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The Business of Being Single

“I think everybody’s just trying not to be lonely” — Billie (Drew Barrymore) — Lucky You It’s no news really that people are obsessed with the idea of falling in love. It’s an idea that pervades popular culture like no other — transcending national and social boundaries as a lucrative driving force behind a variety of businesses across a range of sectors, media and entertainment possibly being the most obvious.

“I think everybody’s just trying not to be lonely” — Billie (Drew Barrymore) — Lucky You

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It’s no news really that people are obsessed with the idea of falling in love. It’s an idea that pervades popular culture like no other — transcending national and social boundaries as a lucrative driving force behind a variety of businesses across a range of sectors, media and entertainment possibly being the most obvious.

A cursory glance at Box Office Mojo’s account of this week’s highest grossing movies nationwide reveals that 80% of the top 5 movies significantly incorporate themes of love or romance into their plots. Within the US, Valentine’s Day is a special occasion for more than just starry-eyed couples — flower shops, restaurants, jewelers, card retailers, hotels and resorts… loads of people and businesses have positioned themselves to get a piece of the action.

And for consumers out there who haven’t yet found their ‘special someone,’ it would be unnecessary to harbor worries about being neglected by savvy retailers. The market abounds with online dating services like Match.com, which reassuringly tell you that “it’s okay to look,” and concerned women’s magazines like Cosmopolitan, which confidingly tell you about “The Best Place to Meet a Guy” and invite you to “Check out this month’s half-naked hunk.”

So when it comes to the arena of love and romance, there appear to be two defined types the market can cater to — people in love and people trying to get there (or at least trying to not be alone.) But what happens if you happen to fit into neither? Could there possibly be a third? And if so, is this group really big enough to prove sufficiently lucrative?

In Japan at least, the answer seems to be yes. A few years ago, Japanese company Kameo came out with a “boyfriend pillow” for Japanese single women, which sells at approximately $80. The pillow is shaped like a man’s torso with one sturdy arm, and is supposed to provide the comfort that sleeping in the nook of a man’s arms provides.

The year after, the pillow for women was followed by another pillow that is shaped like a woman’s lap, this time aimed at Japanese single men, which retails for about $90.

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In many countries, while sexual aids for single (and sometimes even partnered or married) men and women are widely sold, more ’emotional’ aids such as the pillows that Kameo is selling, haven’t really taken off.

What’s new here? The pillows aren’t really being propagated as a means to the end of being half of a whole. They’re being marketed for singles who seem to want to stay single, but would like some of the advantages of being in a relationship, minus the hassles. As the BBC reports, “Japan’s single women are being offered the ultimate sleeping partner – a comfort to cuddle up to, but one which does not snore or make demands.”

Three years ago, the BBC ran an article on how Japan’s women are wary to wed. The piece describes a phenomenon in which Japanese women in their 30’s are increasingly more interested in a career and less interested in the idea of getting married and starting a family. Many own canines or other pets as companions, but are childless and husbandless by choice.

Within this context, it doesn’t seem a huge stretch for Kameo to conclude that boyfriend pillows might be a hit.

The pillows, which aim to supplement the lack of a significant other in a single’s life, raise an important question. Is there a potentially lucrative sector comprised of singles who want to stay single but would like to have some of the benefits that their partnered peers enjoy? Or is this still too novel or perhaps too niche a concept for societies outside of Japan?

It’s hard to tell. The end-goal for many single Americans still seems to be the eventual attainment of a partnership if not a marriage, and the confident assertion of many Japanese singles that single is the way they want to stay — at least for now — doesn’t seem to have quite caught on yet in more conservative cultures. But as times are changing and careers, particularly for women, are increasingly moving to the forefront, perhaps the market of singles who want to stay single is something entrepreneurs, producers, authors and everyone else should start more paying attention to.

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