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Rent-a-family: A sad solution to Japanese loneliness


BBC World Service

J-P Mauro - published on 06/17/19

Family Romance is a company that employs actors to fill in for the vacant spots in the social and familial lives of lonely people.

In Japan, the term hikikomori refers to people with a reclusive mindset who withdraw from society in favor of extreme degrees of isolation. Described as everything from loners to modern-day hermits, it is estimated that there are over one million hikikomori living in such confined and often self-imposed circumstances.

Lack of human contact can be like a prison all on its own. Those who suffer in such conditions often feel hopeless and fall into a depression, which in turn can cause illness and shorten one’s lifespan. The trend has only grown in recent years, which has given rise to a new industry: the rental family.

Rental family services provide clients with actors to portray friends, family members, or coworkers. They are most commonly hired for social events such as weddings, but they can also be requested to provide a variety of familial and platonic roles to offer companionship.

These rental families are only becoming more popular. A 2017 Business Insider report cited one company, Family Romance, as employing 800 actors, but in the video below, less than two years later, Ishii Yuichi, founder and head of Family Romance, says he has 2,000 actors across the island nation.

CEO Yuichi, who also works as an actor, explains that the actors are selected by the clients and are trained to be able to improvise with the desired mentality of their character. Some of their jobs are simple, one-time occurrences where they stand in as a date to a wedding or a social function, but other cases are more extreme.

In the video they show a man who has repeatedly hired the same two actresses to play his wife and daughter, they didn’t specify how often they visit him, but he said they’d shared five or six meals together. Yuichi says some roles are never supposed to end; for example he has played the roll of the father of a 12-year-old girl for several years.

The girl’s father died before she was old enough to remember him, so her mother hired Yuichi to play the part, never telling her daughter the truth. Yuichi said in a 2017 interview:

If the client never reveals the truth, I must continue the role indefinitely. If the daughter gets married, I have to act as a father in that wedding, and then I have to be the grandfather. So, I always ask every client, “Are you prepared to sustain this lie?” It’s the most significant problem our company has.

In the video, the client who hired a wife and daughter seems happy for the company. From afar, the whole affair seems like it could only heighten a sense of isolated despair, until the client talks a bit about his real family situation. He explains that his wife died several years ago, after a prolonged illness that wore on the pair and eventually led to the estrangement of his children.

There in his house, he sits alone day after day. He describes his lonely routine of going to work and coming back home with little to no social interaction, and his home has effectively become a prison cell in the solitary confinement block.

Everything we understand about human need of companionship tells us that this is a sad development in Japanese culture. However, it could perhaps be viewed as a creative way to sustain the human spirit in unprecedented circumstances.

There have been no studies into the effect of elongated time with what are essentially simulated relationships, but if it can bring a few moments of happiness to people who have been crippled by loneliness, then perhaps it is a work of mercy in its own right.

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