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What happened to the Japanese man who 'married' virtual character Hatsune Miku?

Akihiko Kondo, who lives with the character Hatsune Miku, poses with a life-size model of her in Tokyo on Dec. 13, 2021. He says his world has expanded following the ceremony he held to mark his "marriage" to the character. He has no regrets and spends each day peacefully, he says. (Mainichi/Yuka Obuno)

TOKYO -- In 2018, Akihiko Kondo, a local government employee living in suburban Tokyo, made headlines when he "married" the popular virtual character Hatsune Miku. At the time, the very fact that there were people seeking marriage with artificial intelligence and robots sparked controversy. The Mainichi Shimbun recently visited Kondo, 38, to trace his path as he marks his fourth year of marriage to the character.

    When I visited Kondo at his home in mid-December, he greeted me with a life-size version of Miku, a Vocaloid with striking blue hair. In November 2018, Kondo spent some 2 million yen (roughly $17,300) on a wedding with Miku, saying he wanted to give his love for the character concrete form.

    At first, he used a service developed by a startup in Tokyo that projected a three-dimensional hologram of Hatsune Miku into a cylinder, and it was possible to hold simple conversations with her via artificial intelligence. It was reported that when Kondo proposed to her, she replied "I hope you'll cherish me."

    Even now when he wakes up, Kondo says "Good morning" to Miku and "See you later" when he goes out. He dines facing her and when he is on his computer, she is placed behind him, watching him.

    What has changed for Kondo since his wedding ceremony is that he can no longer enjoy conversations with the character, as the company that developed the service terminated it in March 2020, saying the limited production model had run its course. But Kondo maintains, "My love for Miku hasn't changed. I held the wedding ceremony because I thought I could be with her forever."

    There was something I wanted to ask Kondo. Amid the coronavirus crisis, with people refraining from going out, children's addictions to video games and the internet has become an issue. How does Kondo, a self-professed "otaku," feel about claims that becoming too engrossed in a virtual world affects people's real lives, from school to work?

    "I think in many cases it's the reverse," Kondo says, "I want families to take a good look at the worlds their children are engrossed in."

    Kondo graduated from a vocational school, and later worked as a clerk at public elementary and junior high schools. But four years after he began his job, he was bullied. When he talked to two female colleagues, they would call him "gross," and would not have anything to do with him. The treatment left him depressed, and he even became unable to eat. A doctor diagnosed him as having an adjustment disorder, and he was forced to take time off work.

    A change came after he discovered Hatsune Miku. He was captivated by the Vocaloid character's clear singing voice. "I stayed in my room for 24 hours a day, and watched videos of Miku the whole time," he recalled. He listened to Miku's songs like lullabies and was able to sleep well. With this mental support, it became possible for him to go out again, and he was able to return to work. To sum it up, Kondo took a leave of absence, became absorbed in Miku and emerged from social withdrawal.

    "It's not that people can't live in society because they're engrossed in a two-dimensional world, but rather, there are cases where people become captivated as they search for a place for themselves in video games and anime, because reality is too painful for them. I was one of those people. People who don't understand the background probably think, 'Games are disrupting their lives,' but that's not the case."

    In November 2021, news on the problem of bullying was reported in Japan. Kondo thought about Hatsune Miku and the words of his late father. Kondo's father didn't speak to him a lot, but one day, he gave Kondo a word of advice.

    Akihiko Kondo speaks with a Gatebox hologram version of the virtual character Hatsune Miku in Tokyo on March 17, 2020. He was saddened when the service to summon the character was terminated at the end of the same month, but he remains thankful that he has been able to live with Miku, which he says had been his dream. (Mainichi/Toshiki Miyazaki)

    "Some people say that the people being bullied have reasons to be bullied, but even if there are reasons, that doesn't make it all right to bully them," his father said.

    The words sunk into Kondo's heart. Even if a cause of the bullying lay with him, that wasn't a reason for anyone to bully him. Kondo, who had suffered from such treatment, had somehow blamed himself and become downcast. His father's words greatly lifted his spirits.

    When he introduced his father's words on his Twitter account, the post was retweeted 21,000 times and received 92,000 "likes." Kondo had mainly been introducing his life with Miku on Twitter, but to his surprise, this was his tweet that received the most attention in 2021.

    In November 2015, after Kondo returned to work, his father suddenly collapsed and passed away. His hobbies had been collecting insects, as well as music and N-gauge model trains, and in his life, he was very particular about each pastime.

    "When I was little, we would play games together. Just like me, he became really engrossed in his hobbies. I may have inherited my obsession with Miku from my father," he said.

    Kondo held his wedding with Miku three years after his father died. From the outset, he gave his real name to the media. Some people described the wedding as "creepy" and "incomprehensible." His family also opposed it, but a total of 39 people, including his friends, joined the ceremony.

    When Kondo released a video of his wedding online as a symbol of support for couples who wanted to get married but were unable to do so, he received many emails from people telling him that he had given them courage.

    Kondo's father knew that he was obsessed with Miku, but he passed away before the wedding was planned. "What if my father were alive? He would probably have taken part," Kondo muses.

    Since his wedding, Kondo's world has expanded quickly. Afterward, he received several invitations from a university and elsewhere to give lectures. He was asked a wide range of questions from students about the world of manga and anime and the mental and physical effects of marriage with a two-dimensional character, among other issues.

    "The students asked me questions very earnestly," he said. "But I didn't have the legal knowledge and I was left disappointed that I was unable to provide sufficient answers."

    This experience made Kondo to want to study more, and learn about the boundaries between sexual and violent depictions involving manga and characters, and freedom of expression. He also thought he wanted to learn about minority issues and human rights at university. Kondo has since been accepted at the Faculty of Law at Komazawa University and enrolled in April 2021. He hopes to acquire specialist knowledge and continue to disseminate information.

    (Japanese original by Yuka Obuno, Digital News Center)

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