Waifuism is a fairly recent development in otaku culture. Google records the first significant appearance of the word waifu in November 2007 (Google Trends, n.d.). The oldest entry for mai waifu appears in the Urban Dictionary in April 2, 2007. However, waifu has a longer history outside of otaku culture.
Waifu is an English loanword that appeared in the Japanese lexicon around the early 1980s. Dynamics between husband and wife continued to change in ways that made the tradition way of referring to a woman as a wife offensive to young couples. Kanai, the word for wife that uses two Chinese characters that mean “inside the house” became objectionable for many young women. Likewise, the word for husband, shujin or danna, translate roughly to “master.” Because these words fail to match their relationship, many couples adapted the English words husband and wife. Of course, the words changed slightly in pronunciation. Wife became waifu. Husband became hazu (Stanlaw, 2004; Rebick & Takenade, 2006).
These words were slowly picked up by American anime/manga fans and were used to refer to their favorite fictional characters. The anime Azumanga Daioh is thought to be one of the anime that popularized the use of the word waifu (Waifu, 2010). However, the words were in the Japanese lexicon and used by anime long before this popularization.
The Meaning of Waifu in Otaku Culture
Waifu refers to a fictional character an anime fan considers a wife or husband. There is a word for male characters female anime fans love: husbando. It is strange that the online otaku culture adopted this word instead of the Japanese word hazu to refer to this relationship. In any case, sometimes waifu is used to refer to male interests by female anime fans as well. The labels are not completely solid.
So in any case, a waifu is a fictional character that a person loves. It is a relationship that exists on a spectrum. Some people approach waifuism casually. It is something fun and temporary. On the opposite end are those that take the relationship seriously. They wear a wedding band to symbolize their marriage with their waifu. They attempt to base their decisions on what their waifu would want. She is a real person that can feel disappointment, anger, or hurt (Reddit, 2012).
Characteristics of Waifuism
- Waifu relationships involve commitment. (See Note)
- The lover of the waifu knows the character is fictional.
- Sexual aspects of the relationship is an individual decision.
- The waifu’s view is considered when making a decision.
- Having a waifu does not always prevent a real/3D relationship.
- The relationship with a waifu is real.
From what I found on the various waifu communities online, not all people involved with waifus suffer from social anxiety or other social issues. Some waifu lovers are self described asexuals; others are married to 3D women. Certainly, there are some who have problems with delusions; however, most of the waifu community members are aware of loving a fictional character. These characters exist in the realm of ideas and the mind.
Anyway, waifuism is a very real thing. Much in the same way that other people fall in love, so did we. We just happened to fall in love with people who happen to not exist in the real world.
-millhi-biscotti, Reddit 2014
The Sexual Component
From what I gather, waifuism is divided over sex. Some view sex with their waifu has a healthy and necessary part of a marriage. Similar to how sex is viewed in the real, erhm, 3D world. For others, the thought of having sex with their waifu is terrible. Those with young waifus often think this way. Some view sex with anyone else in mind except their waifu as adultery. Yet others, have no issues with having another in mind. It seems to be all over the board and an individual decision or agreement with his waifu.
You do make an important point about not being able to truly interact with a 2D character, and believe me, it’s not like we fool ourselves into thinking we can. We know it, and accept it as an unfortunate truth.
Other Elements of Waifuism
Waifuism is not limited to anime/manga characters. Any fictional character has the potential to become a waifu. Waifu is not really chosen. Rather, it looks to be an emotional event that happens, a resonance with a particular character. Waifuism is not rooted in delusion or anti-social behavior for most people.
Maid cafes can also serve as a possible outlet for social needs. A maid cafe is a restaurant where patrons interact with women dressed as maids and in other costumes. These maids also act in character. These characters are original and not usually that of established anime/manga franchises. It is possible for a patron to fall in love with the fictional character the maid role plays. Maid cafes can be thought of as 2.5 dimensional. They are between the 2D world of Waifuism and the regular 3D world because the maids are living fictional characters. This level of role play fills a social need that pure waifuism may not be able to meet. (Galbraith, 2013).
I am not a psychologist, so take this section with some salt.
For some people waifuism can be a delusion that damages their health. For most people, waifuism is a connection that fills a need that is unable to be found in the 3D world. While some level of projection can happen (That is, projecting one’s own desires as the desires of his waifu), the waifu’s point of view is drawn from the stories she resides. Because modern story telling is a rich medium, a personality can be fully fleshed out. Based on these personalities, a waifu’s reaction to decisions or actions on the part of her husband can be reasonably surmised. This is really no different from what is done by 3D couples with the exception that the transaction is one way. The waifu is unable to return the connection. That is, until AI develops further perhaps.
This one sided connection can be beneficial and detrimental. It prevents a person from straining themselves toward connecting with a messy, contradiction 3D person. Waifu are safe, one sided relationships. It can be beneficial by allowing a person to practice compassion: that is considering another person’s viewpoint and mind (in this case, their waifu). This can help a person associate better with those in the 3D world.
Waifuism is a complex idea that some may find troubling. Waifuism is not rooted in delusion or mental illness. Certainly, there are some people with these issues in the communities, but on the whole people are rational. They simply love and relate to a fictional character. Like all relationships (whether with an idea, a person, or even an object) there are few certainties. Relationships are defined by the personalities involved. Fictional characters do have personalities that can serve as a guide as to how the character would think or behave in situations. Really, this is what authors do when writing. They know the personality of their characters and write how that character would react. Waifu enthusiasts do the same.
Ideas have power. Fictional characters resonate. They can generate feelings of triumph, love, hate, anger, lust, and every human emotion. Much of what we consider human is an idea. Think of the name of a friend, and a mental image of that person will appear. That image is not the person, but our understanding of that person. Waifuism is the same. A waifu is a mental image of a person that happens not to be 3D. The process is identical to what we do with 3D people and relationships. Much of reality is based on interpretation handled in our minds. We can sometimes gum up those mental gears and experience reality in its unadulterated form, but for most of us, this is rare. Waifuism is a result of normal (and not abnormal) workings of our mental machinery.
This is a difficult topic to research. There is little solid information. I wrote this article based on various waifu communities I examined. Waifuism is a fluid idea and still evolving. It is an area that deserves serious academic research as to the psychological affects and reasons behind this form of attraction.
So to define the word:
Waifu /wī foo/ (noun). fictional character a person feels affection toward. 2. fictional character considered one’s spouse. 3. Japanese word derived from the English word ‘wife.’
synonyms: husbando, mai waifu
Originally, I wrote “Waifu relationships are a monogamous commitment.” I’ve had people tell me how this point contradicts some of the points that follow. At the time, I worked from a limited amount of data, I’ve now seen how monogamy with waifus isn’t a trend in all waifu communities. Although, some think a person should (rather than must) have one waifu. But in either case, the commitment part stands even when a 3D relationship is involved. Waifuism isn’t a fleeting obsession but rather a longer term relationship. My original point showed my bias in how I view commitment: a true committed relationship cannot involve anyone else. At the time, I hadn’t thought about how my bias had leeched into the discussion without marking it as my viewpoint. Hence this correction.
Patrick W. Galbraith , Asian Anthropology (2013): Maid cafés: The affect of fictional characters in Akihabara, Japan, Asian Anthropology, DOI: 10.1080/1683478X.2013.854882
Google Trends (n.d.). Waifu, mai waifu. http://www.google.com/trends/explore#q=waifu%2C%20mai%20waifu&cmpt=q
Know Your Meme. (2010). Waifu http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/waifu
Rebick, M & Takenaka, A (2006). The Changing Japanese Family. New York, NY.
Reddit. (2010). Waifus and Waifu News: Answering Questions. http://www.reddit.com/r/Waifu/comments/ygufq/answering_questions/
Reddit. (2014). Waifus and Waifu News: Not meaning to judge here, but I just discovered this subreddit and… are you guys for real? http://www.reddit.com/r/Waifu/comments/29lt3d/not_meaning_to_judge_here_but_i_just_discovered/
Stanlaw, J. (2004). Japanese English: Language and Cultural Contact. Hong Kong University Press.
Surhta. (2007). mai waifu. Urban Dictionary. http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=mai+waifu
Japanator. (2012) Man takes cardboard waifu on honeymoon. http://www.japanator.com/man-takes-cardboard-waifu-on-honeymoon-in-asia-21717.phtml