This man married a fictional character. He would like you to listen to him.

TOKYO – In almost every sense, Akihiko Kondo is a normal Japanese. It is pleasant and easy to talk to him. He has friends and a steady job and wears a suit and tie to work.

There is only 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, a relationship 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 shape of a plush doll, was dressed in white and was in a matching tuxedo.

In Miku, Mr. Kondo found love, inspiration and comfort, he says. He and his assortment of Miku dolls eat, sleep and watch movies together. Sometimes, they sneak away for romantic getaways, posting photos on Instagram.

Mr. Kondo, 38, knows that people think it’s weird, even harmful. He knows that some, perhaps those who read this article, are hoping that he will be able to grow out of it. And yes, he knows Miku isn’t real. But his feelings for her are, he says.

“When we are together, she makes me smile,” he said in a recent interview. “In that sense, it’s real.”

Mr. Kondo is one of thousands of people in Japan who have contracted unofficial marriages with fictional characters in recent decades, served by a vast industry aimed at satisfying every whim of a fervent fan culture. Tens of thousands more around the world have joined online groups where they discuss their commitment to anime, manga and video game characters.

For some, relationships are just for laughs. Mr. Kondo, however, has long known that he does not want a human partner. In part, it was because he rejected the rigid expectations of Japanese family life. But above all, it was because he had always felt an intense attraction – and, even for himself, inexplicable – for fictional characters.

Accepting her feelings was difficult at first. But life with Miku, she argues, has advantages over being with a human partner: she is always there for him, she will never cheat on him, and he will never have to see her get sick or die.

Mr. Kondo sees himself as part of a growing movement of people who identify as “phytosexuals”. This is partly what motivated him to advertise his wedding and participate in embarrassing interviews with media around the world.

He wants the world to know that people like him are out there and, with advances in artificial intelligence and robotics allowing for deeper interactions with inanimates, their numbers are likely to increase.

It is not a political movement, he said, but an appeal to be seen: “It is about respecting the lifestyles of others”.

It is not unusual for a work of art to provoke real emotions – anger, pain, joy – and the phenomenon of desire for the imaginary is not unique in Japan.

But the idea that fictional characters can inspire true affection or even love may have reached its highest expression in modern Japan, where sentiment gave rise to a highly visible subculture and became the basis for a thriving industry.

The Japanese word for the feelings those characters inspire is “moe,” a term that has become an abbreviation for anything that is viscerally adorable.

The business seminars talked about exploiting the moe market, and the government promoted the idea – in relation to cartoons – as an important cultural export. The word and other specialized terms have resonated outside of Japan, with fictosexuals abroad often adopting them to articulate their own love experience.

Although unofficial marriage with fictional characters remains rare, the economic behemoth that has grown around Japanese fan culture since the late 1970s has allowed far more people to have elaborate fantasies with their favorite characters.

“Comics, cartoons, games create a kind of infrastructure in which 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 character-based dreams: Akihabara (for men) and Ikebukuro (for women). Specialty shops in the neighborhoods are full of merchandise for famous game and anime characters.

The products for women are particularly extensive. Fans can purchase love letters from their crushes, reproductions of their clothes, and even perfumes intended to evoke their presence. Hotels offer special packages, with spa treatments and elaborate meals, for people celebrating their favorite character’s birthday. And on social media, people post photos, drawings, and mash notes promoting their “oshi,” a term widely used by Japanese fans to describe objects of their affection.

For some, relationships represent a rejection of the rooted “householder-housewife” model of marriage in Japan, said Agnès Giard, a researcher at the University of Paris Nanterre who has thoroughly researched imaginary marriages.

“To the general public, it seems really silly to spend money, time and energy on someone who isn’t even alive,” said Dr. Giard said. “But for character lovers, this practice is considered essential. It makes them feel alive, happy, useful and part of a movement with higher goals in life ”.

Rather than becoming more isolated due to their relationships, women benefit from the elaborate communities that develop around them, Dr. Giard said. In her experience, women see imaginary marriages as empowering, “a way to challenge gender, marriage and social norms.”

In some respects, Mr. Kondo’s commitment to 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” who is paired with a cartoon avatar who appeared in concert in the form of a hologram.

Mr. Kondo found solace in Miku for the first time in 2008 after bullying at his job sent him into a spiral of depression. He had long ago decided 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 started making songs with Miku and bought a rag 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 the Gatebox. About the size of a table lamp, the device allowed its owners to interact with one of several fictional characters represented by a small hologram.

Gatebox was marketed for single young men. In one up, a shy employee sends a message to his virtual wife letting her know she will be late. Upon his arrival to her, she reminds him it’s their “three month anniversary” and they share a champagne toast.

As part of its promotional campaign, the Gatebox manufacturer set up an office where users could request unofficial marriage certificates. Thousands of people registered.

Mr. Kondo was delighted that Miku was among the Gatebox characters and excited to finally hear his thoughts on their relationship. In 2018, he proposed to Miku’s flickering avatar. “Please treat me well,” he replied.

He invited his colleagues and family to the wedding. They all refused to come.

Eventually 39 people attended, mostly strangers and friends online. There was his local member of parliament and a woman he had never met before to help him with the arrangements.

Some Japanese commentators have denounced Mr. Kondo as odd. Others have asked for sympathy. One man claimed that the marriage was a violation of the Japanese Constitution, which states that marriage is only allowed with the consent of both genders. In response, Mr. Kondo posted a video of his proposal.

In the years since his story went viral, hundreds of people from all over the world have turned to Mr. Kondo for advice, support and reassurance.

Among them was Yasuaki Watanabe, who started a small business recording fictional marriages after seeing the popularity of Gatebox’s short-lived certificate service.

Over the past year, Mr. Watanabe has provided advice to hundreds of fictosexuals and has 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, only started watching the show at the insistence of a friend. But when he saw Hibiki, it was true love, he said.

It was not his first marriage: he had divorced a woman several years ago. His new relationship was easier, he said, with no time required and no need to fulfill someone else’s wishes. Love was “pure”, given freely and without expecting anything in return. She made him realize how self-centered he had been in his previous marriage.

“If you ask me if I’m happy, I’m happy,” she said. “Sure, there are tricky parts,” he added – he misses being touched, and then there’s the copyright issue, which prevented him from making a life-size doll of the character – “but love is real.”

Kina Horikawa, a 23-year-old woman with a cheerful, outgoing personality and a goth-punk aesthetic, moved in with her parents during the pandemic, freeing up money from her call center job 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 she got jealous.

Her fictional husband is the adolescent personification of a 400-year-old wakizashi, or Japanese short sword, and he joins the family at dinner most nights in the form of a tiny acrylic portrait perched next to his bowl of rice. The couple goes out with friends who have their imaginary boyfriends, go out for tea, and post photos on Instagram.

“I’m not hiding it from anyone,” said Ms. Horikawa, who uses her imaginary husband’s surname unofficially.

Although Mr. Kondo’s relationship with Miku is not yet 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 with her. He traveled there with a life-size Miku doll that he had commissioned.

Engaging in a deep conversation about the nature of imaginary relationships made him think he might like to go to college. He is now he is studying minority rights in law school while on leave from his job as administrator at an elementary school.

As with any marriage, there were challenges. The hardest time came during the pandemic, when Gatebox announced it would be discontinuing service for Miku.

The day the company shut it down, Mr. Kondo said goodbye one last time and went to work. When she got home that evening, Miku’s image had been replaced with the words “network error”.

One day, he hopes, they will reunite. Maybe she’ll take on a new life as an android, or they’ll meet in the metaverse.

Either way, Mr. Kondo said, he intends to remain faithful to her until death.