“A bigger happiness than the real one…”
It’s not often you hear a company tagline drawing attention to the fact that what it’s selling is not “the real thing.” Yet this is the actual slogan of a Japanese company called Family Romance. And what kind of romance is this company offering? Rentable, customizable family and friends.
Over the last 20 years there has been a bizarre trend in Japanese culture of renting actors to play family members and other close relationships. A lonely divorced man can hire actors to play the wife and child he lost, or a solitary millennial can appear popular by hiring “friends” to pose in Instagram pictures. These agencies employ thousands of actors to fit patrons’ exact descriptions, and voila, you have a convenient, customizable family member available at an affordable hourly rate. The spectrum of roles the actors play range from someone who never existed, such as a fake wedding date (I think there’s been more than one happily-ever-after Romantic Comedy built on that premise) to far more emotionally confusing scenarios, such as a widow hiring a man to fill the shoes of her deceased husband.
Though there are many agencies in the family rental business, Family Romance is by far the most successful. At its helm is founder Yuichi Ishii, who himself works as an actor. Since the company’s start in 2009, Ishii has played countless roles, including that of father, boyfriend, son and husband. By his own account, he has played husband to more than 100 women over the last decade.
He sees his and the company’s role as beneficial to a society struggling with the breakdown of connection. Japan’s trend away from traditional family relationships has been steadily growing in the last several decades and has been termed an “epidemic of loneliness.”
The causes for these changes have to do with a quickly aging population, as well as the increasing pressure of work life. The competitive and all-consuming nature of careers in Japan has led to less and less priority being given to family and relationships. It is guessed that by the year 2040, forty percent of the population will live alone. This trend towards solitary living has become so pronounced, a term has been coined to describe it, “Hikikomori” people, which basically means urban hermits. In a weird way, rental families are perfectly suited to Hikikomori who shy away from true intimacy. Strong boundaries are maintained between the actors and their clients, such as limited physical contact. At the end of their allotted time, everyone returns to the status quo of their respective homes and lives.
While some people may appreciate the safety and control hiring a family member affords, for others the lines between reality and fantasy become very confusing.
Statistics say that between 30-40% of single women end up proposing marriage to their rental husbands. Ishii admits he has been proposed to many times. Another common situation is that of single parents renting a father or mother for their children. Heartbreakingly, often the children do not know the actor is not, in fact, their parent. Ishii describes one such case where he was hired to play the role of father to a girl whose biological father abandoned her as an infant. Sadly, this girl has been lied to her entire life, and still years later believes Ishii is her father.
The element of deception is by far one of the most disturbing elements of the industry. Renters are inevitably seeking to deceive themselves, others or maybe to an extent, both. Deeply imbedded in Japanese culture is the importance of presenting a socially acceptable facade. Appearances are of the utmost importance and the lengths to which people will go to maintain them is incredible, such as staging entire weddings. These are usually orchestrated by adults in their 30’s attempting to appease parents pressuring them to settle down. Ishii says such weddings cost around $50,000 and he acts as the groom in two to three a year. There have been weddings where virtually nothing was genuine, and all of the guests, including the bridal parties were hired actors.
While some clients are motivated by social and familial pressure, others are genuinely searching to fill relational voids. As described by the famous psychologist Maslow in his hierarchy of needs, belonging and love are among our basic psychological necessities They are universal, inescapable and we are driven to fill them in some way even if it means fooling ourselves or others. Given that fact, it’s understandable on some level that people are willing to settle for counterfeit versions of connection. How different is it from someone coping with unmet needs through substance abuse or other numbing behaviors. But given that, it must register at some level for both the actors and the patrons that they are exchanging money for something that was never meant to be for sale.
It’s almost funny how unromantic the Family Romance slogan is. “A bigger happiness than the real one.” The truth hiding within that statement is that belonging and family don’t exist unless they are unearned. Paying for intimacy may seem like a quick and effective counterfeit, but to quote the Beatles, “You can’t buy me love.” Unless it’s free, it isn’t really love.