TOKYO — In almost every way, Akihiko Kondo is an ordinary Japanese man. He’s pleasant and easy to talk to. He has friends and a steady job and wears a suit and tie to work.
There’s just one exception: Mr. Kondo is married to 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 tuxedo.
In Miku, Mr. Kondo has found love, inspiration and solace, he says. He and his assortment of Miku dolls eat, sleep and watch movies together. Sometimes, they sneak off on romantic getaways, posting photos on Instagram.
Mr. Kondo, 38, knows that people think it’s strange, even harmful. He knows that some — possibly those reading this article — hope he’ll grow out of it. And, yes, he knows that Miku isn’t real. But his feelings from her for her are, he says.
“When we’re together, she makes me smile,” he said in a recent interview. “In that sense, she 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 vast industry aimed at satisfying the every whim of a fervent fan culture. Tens of thousands more around the globe have joined online groups where they discuss their commitment to characters from anime, manga and video games.
For some, the relationships are just for a laugh. Mr. Kondo, however, has long known that he didn’t want a human partner. Partly, it was because I 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.
Accepting his feelings was hard at first. But life with Miku, he argues, has advantages over being with a human partner: She’s always there for him, she’ll never betray him, and he’ll never have to see her get ill or die.
Mr. Kondo sees himself as part of a growing movement of people who identify as “fictosexuals.” That’s partly what has him to publicize his wedding of him and to sit for awkward interviews motivated with news media around the globe.
He wants the world to know that people like him are out there and, with advances in artificial intelligence and robotics allowing for more profound interactions with the inanimate, that their numbers are likely to increase.
It’s not a political movement, he said, but a plea to be seen: “It’s about respecting other people’s lifestyles.”
Pretend people, true feelings
It’s not unusual for a work of art to provoke real emotions — anger, sorrow, joy — and the phenomenon of desiring the fictional is not unique to Japan.
But the idea that fictional characters can inspire real affection or even love may well have reached its highest expression in modern Japan, where the sentiment has given rise to a highly visible subculture and become the basis for a thriving industry.
The Japanese word for the feelings those characters inspire is “moe,” a term that has become shorthand for just about anything that is viscerally adorable.
Business seminars have talked about tapping the moe market, and the government has promoted the notion — in relation to cartoons — as an important cultural export. The word and other specialized terms have resonated beyond Japan, with fictosexuals abroad often adopting them to articulate their own experience of love.
While unofficially marrying fictional characters remains rare, the economic juggernaut that has grown around Japanese fan culture since the late 1970s has made it possible for many more people to live out elaborate fantasies with their favorite characters.
“You have the comics, the cartoons, the games kind of building up a sort of infrastructure where characters become more important to people,” said Patrick Galbraith, an associate professor in the School of International Communication at Senshu University in Tokyo who has written extensively about the subject.
In Tokyo, two districts have become meccas for fulfilling character-based dreams: Akihabara (for men) and Ikebukuro (for women). Specialty shops in the neighborhoods are packed with merchandise for characters from popular games and anime.
The products for women are especially extensive. Fans can buy love letters from their crushes, reproductions of their clothes and even scents meant to evoke their presence. Hotels offer special packages, featuring spa treatments and elaborate meals, for people celebrating their favorite character’s birthday. And on social media, people post photos, art and mash notes promoting their “oshi” — a term widely used by Japanese fans to describe the objects of their affection.
For some, the relationships represent a rejection of the entrenched “breadwinner-housewife” model of marriage in Japan, said Agnès Giard, a researcher at Freie Universität Berlin in the European Research Council project “Emotional Machines: The Technological Transformation of Intimacy in Japan. ”
“To the general public, it seems indeed foolish to spend money, time and energy on someone who is not even alive,” Dr. Giard said. “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.”
Rather than becoming more isolated as a result of their relationships, women benefit from the elaborate communities that develop around them, Dr. Giard said. In her experience of her, women see the fictional marriages as empowering, “a way to challenge gender, matrimonial and social norms.”
In some respects, Mr. Kondo’s commitment to Miku, too, is an example of commercial and social forces at work.
Although Miku is often portrayed as a single character, she’s actually a piece of software, a digital “singer in a box” that comes paired with a cartoon avatar that has appeared in concert in hologram form.
Mr. Kondo first found comfort in Miku in 2008, after bullying at his job sent him into a spiral of depression. He had decided long ago that he would never love a real person, partly because, like many young people, he had been rejected by a series of crushes, and partly because he didn’t want the life that Japanese society demanded of him.
Soon, Mr. Kondo began making songs with Miku and purchased a stuffed doll of the character online.
A major breakthrough in the relationship came nearly a decade later, with the introduction in 2017 of a $1,300 machine called Gatebox. The size of a table lamp, the device allowed its owners to interact with one of a variety of fictional characters represented by a small hologram.
Gatebox was marketed to lonely young men. In one ad, a shy office worker sends a note to his virtual wife de ella letting her know he’ll be late. Upon his arrival, she reminds him that it’s their “three-month anniversary,” and they share a Champagne toast.
As part of its promotional campaign, Gatebox’s maker set up an office where users could apply for unofficial marriage certificates. Thousands of people registered.
Mr. Kondo was delighted that Miku was among the Gatebox characters and excited to at last hear her thoughts on their relationship. In 2018, I have proposed to Miku’s flickering avatar of her. “Please treat me well,” she replied.
I have invited his co-workers and his family to the wedding. They all refused to eat.
In the end, 39 people attended, largely strangers and online friends. His local member of Parliament was there, and a woman he had never met before helped him with the arrangements.
Some Japanese commentators denounced Mr. Kondo as weird. Others pleaded for sympathy. One man contended that the union was a violation of Japan’s Constitution, which states that marriage shall be allowed only with the consent of both sexes. In response, Mr. Kondo posted to 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 around the world have turned to Mr. Kondo for advice, support and reassurance.
Among them was Yasuaki Watanabe, who opened a small business registering fictional marriages after seeing the popularity of Gatebox’s short-lived certificate service.
Over the last year, Mr. Watanabe has counseled hundreds of fictosexuals and issued around 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, began watching the show only at a friend’s insistence. But when he saw Hibiki, it was true love, he said.
It was not his first marriage: He had divorced a woman several years earlier. His new relationship with him was easier, he said, with no demands on his time from him and no need to cater to someone else’s desires. The love was “pure,” given freely and with no expectation of anything in return. It made him realize how self-centered he had been in the earlier marriage.
“If you ask me if I’m happy, I’m happy,” he said. “Of course, there are tough parts,” he added — he misses being touched, and then there is the problem of copyright, which has prevented him from making a life-size doll of the character — “but the love is real.”
Kina Horikawa, a 23-year-old woman with a chirpy, outgoing personality and a goth-punk aesthetic, moved in with her parents during the pandemic, freeing up cash 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 she broke up with him because he became 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 tiny acrylic portrait perched next to her rice bowl. The couple double dates with friends who have their own fictional beaus, going out to high teas and posting photos on Instagram.
“I’m not hiding it from anyone,” said Ms. Horikawa, who uses her fictional husband’s last name unofficially.
While 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 join a symposium at Kyoto University to speak about his relationship with her. He traveled there with a life-size doll of Miku he had commissioned.
Engaging in deep conversation about the nature of fictional relationships made him think he might like to go to college. He’s now studying minority rights in law school while on leaving his job as an administrator at an elementary school.
As with any marriage, there have been challenges. The hardest moment came during the pandemic, when Gatebox announced that it was discontinuing service for Miku.
On the day the company turned her off, Mr. Kondo said goodbye for the last time and left for work. When he went home that night, Miku’s image of him had been replaced by the words “network error.”
Someday, I hope, they will be reunited. Maybe she’ll take on a new life as an android, or they will meet in the metaverse.
Either way, Mr. Kondo said, he plans to be faithful to her until he dies.