TOKYO — It used to be common in Japan to rent priests. For what exactly? To officiate at fake wedding ceremonies. Foreign guests could also be rented — it made weddings more international, more chic.
Those were just for fun. Today, though, people are hiring “friends” in Japan, but for other reasons. More and more lonely Japanese people are willing to pay a pretty yen to spend some time with people, sometimes for just a day, in the company of a random actor who is looking for a bit of income on the side.
There are at least 10 companies — twice as many as eight years ago — who offer a multitude of services to those who can't find companions or might otherwise choose to avoid the responsibility that real friendships and relationships bring.
At Client Partners, one of the leading companies, the standard hourly rate is about 2,980 yen ($28), though the first hour costs double, including transport costs. And, by some accounts, it works pretty well. Client Partners, active all over Japan, receives dozens of requests each month. One company official explains: “These are people who lack self-confidence and are particularly sensitive to other people’s judgement.”
Although it’s difficult to measure the exact extent of the problem, loneliness is increasing in Japan, and it becomes evident from university days. “Fewer and fewer students participate in the activities organised by the clubs and societies,” says Sohei Ide, from Osaka University, an expert on issues relating to isolation and author of an investigation about student’s social attendance and participation. “If they fail to make contacts during their early days on campus, they will remain permanently isolated.”
“Nobody likes being alone that much. I don't go out of my way to make friends, that's all. It just leads to disappointment.” — Japanese author Haruki Murakami
This phenomenon is set to increase. “Young people today are immersed in a world where they can live entirely separated from others and it’s happening right before our eyes,” says psychiatrist Rika Kamaya, who traces the root of the problem to the development of smart phones and gaming consoles. Some of her patients say that they feel “lonely, even in the middle of a crowd,” and “consider establishing a real relationship with another person as an effort.”
This is where the students become customers of these rent-a-friend agencies. So, for a while, they can chat and get their worries off their chests, go shopping or watch a movie. To sum it up, they want be with a real person who appears to care about them.
In a general sense, these agencies take advantage of friendships gone awry and bad family situations, and offer services suited to even the most diverse of situations. Hagemashi Tai advertises actors who are able to play any of your relatives; uncles, aunts, or even your distant relatives, to help fill out attendance at both weddings and funerals. If you want them to make a speech, that costs extra.
Single mothers can rent husbands for 5,000 ($48) an hour, where the actors can help the kids with their homework or “solve minor problems with the neighbors.” It’s also possible to rent someone to play your mother or father so you can confide your problems in them. A woman planning to get married could even get someone to play her husband, just to see what it’s really like to live with a partner.