Japan’s Biggest Pop Star Is Not Human

She has over 100,000 original songs under her name, some of which have been top karaoke picks in Japan for several years in a row.

She has 1.8mn (and growing!) followers on Facebook—more than any other individual Japanese pop star or pop group. She has sold out concerts around the world and has served as the face for such top global brands as Louis Vuitton, Google and Toyota.

But she’s not human.

Rather, “she” is a digitally synthesized voice encapsulated in a crowd-sourced humanoid persona. And if that description is not illustrative enough, here’s one that is: she appears in “live shows” as a hologram.

Hatsune Miku, trademarked by exaggerated turquoise pigtails and a schoolgirl demeanour, is the world’s first union of fabricated digital voice sporting a virtual character body.

Crypton Future Media, a big-time Sapporo-based sound software contractor, created Miku in 2007, using Yamaha Corporation’s “vocaloid” technology (a singing voice synthesizer), and subsequently released her as a computer software application to consumer markets.

Within just one month, the product became the highest-grossing software at that time with revenues of ¥57.5mn, and its star character Hatsune Miku came into a fortune of diehard fans.

The Hatsune Miku hype in Japan is perfectly explainable, considering an intensifying local idol culture.

Idol culture in Japan, which began in the 1970s as a phenomenon surrounding foreign stars, has since escalated to domestically produced AKB48 proportions in present times. The trend reflects an increasing preference for “artificial intimacy” in Japanese society.

Alongside and intertwined with the fascination for anime and manga, a fascination with “cute” girls and boys is yet another outlet for expressing fetish imagination otherwise suppressed in Japanese public life.

Without getting into the disturbing details of the socially constructed criteria for idols (especially those of female ones), Hatsune Miku in fact represents market power superiority over her living and breathing counterparts. This is due to her “natural ability” to smoothly satisfy consumer needs.

Because she is not human, Miku is understandably exempt from the typical hazards our human pop stars face—pitchy days, unattainable vocal ranges and fatigue, for instance—thus offering her fans, who write her music, immense creative freedom and listening/viewing pleasure.

Even more significant than the breadth of her musical capabilities, Hatsune Miku’s “life” and personality are left entirely for her consumers to draw up.

And as evidenced by the multitude of fan fiction and cyber-weddings she is featured in, Hatsune Miku has unlocked a level of intimacy impossible to achieve between human idols and their fans.

All this of course is no new story, considering that Miku, despite her arbitrary age of 16, has been around for seven years.

What is new, however, is that in the past three years a greater share of the demand for the blue-haired vocaloid has come from outside Japan. It seems idol culture and a hunger for futuristic lifestyles are no longer bound within domestic borders, or even those of Asia for that matter.

Most of Miku’s Facebook hits come from Mexico City, and her 2011 Los Angeles performance was enjoyed by some 5,000 glow-stick-waving fans and another 160,000 online viewers. The concert included a high-profile commission to show off Marc Jacobs’ designs by means of a touring opera.

Perhaps the rest of the world, too, is growing tired of human pop stars who only meet—but do not exceed—expectations for idols.

A new generation of consumers actively admits it is willing to empty its wallet for an entity that needs no time to learn routines and work on her profession, and one whose stardom comes at no cost of privacy.

English was added to Miku’s official singing languages last year, and this is just the start of her solidification in international markets. As intangible as she may be at her essence, Hatsune Miku’s brand equity and staying power is very real, indeed.

Debbie Howard is chairman of The Carter Group and president emeritus of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan; Mika Fukuda, intern at The Carter Group, contributed to this article.