It’s the weekend, the weather is epic and you want to hang out and enjoy a conversation at an outdoor café. There’s a problem, however. You have no one to hang out with. You can, of course, enjoy some alone time. That’s perfectly fine and even preferable for many people. But there’s another option. You can hire someone to hang out with you.
The concept of hiring someone to be your friend may evoke a variety of reactions but in some parts of the world, particularly in Japan, it’s become normal to hear of businesses that provide ‘rent a friend’ or ‘rent a family’ services. First introduced in Japan in the early 1990s, rent a friend businesses gained considerable popularity to service a growing and unmet need of companionship.
So what’s going on exactly? Why are people paying money to hire a friend, family member or colleague; someone whose connection to the buyer is primarily transactional? Perhaps the exoticism of such behaviour can be diluted once we delve further into its rationale.
The need for social proof is very strong in today’s society. Social media has enhanced this considerably as we’re constantly bombarded by the perfectly curated lives of those we know and don’t know every time we open Instagram. The Wall Street Journals’ The Facebook Files investigation revealed in late 2021 that social comparison was a significant consequence of the platform’s use. Perhaps it doesn’t cross our minds that those we compare ourselves to have the very same concerns and problems, and so an attempt is made to emulate that ‘perfection’.
Maybe you’ve booked a solo trip to somewhere far off. You want to post a few videos on TikTok but worry about being all alone. How will things look? What if people in the comments ask who you’re with? For years when people actually used Facebook (they supposedly still do!), one’s birthday would be a cause for celebration and a cause for apprehension. Sure, people would remember your big day. But it’d be on display for everyone to see. What if you only got a handful of wishes? What if you got none? It’d be hard not to compare yourself with those who’d receive hundreds of birthday wishes each year. Upon reflection, the theme of peculiarity that’s often portrayed when discussing rent-a-friend businesses in Japan is perhaps unfair. The need for social proof and companionship is something people throughout the world share, and Japan just so happens to have introduced a business model to satisfy that need.
And then there is loneliness, which is afflicting people the world over. And while loneliness is a global problem, Japan is an interesting case. Long working hours, a high number of single-person households and heavy reliance on technology to compensate for a lack of social interaction come together for Japan to be labelled by the Tokyo Weekender as “one of the world’s loneliest countries.“
Having people around can be just what we need when we’re feeling lonely. For some, a friend doesn’t have to do anything special. Just being present is enough, staying comfortable in each other’s silence. Some businesses and freelancers have stepped up to meet this need such as Shoji Morimoto, who rents himself out to do nothing in particular.
Combatting loneliness is also one of the reasons attributed to the rise of Mukbang, online eating videos or live streams in which the content creator eats and drinks while talking to their audience. For many people, watching mukbang videos give them a sense of being in a social environment; a much sought-after feeling demonstrated by the immense popularity of mukbang YouTubers such as Zach Choi and DONA 도나.
But while it may sound innocent to rent a friend for a day to alleviate feelings of loneliness, things can become more problematic when an attachment starts to form, the consequences of which can range from broken trust to long-lasting resentment. In an interview with Ishii Yuichi, Founder of rent-a-friend business Family Romance, published by The Atlantic, Yuichi recounts one of his projects in which he acts as a father for a 12 year old girl. Her mother, who hired Yuichi, chose not to tell her daughter she hired an actor, and she has grown up thinking he is her real father.
How would the young girl feel if she ever found out the truth? How would she even begin to process it? Before taking on the role as father, Yuichi clarified with the mother, “Are you prepared to sustain this lie?” And that, for some people, is what this really is. You aren’t just hiring a fake friend or family member. You are hiring a lie.
And what about the emotional stability of the actor? It can’t be easy for the hired father to leave the daughter, especially when she’s upset and asking why he has to leave now. But the father, of course, is on the clock and will stay only for the time he is paid for. And while the contract is transactional, the emotions are very real. Yuichi reveals that he sometimes dreams of telling her the truth. Before she can respond, he wakes up. He’s too afraid of the answer.
The experience of Ishii Yuichi is a testament to the lengths people will go to alleviate their loneliness or the loneliness of those they care about. Yuichi probably started his business with the best of intentions and may not have imagined ever being placed in such an emotionally-charged scenario. The mother who hired Yuichi likely wanted what was best for her daughter but didn’t foresee the problems arising from their emotional attachment.
As such, there are certain risks that businesses and customers are prepared to accept. And while loneliness is a key emotion that rent a friend businesses tackle, it is but one of many. Feeling like you did something wrong at work? You can hire a fake boss to scold you. Cheated on your partner? You can hire a fake partner to berate you. The renting of people, it turns out, meets more unmet needs than meets the eye.
Despite the growth of rent a friend businesses, in Japan and globally, as a temporary solution to achieve social proof and alleviate loneliness, there is a counter movement rumbling within society. People are becoming more open about their loneliness issues and no longer fear doing things solo. They share that they wanted to visit an exhibition or watch a movie, and not having anyone to go with didn’t stop them. We live in a world where the pressures of social proof are in conflict with a growing movement that rejects societal expectations, the outcome of which is far from being determined.