WASHINOMIYA, Japan - Self-confessed geeks in Japan who might ordinarily be too shy to ask someone on a date are trying a new kind of matchmaking: wearing cartoon character masks.
In a small town north of Tokyo, 15 men and an equal number of women donned plastic masks of Doraemon, Mickey Mouse and other fictional creations to try to find a date on Friday.
"I feel this is an easier way to talk to people," said a 27-year-old woman wearing a rabbit mask, who introduced herself as Jet-Black Wings.
"I wouldn't be able to do this without this mask. I would feel too embarrassed."
The party, in Washinomiya, was organised for the benefit of "otaku" -- people obsessed with high-tech products, Japan's manga comic books and the anime (cartoons) that sprang from them.
Otaku -- often translated as "geeks" -- freely confess to being more at home with their two-dimensional heroes than communicating with the real world.
As well as giving participants a boost to their bravery, the masked meet also ensured that people with similar, albeit rather particular, interests were able to meet each other.
The event was organised by the local chamber of commerce, who realized the power of the otaku-yen when their otherwise unremarkable town became a pilgrimage site for fans of the "Raki Suta" (Lucky Star) cartoon in 2007, all clamoring to see the place in which it was set.
"The direct economic effect from the Raki Suta fans is estimated to be about 100 million yen ($1.22 million) over the past five years," said Shinji Matsumoto, one of the organizers.
"We are really lucky that so many otaku people come to this town. We want them to have good time here."
At Friday's event, seven male-female couplings were formed, giving the afternoon an approximately 50% success rate.
A 33-year-old man wearing the mask of a villain from a 1970s TV show hit it off with a 26-year-old woman with a Mickey Mouse face on. Both managed to keep smiling when they revealed what was under the disguise.
"My heart was beating as I was taking off the mask," said the Mickey Mouse woman.
Asked if the matchmaking would result in a real date, the man -- who gave his name as Furuta Oribe, a samurai and master of tea ceremony from the 16th century -- was a little unsure.
"I hope so, yes?" he asked, turning to his new beau.
"I was really nervous. I still cannot believe this," he said.
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