Hatsune Miku

Zoie Peng

Hatsune Miku is a vocal synthesizer dubbed virtual idol who is most popular in Japan. Yet, Miku has extended her reach to the rest of the world over the past few years, now having held multiple concerts across the world. With her bright, youthful appearance and feminine “voice,” Miku is cute on the surface (see Figure 1). However, her malleability as a character and human-like qualities as a robot are what truly solidify her cuteness. Through Miku’s effect on her fans, the following question arises: At what point does the pursuit of “better” technology go too far, and what is cuteness’ role in this?

Figure 1. Hatsune Miku.

Hatsune Miku, whose name means “the first Sound from the Future,” is a Vocaloid created by Crypton Future Media in 2007 that has been used in over 100,000 songs worldwide.[1] While “Vocaloid” originally refers to instrument group Yamaha’s voice synthesizing software that allows users to synthesize singing or speech, it is also used to refer to the mascots of voice banks like Miku. The software works by taking an input of syllables and pitches to produce singing or speech, and users can further adjust the voice to create emphasis, vibrato, and other vocal elements, a process referred to as tuning. Tuning requires a voice bank to synthesize a voice, which is where Miku and other voice banks or Vocaloids enter the picture. A voice bank is a collection of samples that can be adjusted or tuned to create a voice, and Miku’s voice is originally that of Japanese voice actress Saki Fujita. Over the years, Miku has had multiple updated versions. Released in 2007, the Vocaloid 2 version of Miku was her first voice bank with only a Japanese version, but the Vocaloid 3 release in 2013 offered an English voice bank in addition to an updated Japanese one. In 2017, the Vocaloid 4 added a Chinese voice bank and updated English and Japanese voice banks. Miku’s voice bank was created after editing Fujita’s vocal samples, which users can now use to create whatever they desire with Miku’s voice. To promote the Vocaloid software, Crypton Future Media created characters to represent their voice banks, leading to the birth of Miku as both a voice and a character.[2] After Miku’s voice and image went viral on Japanese video site Nico Nico shortly after her release in 2007, Miku’s popularity began to rise.

As a visual character, Miku is quite cute, with bright turquoise hair in long, high pigtails, large anime-style eyes, and a schoolgirl uniform-esque outfit. Such traits are typically thought of as youthful, feminine, and cute. However, while Miku is also cute on an aural level, she may fall into what is called the uncanny valley in her poor attempt to replicate human language. Miku’s voice is higher pitched and distinctly feminine, allowing her voice to sound cute. However, her actual speech or singing falls into the uncanny valley, the point at which something is highly humanlike but falls short in some way, often resulting in an eerie sensation.[3] According to Joel Gn, a robot requires humanlike qualities for humans to find it endearing or cute. At the same time, the robot cannot be so human that it loses its perceived machine qualities.[4] In Miku’s case, her voice may sound like that of an overly autotuned human, but her pronunciation and inflection betray her identity as a robot. As such, Miku’s voice is cute and creepy at times.

Part of Miku’s malleability comes from her role as a voice synthesizer in that Miku can be made to say or sing anything. Songs that use her voice cover a wide range of themes, from the nonsensical and playful to the gut-wrenching and existential. The use of Miku’s voice in songs rather than the voice of a human singer, especially in songs with darker themes, is interesting considering Miku’s bright and cheerful appearance. Perhaps the reason for doing so may be connected to Sianne Ngai’s idea that “cuteness might provoke ugly or aggressive feelings.”[5] In this case, making Miku sing songs about darker and psychological topics acts as a form of aggression toward Miku, as it forces her into the harsh reality of the human world that she cannot possibly know as a fictional character. 

Miku’s distinct appearance also grants malleability. With her bright turquoise hair, pigtails, and simple yet easily recognizable outfit, modifications can be made to Miku’s appearance while still retaining her essence. This can be observed in Figure 2, which shows a Sakura Miku action figure. While her overall color palette and other minor details differ from Miku’s original form, Sakura Miku is still recognizable as Hatsune Miku. As such, fans and corporations can use Miku’s strong recognizability to create other variants of Miku to sell or fulfill their personal fantasies, including (but not limited to) creative and sexual fantasies in the forms of art, 3D models, figurines, animation, and more.

Figure 2. Hatsune Miku Variant (Sakura Miku) Nendoroid Action Figure.

In addition to her visual and aural aspects, Miku is a cute character due to a lack of identity that allows her to be a malleable character. A significant part of Miku’s appeal is how easily she can be molded to appeal to any audience. Her official profile states that she is 16 years old, 158 centimeters tall (5 feet and 2 inches), 42 kg (92.6 lbs), her favorite genres are J-pop and Dance-pop, her favorite tempo is 70-150 beats per minute, and her best voice range consists of notes in the range A3-E5.[6] Since everything else about Miku is up for interpretation, “theoretically anyone can create, recreate, and reimagine Miku.”[7] 

Miku’s malleability adds to her cuteness, as it suggests the idea that she can be or become almost anything that is desired of her. Ngai notes that being more malleable and therefore easier to handle adds to the cuteness of a given object.[8] This idea is also prevalent in the concept of mukokuseki, which Koichi Iwabuchi defines as “something or someone lacking any nationality” as well as “the erasure of racial or ethnic characteristics and contexts from a cultural product.”[9] Miku herself would be difficult to label as culturally odorless since her name is distinctly Japanese and her outfit is reminiscent of a Japanese school uniform. In any case, however, because of her overall lack of identity, Miku has experienced global success (see Figure 3). As Jennifer Milioto Matsue states, “Miku has no personality to interfere with fans’ desires, and thus fans can generate whatever qualities they want, controlling her every move and creating a tremendous sense of intimacy with her image.”[10] For Miku, rather than a lack of cultural odor, an observable lack of personal odor allows many fans to project their own fantasies and preferences onto her.

Sandra Annett further discusses the idea of Miku being malleable in design and as a character. Annett labels Miku as a kyara, defined as “image-beings that fans both idolize and consume.”[11] Miku’s fans include those who listen to her music, produce music with her, collect her figurines and plushies, and even specific individuals like Akihiko Kondo, who “married” her in 2018.[12] Annett also mentions how a kyara lives through both fan adaptation and corporate facilitation.[13] This is observed through Miku, as she can be bought as figurines and plushies, played with in video games sold by corporations, and enjoyed musically and visually through fan-made music, comics, and videos in which she may be portrayed differently among various products. It is no surprise, then, that Miku facilitates the blurring of the line between fantasy and reality for fans.

Figure 3. Hatsune Miku performing live in New York.

With Miku’s ability to perfectly execute expectations traditionally placed onto girls and women, some of her fans may come to place these expectations onto girls and women in the real world. Adriana Sabo states that “Hatsune Miku is obviously the result of a highly traditional, patriarchal, conservative society which imposes strict gender norms on its people.”[14] While Miku originally served as a unique instrument for musicians to produce music, she has evolved into something much larger as a result of her branding. Sabo finds that “[Miku] is viewed simultaneously as an artificial creation, but is at the same time approached from a very human, emotional, physical viewpoint, being a kind of artificial catalyst for (sexual) desire, love, euphoria, and excitement.”[15] Due to the intimacy Miku provides her fans, she blurs the line between fantasy and reality. According to Matsue, “Men who find women who do not comply with the discourse of ‘good wife and wise mother’ alienating, as these women may be too demanding and difficult, may also turn to such characters for solace,” resulting in men forming unrealistic expectations for real women who will never be “better” than their idol (in this case, Miku).[16] Such an issue can be observed in the aforementioned Japanese superfan Akihiko Kondo, who went as far as to “marry” Miku. 

Hatsune Miku is a cute character, primarily owing to her malleability visually, aurally, and through her status as a fantasy character. Because Miku serves as an empty vessel for especially male fans to project their fantasies onto, one can begin to observe the consequences of having technologies that perform “better” than humans. While certain machine replacements are justifiable, such as those that operate in factories with potentially life-threatening conditions, machines like Miku or AI art generators fall short in various aspects. Yet, people gladly settle when they perceive the promise of cheaper labor and easy accessibility. In Miku’s case, the character provides free emotional labor for the anti-social male fan, a phenomenon that is bound to negatively affect fans and those around them as some fans become less adapted to a human-led society. 

Published: 6/30/2023


[1] “Who is Hatsune Miku?”, Crypton Future Media, accessed April 9, 2023, https://ec.crypton.co.jp/pages/prod/virtualsinger/cv01_us.

[2] Sandra Annett, “What Can a Vocaloid Do? The Kyara as Body without Organs,” Mechademia: Second Arc 10 (2015): 164.

[3] Masahiro Mori, “The Uncanny Valley,” in The Monster Theory Reader, ed. Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020), 90.

[4] Joel Gn, “Designing Affection: On the Curious Case of Machine Cuteness,” in The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness (New York: Routledge, 2016), 179. 

[5] Sianne Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant‐Garde,” Critical Inquiry 31, no. 4 (Summer 2005): 816.

[6] Crypton Future Media, “Who is Hatsune Miku?”

[7] Adriana Sabo, “Hatsune Miku: Whose Voice, Whose Body?”, INSAM Journal of Contemporary Music, Art and Technology 1, no. 2 (July 2019): 68.

[8] Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” 816.

[9] Koichi Iwabuchi, “How ‘Japanese’ Is Pokémon?”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 58.

[10] Jennifer Milioto Matsue, “The Ideal Idol: Making Music with Hatsune Miku, the First Sound of the Future,’” in Vamping the Stage: Female Voices of Asian Modernities, ed. Andrew N. Weintraub and Bart Barendregt (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2017): 327.

[11] Annett, “What Can a Vocaloid Do?”, 164.

[12] Yuka Obuno, “What happened to the Japanese man who ‘married’ virtual character Hatsune Miku?”, The Mainichi, January 11, 2022, https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20220111/p2a/00m/0li/028000c.

[13] Annett, “What Can a Vocaloid Do?”, 165.

[14] Sabo, “Hatsune Miku,” 78.

[15] Sabo, “Hatsune Miku,” 77.

[16] Matsue, “The Ideal Idol,” 329-30.