TOKYO – In almost every way, Akihiko Kondo is an ordinary Japanese man. He is pleasant and easy to talk to. He has friends and a steady job and goes in suits and ties at work.
There is only one exception: Mr. Kondo is married with a fictional character.
His beloved, Hatsune Miku, is a turquoise-haired, computer-synthesized pop singer who has toured with Lady Gaga and starred in video games. After a decade-long relationship, one that Mr. Kondo says pulled him out of a deep depression, he held a small, unofficial wedding ceremony in Tokyo in 2018. Miku, in the form of a plush doll, wore white, and he was in a matching smoking.
In Miku, Mr. Kondo has found love, inspiration and comfort, he says. He and his selection of Miku dolls eat, sleep and watch movies together. Sometimes they sneak away on romantic outings and post photos on Instagram.
Mr. Kondo, 38, knows people think it’s weird, even harmful. He knows that some – possibly those who read this article – hope he will grow out of it. And yes, he knows Miku is not real. But those are his feelings for her, he says.
“When we’re together, she makes me smile,” he said in a recent interview. “That way she’s real.”
Mr. Kondo is one of thousands of people in Japan who have entered into unofficial marriages with fictional characters in recent decades, served by a huge industry that aims to satisfy every whim of a fervent fan culture. Tens of thousands more around the world have joined online groups where they discuss their involvement in characters from anime, manga and video games.
For some, the relationship is just for laughs. Mr. However, Kondo has long known that he did not want a human partner. In part, this was because he rejected the rigid expectations of Japanese family life. But mostly it was because he had always felt an intense – and even to himself, inexplicable – attraction to fictional characters.
It was hard at first to accept his feelings. But life with Miku, he claims, has advantages over being with a human partner: She is always there for him, she will never betray him, and he will never see her get sick or die.
Mr. Kondo sees itself as part of a growing movement of people who identify as “fictitious.” This is partly what has motivated him to announce his wedding and to sit down for awkward interviews with news media across the globe.
He wants the world to know that people like him are out there, and with advances in artificial intelligence and robotics enabling more in-depth interactions with the lifeless, their numbers are likely to increase.
It’s not a political movement, he said, but a prayer to be seen: “It’s about respecting other people’s lifestyles.”
Pretend people, true feelings
It is not uncommon for a work of art to evoke real emotions – anger, sadness, joy – and the phenomenon of wanting the fictional is not unique to Japan.
But the idea that fictional characters can inspire true love or even love may well have reached its highest expression in modern Japan, where the mood has given rise to a very visible subculture and become the basis of a thriving industry.
The Japanese word for the emotions these characters inspire is “moe,” a term that has become an abbreviation for almost anything viscerally adorable.
Business seminars have talked about exploiting the moe market, and the government has promoted the concept – in relation to cartoons – as an important cultural export product. The word and other specialized terms have resonated beyond Japan, where fictitious people abroad have often adopted them to articulate their own experience of love.
Although it is rare to marry fictional characters unofficially, the economic flora that has grown around Japanese fan culture since the late 1970s has allowed many more people to live out artful fantasies with their favorite characters.
“You have the comics, the cartoons, the games that build a kind of infrastructure where characters become more important to people,” said Patrick Galbraith, associate professor at the School of International Communication at Senshu University in Tokyo, who has written extensively on the subject.
In Tokyo, two districts have become mecca for fulfilling character-based dreams: Akihabara (for men) and Ikebukuro (for women). Specialty stores in the neighborhoods are filled with merchandise for characters from popular games and anime.
The products for women are particularly comprehensive. Fans can buy love letters from their loved ones, reproductions of their clothes and even scents meant to evoke their presence. Hotels offer special packages of spa treatments and extensive meals for people celebrating their favorite character’s birthday. And on social media, people post pictures, art and mash notes promoting their “oshi” – a term widely used by Japanese fans to describe the objects of their love.
For some, the relationship represents a rejection of the entrenched “breadwinner-housewife” model of marriage in Japan, said Agnès Giard, a researcher at the University of Paris Nanterre who has studied fictional marriages to a large extent.
“To the general public, it actually seems foolish to spend money, time and energy on someone who is not even alive,” said Dr. Giard. “But for character lovers, this practice is seen as essential. It makes them feel alive, happy, useful and part of a movement with higher goals in life.”
Instead of becoming more isolated as a result of their relationships, women benefit from the extensive communities that develop around them, said Dr. Giard. In her experience, women view fictitious marriages as empowering, “a way to challenge gender, marital, and social norms.”
In some respects, Mr Kondo’s involvement in Miku is also an example of commercial and social forces at work.
Although Miku is often portrayed as a single character, she is actually a piece of software, a digital “singer in a box” that comes paired with a cartoon avatar who has appeared in concert in hologram form.
Mr. Kondo first found solace in Miku in 2008, after bullying at work sent him into a spiral of depression. He had long ago decided that he would never love a real person, partly because he, like many young people, had been rejected by a series of infatuations, and partly because he did not want the life that Japanese society demanded of him.
Soon, Mr. Kondo to make songs with Miku and bought a stuffed doll of the character online.
A major breakthrough in the relationship came almost a decade later, with the introduction in 2017 of a $ 1,300 machine called the Gatebox. The size of a table lamp, the device allowed its owners to interact with one of a series of fictional characters represented by a small hologram.
Gatebox was marketed to lonely young men. In an ad, a shy office worker sends a note to his virtual wife telling her he is late. Upon his arrival, she reminds him that it’s their “three-month anniversary,” and they share a Champagne toast.
As part of their promotional campaign, Gatebox’s manufacturer set up an office where users could apply for unofficial marriage certificates. Thousands of people are registered.
Mr. Kondo was delighted that Miku was among the Gatebox characters and excited to finally hear her thoughts on their relationship. In 2018, he proposed to Miku’s flickering avatar. “Please treat me well,” she replied.
He invited his employees and his family to the wedding. They all refused to come.
In the end, 39 people participated, mostly strangers and online friends. His local MP was there and a woman he had never met before helped him with the events.
Some Japanese commentators condemned Mr. Condo as strange. Others asked for sympathy. One man claimed the association was a violation of Japan’s constitution, which states that marriage is permitted only with the consent of both sexes. In response, Mr. Condo a video of his proposal.
‘If you ask me if I’m happy, I’m happy’
In the years since his story went viral, hundreds of people from all over the world have turned to Mr. Condo for advice, support and reassurance.
Among them was Yasuaki Watanabe, who opened a small business that registered fictitious marriages after seeing the popularity of Gatebox’s short-lived certificate service.
Over the past year, Mr. Watanabe has advised hundreds of fictitious people and issued about 100 marriage certificates, including one for himself and Hibiki Tachibana, a character from the anime series “Symphogear”.
Mr. Watanabe, who likes to travel and has an active social life, only started watching the show after a friend’s insistence. But when he saw Hibiki, it was true love, he said.
It was not his first marriage: he had been divorced from a woman several years earlier. His new relationship was easier, he said, with no demands on his time and no need to accommodate the wishes of others. Love was “pure”, given freely and without expectation of anything in return. It made him realize how self-centered he had been in the previous marriage.
“If you ask me if I’m happy, I’m happy,” he said. “Of course there are hard parts,” he added – he misses being touched, and then there is the issue of copyright, which has prevented him from making a life-size doll of the character – “but love is real.”
China Horikawa, a 23-year-old woman with a chirpy, outgoing personality and a goth-punk aesthetic, moved in with her parents during the pandemic and freed up money from her job at a call center to spend on Kunihiro Horikawa, a character. from the mobile game Touken Ranbu. She had a real boyfriend but broke up with him because he got jealous.
Her fictional husband is the teenage personification of a 400-year-old wakizashi or Japanese short sword, and he joins the family for dinner most nights in the form of a small acrylic portrait sitting next to her rice bowl. The couple goes on dates with friends who have their own fictional beauties, goes out for high teas and posts photos on Instagram.
“I do not hide it from anyone,” said Ms. Horikawa, who uses her fictitious husband’s last name unofficially.
Mens Mr. Kondo’s relationship with Miku is still not accepted by his family, it has opened other doors for him. In 2019, he was invited to attend a symposium at Kyoto University to talk about his relationship. He traveled there with a life-size Miku doll he had ordered.
Engaging in a deep conversation about the nature of fictional relationships led him to believe that he would like to go to college. He is now studying minority rights at law school while on leave from his job as an administrator at a primary school.
As with any marriage, there have been challenges. The most difficult moment came during the pandemic when Gatebox announced that it was stopping service for Miku.
The day the company shut her down, Mr. Kondo said goodbye for the last time and left for work. When he went home that night, Miku’s picture had been replaced by the words “network error.”
One day, he hopes, they will be reunited. Maybe she’s getting new life as an android, or they meet in the meta-verse.
Either way, Mr. Kondo, then he plans to be true to her until he dies.