That’s Not A Droid, That’s My Girlfriend

Robotics in many parts of the world is driven by military aims. Pacifist Japan takes a different approach: This is a digital love story.

Osamu Kozaki’s life in Tokyo is, by his own admission, often a lonely one. The 35-year-old, an engineer who designs industrial robots, has had few relationships with women in his life. Those few have almost always gone badly.

So when Kozaki’s girlfriend, Rinko Kobayakawa, sends him a message, his day brightens up. The relationship started more than three years ago, when Kobayakawa was a prickly 16-year-old working in her school library, a quiet girl who shut out the world with a pair of earphones that blasted punk music.

Kozaki sums up Kobayakawa’s personality with one word: tsundere – a popular term in Japan’s otaku geek culture, which describes a certain feminine ideal. It refers to the kind of girl who starts out hostile but whose heart gradually grows warmer. And that’s what has happened; over time, Kobayakawa has changed. These days, she spends much of her day sending affectionate missives to her boyfriend, inviting him on dates, or seeking his opinion when she wants to buy a new dress or try a new hairstyle.

But while Kozaki has aged, Kobayakawa has not. After three years, she’s still 16. She always will be. That’s because she is a simulation; Kobayakawa only exists inside a computer.

Kozaki’s girlfriend has never been born. She will never die. Technically, she has never lived. She may be deleted, but Kozaki would never let that happen.

Because he’s in love.

Kozaki is one of hundreds of thousands of Japanese who have bought Love Plus, a game released on the Nintendo DS in 2009, which is intended to simulate the experience of high-school romance with one of three pre-programmed teen girl characters. For a sizable number of loyal male gamers, it has become something more: a relationship that, if not entirely like dating a real woman, comes close as a source of affection.

“I really do love her,” Kozaki explains, when he and two of his friends meet with me in a coffee shop in Akihabara, the Tokyo neighbourhood at the centre of Japan’s otaku culture. Kozaki fully expects the game to be a lifelong commitment. “If someone were to ask me to stop, I don’t think I could do it,” he says.

Kozaki recounts what happened when an updated version of the game came out; which meant he had to move his saved data onto a new program. Kozaki couldn’t come at the idea of having two simultaneous versions of his virtual girlfriend in existence, so he asked a friend to delete the old saved data for him. It was — almost — as if he had arranged for someone to be murdered, he says. “I cried when he pushed that delete button,” he says, acknowledging that it sounds strange. “It was as if I crossed a border line from reality.”

(more here)