“Being a pedophile is like living with a mask on,” Shin Takagi told me, before lighting another cigarette in the midst of a Tokyo cafe. Takagi’s mask was off today. He spoke freely and people were noticing. In a sea of black business suits, Takagi sported a red Hawaiian-print shirt—daring them to look.

People like Takagi who struggle with pedophilic impulses but have never acted on them have been the subject of much media attention. With a paucity of reliable scientific data about their circumstances and no known medical or psychiatric cure, many of these individuals rely strictly on self-control to avoid acting on their urges. Takagi believes there is another option.

Struggling to reconcile his attraction to children with a conviction that they should be protected, Takagi founded Trottla, a company that produces life-like child sex dolls. For more than a decade, Trottla has shipped anatomically-correct imitations of girls as young as five to clients around the world.

“We should accept that there is no way to change someone’s fetishes,” Takagi insisted. “I am helping people express their desires, legally and ethically. It’s not worth living if you have to live with repressed desire.”

Several treatments for pedophilia exist, including cognitive-behavioral therapy and chemical castration, and other interventions intended to suppress urges. A meta-analysis conducted by the Mayo Clinic recently concluded that the treatments “do not change the pedophile’s basic sexual orientation toward children.” In addition, among people who have actually molested children, the study cites recidivism rates ranging from 10 percent to 50 percent. Takagi believes other methods of harm-reduction are warranted, and suggests his products could help.

So far, there is no research to indicate whether or not Takagi’s dolls would be successful, and Peter Fagan from the John Hopkins School of Medicine is skeptical that there ever will be. Citing cognitive-behavioral theory, the paraphilia researcher believes that contact with Trottla’s products would likely have a “reinforcing effect” on pedophilic ideation and “in many instances, cause it to be acted upon with greater urgency.” The research Fagan cites to support that conclusion is based on offenders, so it is unclear whether the effects would be different for non-offenders.

Michael Seto from the University of Toronto speculated on the possible existence of two distinct populations of pedophiles. Drawing an analogy to methadone treatment for opioid addicts, the psychiatrist hypothesized that “for some pedophiles, access to artificial child pornography or to child sex dolls could be a safer outlet for their sexual urges, reducing the likelihood that they would seek out child pornography or sex with real children. For others, having these substitutes might only aggravate their sense of frustration.”

“We don’t know, because the research hasn’t been done,” he concluded. “But, it would be a very important study to conduct.”

Klaus Beier, the initiating scientist of the pedophile-prevention network Don’t Offend, has been investigating what differentiates pedophiles who act on their impulses from those who do not. “We can detect pedophilia by examining the activation patterns associated with sexual arousal through neuroimaging,” the sexologist noted. “The far more interesting question is—is the person able to control this behavior?”

In an fMRI study currently under review and financed by the German Ministry for Education and Research, Dr. Beier and his colleagues say they have found stronger connectivity in brain regions related to impulse control in pedophiles who have not offended compared with those who have. “Just because a person is pedophilically inclined,” Beier concluded, “doesn’t mean he is a danger.”

Even without supporting research, Takagi is convinced that his products save children. “I often receive letters from buyers,” he said. “The letters say, ‘Thanks to your dolls, I can keep from committing a crime.’ I hear statements like that from doctors, prep school teachers—even celebrities.”

While our meeting that day was brief, Takagi invited me to visit his mountain workshop the following afternoon. I met him, along with my translator Natsuko at the Hachioji train station, an hour north of Tokyo.

Takagi described most of his clients as “men living alone.” “The system of marriage is no longer working,” he said. “While most people buy dolls for sexual reasons, that soon changes for many of them. They start to brush the doll’s hair or change her clothing. Female clients buy the dolls to remind them of their past, or to reimagine an unfortunate childhood. Many of them begin to think of the dolls as their daughters. That’s why I never allow myself to be photographed. I want to prevent them from seeing me as the father of the dolls.”

The Trottla factory stands at the end of a remote gravel road, shrouded by trees. The building’s only neighbors are monkeys, birds, and wild boar. “We had to be out in the wilderness,” Takagi explained. “The machinery is loud and the materials flammable.”

Inside the dim interior, the stench of solvents was overpowering. Takagi admitted that the propriety solution he uses to replicate skin is a known carcinogen with toxic effects on the brain, liver, and kidneys.

“It is a very challenging environment,” he said. “That’s why all my employees are former military. They are only allowed to work with the poisonous material two days a week and must always wear a mask and gloves. I often wonder what will kill me first—cigarettes or this.”

Takagi hit a switch. The overhead flourescents flickered on, and suddenly we were not alone. At the far end of the room, hanging naked from metal stands were the dolls. “When I look at them in the middle of night, sometimes even I am frightened,” he admitted.

“Does she have a name?” I asked gesturing towards the nearest doll—a model he later described as a 10-to-12-year-old.

“There is no name,” he said, “just a code name—LP1.”

“What emotions do you see in her face?” I asked.  

“This one looks like she’s sad,” he said. “One must make a variety of expressions to fulfill a variety of client needs.”

In Japan, where many have animist Shinto beliefs, the dolls have a complicated status. “In Shinto,” Takagi said, “everything has a soul. Even if you don't want the dolls anymore, you can’t abandon them. There is a special ceremony that is performed for them at a shrine. It’s like a ceremony for a dead person. Since dolls have a human form, they must be treated as such.”

He described a recent case in which a client who needed to get rid of a doll called, requesting his help. “He wanted me to dispose of it,” Takagi remembered. “But, he didn't say ‘dispose. The phrase he used was ‘send back home.’”

At the end of our interview, as I was photographing a set of fiberglass molds, I noticed Takagi and my translator speaking in a corner.

“What were you talking about?” I asked her later.

“My husband died in a motorcycle crash several years ago,” she said. “I was asking Mr. Takagi how much it would cost to make a replica of him.”

We all walked out together, the same way we came in—passing a pile of discarded fiberglass skeletons waiting to be removed. These were the remains of some of the dolls that had been sent ‘back home.’ “They’re toxic,” Takagi explained. “So, we need a special company to come and pick them up. They have to be crushed with hammers. Everything with form must be broken eventually.”

On the drive back to the station, I asked Takagi if his work had changed the way he defined the real and the artificial.

“It is a common belief in Japan that dolls are mirrors,” he said. “The dolls show their owner’s true self.”