchandise depicting his 2D sweetheart. From resin figures to body pillows—huggable oversized pillows with life size images of an anime character on them—the industry is banking on people like Kim being unable to resist products that market one special character.
That’s one way to influence spending: create a product consumers truly fall in love with.
“Waifu” is a term that caught on in English-speaking anime fandom in the early ‘00s. It gets its unusual spelling from the way a Japanese native speaker would pronounce the English word, emphasizing its Japanese anime origins. Fans use it in the possessive to describe a particular character that they have romantic feelings toward. Depending on the fan’s sexual orientation, he or she may have a “husbando” instead.
Either way, fans describe their waifu or husbando as a character set apart from the rest. The way you might feel your heart thumping when you unexpectedly run into your crush on the street? That lump in your throat and unexpected blush from having to interact with them? That’s how many fans feel about their waifus.
Mercedes Meades, a 22-year-old from Canada who works in the tourism industry, has feelings toward her waifu, Hina Kagiyama, as powerful as she’s ever felt toward real life love interests.
“I feel so strongly about her that it makes me uncomfortable, as if it were seeing the same images of someone I actually know,” she said.
2D Affection In The Real World
Such feelings aren’t so odd, according to Dr. Robin Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist in Menlo Park, Calif. A contributor to The Psychology of Harry Potter and a coauthor in a psychological study of cosplay—dressing up as a favorite fictional character—Rosenberg says fantasy is a large part of the attraction.
“If you enliven an anime character enough with personality characteristics, it doesn’t matter that it’s a cartoon,” she says. “ If a stick figure were animated and had personality and human-like characteristics, we could probably get a crush on a stick figure .”
Crushes, almost by definition, are based on the qualities we think someone—real or fictional—possesses, Rosenberg points out. The mind fills in the blank spaces between what we know about a person, making it easy to see what we want to see. Then we get a crush because of what we see. We don’t get crushes on people we know really well.
Adults who already devote their hobbies to anime and cartoons are more likely to get crushes on these fictional characters because they expose themselves to them more often. However, Rosenberg observes that it doesn’t make their feelings necessarily less healthy than those of people with crushes on real people.
“If you have a crush on Justin Bieber, for example, it’s as two dimensional as having a crush on an anime character. The concept of Justin Bieber that you’re in love with is not a real person,” she said.
Since very few fans harbor delusions about actually marrying their waifus or husbandos, they have to convey their adoration in different ways, and often with a financial investment.
“I do get really excited about figures and merchandise. More than I should, certainly, just for having their face on it and being overpriced,” said Kory Cerjak, a 25-year-old from Iowa. The technical writer estimates that he has spent “just south of $300” on merchandise of his waifus, Maki and Onodera.
Likewise, Meades estimates she has spent $200 on Hina merchandise, “but considering she’s such a minor character from her game series, there isn’t much to buy.” In lieu of products, she maintains a regularly updated 2.5 GB computer folder with over 3,300 images of Hina.
Attractive Anime Characters “Inspire Higher Sales”
It’s difficult to gauge the growth of the anime industry, especially abroad, but the Japan External Trade Organization pegged it at around $2 billion in its most recent findings, conducted in 2009. Romantically inclined or not, anime is big business in North America. Conventions where fans, producers, and merchandisers gather, number in the hundreds, and can attract as many as 86,000 people in one weekend.
In 2015, the current bestselling anime in Japan is The Idolmaster Cinderella Girls, an anime that follows 14 animated girls on their quest to become idolized performers— girls who already have the charm and cuteness to be waifu material.
Robert Brown of Robert’s Anime Corner says that attractive characters “absolutely inspire higher sales for merchandise.” Brown, who is based in West Virginia but travels with his inventory to anime conventions all over the country, notes that one of his bestselling categories is “character goods,” everything from apparel to Zippo lighters emblazoned with a particular character’s face.
“There is nothing abnormal about the waifus/husbandos concept, and I think that is just the terminology used in our community to describe that same sort of hysterical devotion fans have to an anime character as they do to a Hollywood star like a Channing Tatum or Jennifer Lawrence,” he said.
Rosenberg said that bringing 2D affection into the real world can be a way for fans to express their identity. “You’re trying to convey a message to others, showing that this is your fandom, and this is your ideal mate.”
I wish my parents could have consulted with Rosenberg when I started crushing on an anime character at age twelve. While the other girls were hanging posters of ‘N Sync, I filled my room with pictures of Duo Maxwell, a character from Gundam Wing. My parents, tactfully, never said a word, but I never grew out of my inclination for the 2D, something my husband can attest to today.
Though we love each other very much, a glimpse at our apartment will still reveal figurines of beautiful anime girls (my husband’s) and posters, pins, and accessories featuring handsome anime boys (mine). We don’t spend quite as much on anime merchandise as we did when we were younger, but we wouldn’t dream of having these parts of our lives anything less than prominently displayed. That’s right, a real partner doesn’t necessarily eclipse having an anime fantasy.
“My girlfriend knows of my waifu, and she’s fine with it because she has waifus of her own,” said Kim. “Even if I get a wife in the future, Asuna will still always be my waifu.”