The concept of family is fundamental to every society. Yet for many people, geographical or emotional distance may make family unavailable when needed. Estrangement and abuse unravel many family bonds. Death leaves voids in families that can never be filled. In Japan, however, a remarkable business makes it easier for families to feel complete: you can hire a replacement family member to fill in for the absent person.
Companies have sprung up to provide friends and family — for a fee. Rental fathers can be hired to walk a bride down the aisle, impersonate a father for children being raised by single-mothers, appear at public events, or provide fatherly advice. Men or women can be hired to play the role of romantic partner for family events for gay people who aren’t ready to come out. Other rental people simply provide a few hours of conversation or companionship. The relationships can be lengthy and ongoing.
Ishii Yuichi, CEO of Family Romance, impersonates a father for a child being raised by a single mother, and considers it a lifetime role. “If the client never reveals the truth, I must continue the role indefinitely,” he says. “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.”
Clients choose the physical characteristics and personality type they wish for in their rental family member, and the actors and actresses cultivate those qualities to perform as needed. The cost: about U.S. $50 an hour. Yuichi says his business fills a void in people’s lives and balances society.
One client hired women to occasionally play the roles of his late wife and estranged adult daughter. The actresses did simple things like cook and eat dinner with the client, and then watch television with him—providing the companionship his real family could not. In this way, the service provides emotional comfort to lonely people.
Ossan Rental service, founded by Takanobu Nishimoto, employs 78 men to play the traditional role of wise older man. “Ossan” is an informal way of saying “ojisan,” which means “uncle” or “middle-aged man.” Historically, most men would have ultimately played this role in their own family and social circles, but societal changes, values that have shifted to focus on youth, and the fading cultural power of older men since the Great Recession has dissolved the natural role of the ojisan.
Yet people clearly sense a need for that male presence: Nishimoto’s company fulfills about 10,000 orders a year for a rental ossan. About 70 percent of his customers use the service for conversation, Nishimoto said, while the other 30 percent request “manual” help, such as lifting boxes. About 10,000 people have applied for a job with his company. About 80 percent of his clients are women. “The old community has been destroyed,” Sasaki said. “and a lot of people are finding they don’t belong anywhere and they have no place to ask for help or advice.”
Occasionally, people will use the services to hire someone else to take verbal abuse, issues apologies, or stand in for unpleasant experiences. A specialty some services offer is “crying man,” in which the actor can display the emotion the actual person cannot. Rent-a-family services say they don’t provide sexual companionship. (Other entities provide those services.) Instead, these rental services fill emotional needs.