Feeling lonely? You can now hire a partner or even a whole family

By Sanjana Varghese

Published Sep 3, 2019 at 11:04 AM

Reading time: 3 minutes

Social isolation and loneliness are on the rise around the world, and the traditional family unit, for better or for worse, is under a lot of pressure. In Japan, swathes of the population are turning to hiring fake family membersfrom men who can act as fathers otherwise always away on work, guests at weddings or conferences, to distant relatives who can drop by for a visit.

The company that provides the majority of these services is called Family Romance, and over the last few years it has attracted its fair share of publicity. The CEO, Ishii Yuichi, is a middle-aged Japanese man who started the company after a friend of his, who was a single mother, found that the stigma of being a single mother was starting to affect her child. In an interview with the Atlantic, he explained that after seeing the impact his pretending to be his friend’s loving husband had on how the kindergarten committee of her son reacted, he realised that this was potentially something he could parlay into a business.

Family Romance has now expanded significantly since its first try out. There are ground rules tooindividuals can only play a role for five families at a time, and they have to be willing to keep up the lie. Yuichi explained that this could be one of the most difficult elements to provide. For young people who had been told that someone was their father, the actor playing the father would have to maintain that role until the real parent decided to come forward with the truth.

Family Romance operates in a specific way. The person who wants a family member, or several, comes to the company and fills out a form where they specify what type of ‘role’ they need. Clients can precise if they want an actor to behave in a formal way, or that they’re relaxed, or that they are active and energetic. They could even write down what kind of memories and habits they’d like these new family members to have, the same way a widower wanted to have ‘another copy’ of his wife. Payments are made to Family Romance, and can range from 100 pounds to far more, depending on how many hours customers ‘rent’ an actor.

Ichii says that his job is correcting an injustice in society and fighting loneliness (which is especially prevalent in Japan). Family Romance isn’t the only company offering such services, the range of which can run the gamut from helping out with groceries to taking people shopping, flying abroad with them, and even helping arrange funerals. The company goes as far as offering phone calls from actors, where they can either scold clients needing to hear a lesson or call them every morning to help them get up.

Another company called Ossan Rental was started by Takanubu Nishimoto, who wanted to provide caring services for people without traditional families. Much like a caretaker, but without the formal working hours, the actor helps elderly women with their shopping, walks with them, and keeps them company. Ossan Rental, rather than explicitly filling the role of a family member, instead features middle-aged men who can be rented for various services. CEO Nishimoto screens each new addition personally and says that while he was initially hesitant to take new men on, he’s realised that there’s a strong demand for the service.

However, there are necessary boundaries, and many of these companies have strict rules about where the lines lie. All of them emphasise that breaking the law is obviously not allowed, and many prohibit the actors from getting involved with the person they are acting with. For example, a single father who hired a woman to act as a distant mother wouldn’t be able to actually get into a relationship with that actress. Ichii, who admits that he still plays certain roles, says that there is a level of emotional distance which has to be maintained, despite appearances of intimacy, in order to ensure that these roles are treated just as roles.

But it’s not only a man’s world. Support One, where people can rent someone out for a specific occasion, like a party, is run by Megumi Furukuwa, who came up with the idea after being asked by people she knew to accompany them to specific events, or to pretend to be someone else.

While the whole industry might seem strange, Furukuwa and many others have pointed out that these are just jobs. They may be enjoyable at times, or absurd at others, but everyone who has a job that they get paid for is never their full, true selves when they’re working. With the exception of very few people, everyone inevitably slips on some other kind of persona when they’re at work. So feel free to plan ahead and invite a fake partner for the next Christmas holiday, just to avoid being nagged by your mum the whole time. You’ll thank me later.

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