Hatsune Miku, the world’s 
first cybernetic star

Foto: Mario Sixtus. Akihabara Style / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In Japan, virtual figures are becoming ever more realistic. Consumers can hardly distinguish between reality and image. The best example of this phenomenon is Hatsune Miku. She sells shampoo, records music, and receives marriage proposals. And all this without being real.

Now Hatsune Miku is doing shampoo adverts. Miku is a hologram, but in Japan this is no obstacle. There is nothing a hologram can’t do—even if the whole exercise appears to be absurd. Of course Miku’s virtual hair will never need to be washed or styled. Maybe this is actually what makes her such a suitable marketing tool.

In Japan, the boundary between the virtual and the real is blurring. Cybernetic stars are becoming more popular and more numerous. Now that the first affordable, mass-market virtual-reality (VR) headsets are available, these stars are moving into the living room. Hatsune Miku is the best example of this trend.

For her fans, this computer-generated entertainer seems very real. The most famous of Japan’s virtual celebrities, Miku receives a daily stream of marriage proposals on social media. The amount of fans unwilling (or unable) to accept they can’t actually touch Miku led to Hiroyuki Ito issuing a public clarification. “She doesn’t really exist!” warned Ito, CEO of Crypton­ Future Media and Miku’s creator.

In 2007, Miku began her life (or non-life) as a voice profile within song-generating software. The voice synthesizer Vocaloid had a number of pre-programmed profiles, for example “Ren”, who sounds like a male teenager, and his twin sister “Rin”. And then Miku, the sweet sixteen-year-old girl.

After its introduction, Miku’s voice won many fans in the electronic music scene, where it was used to create songs posted and shared on video platforms like Niconico and Youtube. Miku had a fan base before she even had a body.

Crypton observed this trend and decided to encourage and exploit it. Ito commissioned an Anime artist to give Miku a human form. The result: a skinny teenage girl with improbably long, green hair. Sales of Vocaloid, Crypton’s voice software, exploded.

Soon, Miku began appearing outside of purely digital contexts. In 2011, together with the video game developer Sega, Crypton organized Miku’s first live concert. The audience cheered wildly as their virtual star was projected onto the stage in 3D.

According to Ian Condry, re­searcher of Japanese popular culture at MIT, “Miku is the first virtual character to cross the threshold of being recognized as a figure with a definite appearance”.

The clarification issued by Crypton CEO Ito, assuring the public that Miku is not real, seems somewhat disingenuous. After all, no one has done more to anchor his creation in her fan’s lives. Crypton Future Media deliberately promotes Miku as a living person, placing her on stage and in theatres alongside real people. Tickets for her shows fetch respectable sums, and she has appeared abroad in Beijing, Shanghai, and Berlin. On top of this comes the merchandising revenue generated by the sales of Miku products like pillows, bags, pens or computer games.

In April, Miku appealed on-stage to “give her strength” by generating positive buzz online. On video screens flanking the stage, messages from fans all over Japan suddenly began to appear, posted on Twitter or the Japanese messaging service Line.

“I like Miku-chan more than real girls”, says Kenji Akimoto, using the Japanese affectionate form of her name. Kenji is 31-years-old, and has an office job in Tokyo. He spends much of his free time with fellow enthusiasts in Anime shops in Akihabara, Tokyo’s “electric town”. If there were a holographic version of Miku to take home, he would immediately marry her. “She wouldn’t care if I had dandruff, and she would always be perfect.”

Kenji likes to play computer games populated by figures like Miku. In some of them, the goal is to chat up and eventually win over girls in a series of encounters. By contrast, Kenji has never had a real girlfriend. In this, he is hardly a statistical outlier. According to a survey, 42 percent of Japanese men between 18 and 34 have never slept with anyone. The Japan Times feared that “sexlessness is becoming as Japanese as sumo and sake”.

Marriage proposals by Miku’s male fans are meant in all earnestness. In Akihabara, wedding ceremonies have already taken place between virtual girls and real boys, albeit without legal validity. There have even been petitions submitted to the authorities calling for legalization of marriage between humans and cybernetic constructions.

Virtual celebrities have been known in Japan since the 1990s, when the virtual star Kyoto Date released the hit song “Love Communication”. Nonetheless, Kyoto Date never went on tour. Miku has taken a significant step further.

In light of popular virtual characters’ very real earning potential, there will undoubtedly be many imitators to come. While Miku appeals to a largely male audience, the creators of the virtual boy band “Eight of Triangle” are hoping to win the adoration of monied teenage girls. The band’s two “frontmen”, Ray and Kazuto, are also computer-generated figures. Behind “Eight of Triangle” is film production company Toei, for years able to generate hit after hit in cinemas and on TV. Now Toei wants to turn its proven ability to read the pulse of popular culture towards the virtual world. Like Miku, both Ray and Kazuto have detailed backstories. Ray, a “songwriter”, is said to drink copious amounts of coffee during the day and plenty of alcohol at night.

The entertainment company Sony is also looking to blur the boundary between genuine social contact and virtual reality for profit. One of the first applications for Sony’s new VR glasses, produced by game developer Bandai Namco, is called Summer Lesson. In it, gamers coach a voluptuous, platinum blond young woman they meet on a seaside veranda. She cosies up to players and trustingly refers to them as “sensei”, teacher.

Bandai Namco sees Summer Lesson as just the beginning. The company is planning other games that, rather than serving up dragons, adventures and battles, seek to recreate human interactions in virtual reality. Sony’s market researchers are convinced that hundreds of thousands of fans are eager to bring virtual figures into their living rooms, playrooms, and bedrooms.

“Das Netz – digitalization and Society. English edition” gathers writers, activists, scientists, politicians and entrepreneurs to think about the developments of our digital life. More than 50 contributions reflect on the digital transformation of society. It is available as a free PDF. Download here!

Finn Mayer-Kuckuk

Finn Mayer-Kuckuk

Finn Mayer-Kuckuk has reported for over ten years from East Asia, focussing on economic and technology issues. A trained sinologist and japanologist, he previously worked for the Handelsblatt and is currently a reporter for the Dumont Media Group.
Finn Mayer-Kuckuk