Inside Japan's booming rent-a-friend industry

Lonely Japanese often turn to paid professional pals to keep them company for a few hours. How do these faux friendships compare to the real thing?

It's muggy and I'm confused. I don't understand where I am, though it was only a short walk from my Airbnb studio to this little curry place. I don't understand the lunch menu, or even if it is a lunch menu. I'm new in Tokyo, and sweaty, and jet-lagged. But I am entirely at ease. I owe this to my friend Miyabi. She's one of those reassuring presences, warm and eternally nodding and unfailingly loyal, like she will never leave my side. At least not for another 90 minutes, which is how much of her friendship I've paid for.

Miyabi isn't a prostitute, or an escort or an actor or a therapist. For the past five years she has been a professional rent-a-friend, working for a company called Client Partners.

My lunchmate pokes daintily at her curry and speaks of the friends whose money came before mine. There was the head of a prominent company, rich and "very clever" but conversationally marooned at "hello." Discreetly and patiently, Miyabi helped draw other words out. There was the string of teenage girls struggling to navigate mystifying social dynamics; at their parents' request, Miyabi would show up and just be a friend. You know, a normal, companionable, 27-year-old friend. She has been paid to cry at funerals and swoon at weddings, lest there be shame over a paltry turnout. Last year, a high schooler hired her and 20 other women just long enough to snap one grinning, peace-sign-flashing, I-totally-have-friends Instagram photo.

When I learned that friendship is rentable in Tokyo, it merely seemed like more Japanese wackiness, in a subset I'd come to think of as interest-kitsch. Every day in Japan, some weird new appetite is identified and gratified. There are cats to rent, after all, used underwear to purchase, owls to pet at owl bars. All this to say I expected something more or less goofy when I lined up several English-speaking rent-a-friends for my week in Tokyo.

Contrived Instagram photos aside, Miyabi's career mostly comprises the small, unremarkable acts of ordinary friendship: Shooting the breeze over dinner. Listening on a long walk. Speaking simple kindnesses on a drive to the client's parents' house, simply to pretend you two are in love and absolutely on the verge of getting married.

When she was a girl, Miyabi longed to be a flight attendant, and that tidy solicitousness still emanates. She wears a smart gray skirt, and a gauzy beige blouse over which a sheet of impeccable hair drapes weightlessly. She smiles when I smile, touches my arm to make a point. Her graciousness cloaks a demanding job. With an average of 15 gigs a week, Miyabi's hours are irregular and bleed from day into night. The daughter of a doctor and a nurse, she still struggles to convince her parents that her relatively new field is legitimate. The money is fine but not incredible; I'm paying her roughly $115 for two hours, some percentage of which Client Partners keeps.

So why does she do it? Miyabi puts down her chopsticks and explains: It helps people — real and lonesome people in need of, well, whatever ineffable thing friendship means to our species. "So many people are good at life online or life at work, but not real life," she says, pantomiming someone staring at a phone. For such clients, a dollop of emotional contact with a friendly person is powerful, she adds, even with a price tag attached.

So this isn't secretly about romance? I ask. Not at all, she replies.

There are two rules: No romance; No lending money. Also: Be ready for all types of clients. Widowers who need someone to watch TV with. Shy guys who could use a dating coach. Shy gals longing for a shopping companion. And that one dude who just wanted a friend who'd do him the solid of waiting seven hours outside Nike to snag these fresh sneakers for him when they went on sale.

Then there are the fake boyfriends. At 35, "Hayato" had been facing intense pressure to find a wife and start a family. But it wasn't happening, so he started a charade instead. A visit to his parents' home was coming up, and with Miyabi's help he concocted a whopper: that she was one of Hayato's employees at his company and they had fallen in love. The two hunkered down in cafés to practice. Biographical details were learned, romantic quirks rehearsed. (As long as she was telling lies, he decided some general flattery wouldn't hurt: Hayato's so great and kind at the company, everyone there loves him.)

The day of the visit came, and lo, the parents bought it. Soon the fake relationship fake-graduated to a fake engagement.

"It was embarrassing," Miyabi told me about the lying. "But watching his parents feel good when I said these nice things about him — it's not all bad." But all pretend-good things come to an end, and eventually a finale was written. In time, a heartbroken Hayato informed his parents that Miyabi loved her career more than she loved him — she'd transferred to a different branch, and that was that.

My friend Yumi is petite, with birdlike features made more birdlike by her human-scale fedora. She speaks good English but still wobbles, so her husband, Taka, joins us. They're one of those sweet and unassuming couples that exist just to radiate koala-like gentleness. The afternoon is steamy, and we're in the back of a tiny, dark izakaya in the city's jumbly Sangenjaya neighborhood. It has been a day since Miyabi, the equivalent of a month in unmoored Tokyo time. I've walked through indomitably cute toy stores and narrow alleys thick with yakitori smoke.

I am grateful for my pretend friends.

As we nibble at pork with ginger, Yumi cheerfully tells me about the gigs she has had since joining Client Partners. (The six-year-old agency is the largest of its kind in Japan, with eight branches across Tokyo and another that recently opened in Osaka.) There was the mystery writer who wanted her to read the novel he'd toiled away at for 10 years. Another man needed someone to talk with about his aging parents — not in person, but via months of emails. Like Miyabi, Yumi works weddings. For one, she was hired to play the sister of the bride — a real, living woman who was in a family feud that precluded her actual attendance. The mother of the bride was also a rental. The two impostors got along swimmingly.

Yumi explains that these are just the more theatrical gigs. The bulk of her clients? They just want basic, uncomplicated companionship. From Yumi's vantage point, the breadth and depth of that need says something profound about her country.

There's a word in Japanese, gaman, that translates roughly as "stoic forbearance in the face of the unbearable." It's a deep-seated Japanese value, this idea that you suck it up no matter what. A lot has been happening lately. Anxiety and depression spiked after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The country itself is shrinking, its population plummeting and aging rapidly. And there's the apparently growing problem of people who literally work themselves to death; a third of suicides have been attributed to overwork. All of that, Yumi and Taka say, but you act like everything's fine.

Enter the rent-a-friend. Not a miracle cure, no. But maybe a pressure valve. "With us," Yumi says, "people can talk about their feelings without worrying what their real friends think."

After lunch we roam a warren of 100-yen stores nearby. Before parting ways at the subway entrance, we ask someone to snap our photo. That funny kinship that forms in front of a camera — the arms around each other, the shared self-consciousness — seems to happen for us too. Yumi writes her address in my notebook, draws a cartoon of herself in her fedora. "Send me the picture," she writes beside it. It's almost as if she really meant it.

On a drizzly Friday morning, my destination is the Client Partners headquarters, a small but airy suite in a nondescript Shibuya district office building. I rope my translator in for this, and we're met by a round-faced woman in a long robe-like garment. Maki Abe is the CEO, and for the next hour we sit across a desk from her and talk not about wacky interest-kitsch but about a nation's spiritual health.

"We look like a rich country from the outside, but mentally we have problems," Maki says. She speaks slowly, methodically. "Japan is all about face. We don't know how to talk from the gut. We can't ask for help. So many people are alone with their problems, and stuck, and their hearts aren't touching."

Maki and I bowed when we met, but we also shook hands. She brings it up later. "There are many people who haven't been touched for years. We have clients who start to cry when we shake hands with them."

It's not that people lack friends, she says. Facebook, Instagram — scroll around and you find a country bursting with mugging, partying companionship. It just isn't real, that's all. "There's a real me and a masked me. We have a word for the lonely gap in between that: kodoku."

Maki attributes some of this to World War II. Spiritual consciousness was widespread before that, she says. "Harmony and helping each other was the national spirit. Now we've got selfishness instead."

I don't know. I've yet to encounter a country without a similar narrative: Things were better, now they're worse. Maybe the CEO of a friendship rental company can't help but see fissures in the psychic landscape, or maybe the crisis is real. Regardless, Maki wants to fix it, one synthetic relationship at a time. Before we part, she stops me. Am I aware of Client Partners' ultimate goal? To render itself unnecessary, she says.

My final friend, Yusuke, is a guy. He stands out with a big mop of hair, a goofy laugh, and old-soul eyes — but when I meet him tonight, it's his maleness that distinguishes him most in a sea of female rent-a-friends.

By day, Yusuke sells furniture to corporate offices — a job, he concedes, that involves moves similar to being a friend. ("Express curiosity, open up about yourself first. It's a show.") But artifice and all, he's a sweet and unguarded sprite of a fellow. He lived in various countries as a student and honed that easygoing adaptability common among kids who bounce around. He expresses curiosity and opens up.

We meet at the subway station in Yoyogi, and soon he's leading me down a dark, wet street to a rickety okonomiyaki joint. Within a few minutes he's showing me how to cook our own savory pancakes on the tabletop stove between us.

Like many Japanese people, he works 10-hour days, then often spends the rest of the night with those same colleagues, eating or drinking till all hours. Tonight, I gather, is a welcome break from that routine. We talk about childhood and relationships and aging. Because our temperaments align, or because we're both guys, conversation is easy. At one point the waiter offers us drinks. Yusuke says no alcohol on duty, and I realize I'd forgotten this was duty at all. I've paid for every word Yusuke has uttered, but I'm also convinced we've forged something genuine.

Toward the end of our meal, Yusuke and I find ourselves discussing our grandfathers. Both men served in World War II — ostensibly, I suppose, trying to kill one another — somewhere in the South Pacific. Each, we agree, had been deeply affected by those years. The sins of our respective countries might have plunged the meal into awkwardness, but in fact the opposite happens. In clumsily assuring each other of our good intentions — thoughtful questions! sympathetic nods! — we plunge into a funny sweetness instead.

When later we part ways, we'll agree to stay in touch, and though we won't, we'll mean it in that moment. In the weeks ahead it will occur to me I'm grateful for all the elements — the smell of the pancakes, the talk of grandfathers, the wet pavement outside. Years from now, those things might just remind me of another wacky cultural phenomenon that took hold in Japan. Or they might summon the memory of this nice furniture salesman named Yusuke, a mop-headed guy who, for a couple hours one night in Tokyo, started to become a friend.

Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in AFAR Magazine. Reprinted with permission.


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