People are renting friends and family members in Japan

There are businesses in Japan that provide time with hired actors. These actors can pretend to be friends, family members, colleagues and relationship partners.

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Alban Duro
May 21, 2021 7:09 pm

I once travelled to Japan for a solo trip and used a well known company Family Romance to rent a companion for an afternoon. I like solo traveling. It gives me independence and I can go wherever I want. I had a great time traveling around Japan, visiting different cities but I started to feel lonely. Why not cure that loneliness by renting a friend for a few hours?

The first point I’ll make is that the word ‘Romance’ didn’t fit with the service I ordered. I asked for a companion to spend some time with me. There was nothing sexual or flirtatious about our encounter. I described myself and what I was wearing. My ‘friend’ did the same and we agreed to meet outside a station entrance. Our eyes awkwardly met as I approached a woman looking at her phone and she confirmed that she was indeed Yuko, my English-speaking Japanese friend for the afternoon.

We walked to a nearby café, ordered some drinks and sat down at a table. It was definitely awkward for me at first. Although we were just talking I had the acute sense that this entire interaction was happening because I had paid for it. If Yuko felt awkward, she didn’t show it. But after a few minutes the awkwardness dissipated. I felt as if I were having a conversation with a real friend. I spoke about my trip and the interesting things I had encountered so far and Yuko spoke about her studies at university and the thoughts she was having about changing career path.

The conversation flowed smoothly but I did have a disconcerting jolt during it. I felt I was connecting with Yuko. We had a shared understanding of how it can feel not being fulfilled in a job and wanting to try something else. I felt like I really understood her and to me, it felt like she appreciated that I was listening to her concerns. But then it dawned on me. This could all be an act. It’s her job to make it feel like we are connecting. But were we really connecting? I don’t know.

After the café we went for a walk around the local area. The weather was warm and sunny, so it was good to have a stroll and continue our conversation. We spoke about hikikomori, a phenomenon in Japan in which people are withdrawing and isolating themselves from society. But suddenly Yuko looked at her phone with surprise. She said she had forgotten that she promised her sister that she would pick up some food at this time and she was running late. Yuko said it was nice speaking with me but she had to go. And off she went.

I had no problem with this. Although I was enjoying our conversation I also understood that Yuko’s sister would have been waiting for her food. It then sprung to mind that Yuko had left at exactly the time our session ended. The food for Yuko’s sister, I believe, was a way to end the session. This made me wonder if Yuko even enjoyed our conversation or felt any connection at all. Or was it just an emotionless duty of hers to act friendly and engaged?

This is what troubled me afterwards. It was nice to have someone to talk to. And even nicer to have someone to connect with. But the thought that it was purely transactional on Yuko’s side left me feeling hollow. Would I do it again? I’m not so sure. Yuko’s conversation was so convincing. For the most part, I really felt like I was spending time with a friend. But then again, that is the service I paid for.

Melissa Chan
May 22, 2021 6:08 pm

Businesses that offer step-in friends and family for various occasions are booming in Japan. I can understand the need for it. It removes people from difficult situations. But to grow as a person it is important for us to face up to difficult situations and the truth. Society needs to do this to progress as well. Some scenarios where clients supplant real friends and family with hired actors are emotionally dangerous. If the truth were to ever come out, there could be some long-lasting consequences such as broken trust and resentment.

The Atlantic published an interview with Ishii Yuichi, the founder of a popular fake friend business in Japan. Yuichi recounts one of his projects where he acted as a father for a 12 year old girl. The craziest thing about this is that the girl doesn’t know Yuichi is an actor! Her mother never told her. The girl has grown up thinking Yuichi is her real father for over 8 years.

I can’t imagine how the poor girl would react 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 is what this really is. You aren’t just hiring a fake friend or family member. You are hiring a lie.

We also need to consider the emotional stability of the actor. How can you not feel attached after 8 years? It is like a therapist who listens to a patient’s problems. Even after a session comes to a close, the therapist may have some residual emotions from the session. It can’t be easy for the fake 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.

I’m shaking my head thinking of this whole scenario. Not that I approve or disapprove. It is more about how people can get into a situation like this. The absurdity of it all. The girl never asked for this. Yuichi probably started his business with the best of intentions and may not have imagined being put in a long-term scenario like this. The mother who hired Yuichi probably just wanted what was best for her daughter. It is telling that Yuichi has nightmares about revealing his true identity to the girl.

Irvin Blake
May 21, 2021 4:25 pm

The need for social proof is very strong in society today. Social media has enhanced this immeasurably as we see the perfectly curated lives of our friends every time we open Facebook and Instagram. It doesn’t cross our minds that they have the same concerns and problems that we do. And so we try to imitate that perfection.

Just like the rent-a-friend businesses in Japan, there are similar businesses around the world. In China I have heard of a business that let’s you hire friends specifically for your wedding day. If you are a bridegroom that doesn’t have many friends, you may feel inadequate on your big day when the bride invites all her friends. How will things look? People will talk. Look at the bride’s many friends. But the bridegroom only has a few. Did she pick the right partner? What else will they be thinking? To address this balance the Chinese business sends fake friends to the wedding to pretend like they have known the bridegroom all his life. They will recount stories of going to school and growing up together. The image will be picture perfect even if the truth is swept under the carpet.

The rent-a-friend and rent-a-family businesses in Japan are used for the same purposes. An example can be hiring a few friends for the day so you have some great group Instagram shots. When I think that companies like these exist and even thrive, it all sounds a bit sad. But then I would be lying to myself if I said I didn’t feel the need for their services every now and then.

A few years ago I booked a last minute holiday for 2 weeks. I went abroad to a resort by myself. Like any holiday I took photos and posted a few pics on Facebook. But in the back of my mind I was dreading that someone would ask who I was with. How embarrassing, I thought to myself, it would be to say I had gone by myself. What I would have done to have had a few people around to take a group photo!

Even now I get a bit of apprehension on my birthday. I always feel like my friends get hundreds of wishes on their special day, whereas I get around 5. The need for social proof, as I said at the beginning of this insight, is strong. And having been through the apprehensions about how I might look to others, I can totally understand why the rent-a-friend businesses in Japan are doing so well. Some have up to 1,000 actors employed to work as friends, colleagues and family. In a similar vein I can also understand why there are businesses that sell you Facebook friends. These friends not only bulk up your friends list, another apprehension of mine is having too few friends on Facebook, but they also like and comment on your everyday posts, no matter how mundane they may be.

The rent-a-friend businesses in Japan give an insight into how important reputation and image is in Japanese society. But what we learn after some examination is that this aspect of Japanese society is something we all share.

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Carly Sembre
May 22, 2021 11:44 pm

The reason why rent-a-friend companies in Japan are successful is because they meet a variety of needs. I have written about how marriage is feeling like an outdated concept to many people nowadays. But the pressure to meet external expectations remains. How do you solve this problem? The solution is renting a bride or groom, along with a selection of friends. The fact that people do this makes me wonder. How long can you keep this up? What about when people start asking about kids? Will you hire them too? How great must the pressure be to get married that you decide faking the entire thing is the best option?

It is of course the decision of each individual, and enough people are doing it for these people-rental companies to survive. External expectations are just one of the needs that are being met. Another need is catharsis; emotional release by getting things off your chest. In Japan struggling with your mental health is a stigma. Hiring someone who can listen to your problems and complaints would be therapeutic.

And then there is guilt. Once I forgot to meet a friend for lunch even though we had decided a time and location. She waited for an hour and then left. I felt so guilty. All I wanted was for her to shout at me for my mistake. It turns out with these people-rental companies, you can hire someone to do that. The scolding service would have been perfect 😅

Ultimately we all have needs that are unmet. Renting someone to fit a specific set of criteria will in many cases meet your needs better than what you can find in your everyday life. Do you want to look popular? Hire a group of friends. Do you want to change some bad habits? Hire someone to shout at you and set you straight. On one of the company websites there is a case study of a man who has been cheating on his girlfriend. He doesn’t want to admit it to her as she has been considering marriage. Instead he hires a woman to act as his girlfriend and receives a furious berating.

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Rayan Tanwar
May 22, 2021 7:53 pm

As human beings we are social creatures. Loneliness is an emotion we have all felt. Having someone to speak to and spend time with when we are feeling lonely can be just what we need. That is what I want to emphasize. Just having someone around is very powerful. They don’t have to do anything special – just be present. Sometimes I like catching up with a good friend at a coffee shop. We both look at our phones, not speaking to each other. But we are comfortable in each other’s silence. Although we aren’t talking, we are spending time together. I don’t feel lonely in those moments.

People rental businesses in Japan cater for this loneliness. The South China Morning Post has a video about a Japanese man who rents himself out doing ‘nothing in particular’. His job is to do nothing other than to be present with the client. He won’t really speak with the client either, other than some brief replies when asked a question. Companionship is what the client is after.

Other services combat the same problem. Mukbang is a popular genre of video or live stream whereby someone films themselves eating and drinking. It is very popular in Japan. Because eating is often a social activity, people feel less lonely if they watch someone eat. It feels as if you are having lunch or dinner with someone.

Another service is the quintessentially Japanese maid cafe. A maid cafe has waitresses who are dressed up in Japanese maid costumes. They welcome the customer as if they are a master or mistress returning home and serve them drinks. Some cafes have expanded the maid’s services. If the customer wants, the maid can have a conversation with them, play card games or even just be by their side. It is possible that someone who rents a friend can find the same comfort to their loneliness in a maid cafe. Just having someone around is important to people.