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Japan’s rental families

by Beth Divine 30 Oct 2018

In Japan, there is a growing market for rental family members. That’s right: sons can rent a mum, daughters can hire a dad, and wives or husbands can even rent substitute partners.

While this might sound a bit mucky to suspicious Western minds, there is actually something very sweet behind most of these business transactions. A lonely man whose wife has died and whose children have grown up and left home can rent a wife to enjoy a meal in company of someone friendly and undemanding, or a man whose parents have died can rent some replacements to fill in for him at his wedding.

The latter may seem macabre, but the man who actually did this had good reason to: he had not yet told his in-laws that he was effectively an orphan by the time the wedding was being organised. Rather than embarrass the in-laws who were putting on the reception and meeting many of the costs by revealing his lonely state, he hired a pair of stand-in parents who came along to his happy day and behaved impeccably for him. Later, once the newly-wed couple were happily setting in to their new lives, he ’fessed up, explaining that he had hired substitute parents to fill in and avoid any unpleasantness on their big day. Far from minding, his new bride thanked him for his courtesy and concern, and their marriage was off to a good start.

This trend has come about because of various governmental policies over the last sixty to twenty years. For many years the idea of the family unit was king, but then government tried to dismiss the extended family in favour of small units – parents and children, singles, or childless couples. As these people aged, societal ideas changed back towards the idea of larger family units, but it was too late for many people who were trapped into small family units. As these small units broke up or died out, the remaining members were left isolated and unable to form the wide-ranging relationships that help to forge a community.

Actors sign up with agencies and when requests come in, there is usually at least one meeting with the client to establish the role. The duration of the role will be established, and the ground rules are laid down. No relationship is ever sexual or even authentically romantic. The only touching allowed, even between fake husbands and wives, is hand holding, and that is expected to happen only when appropriate for the role.

The aim of these agencies is not to perpetuate fake relationships. Rather, the ideal is to help the lonely to find a purpose in life – re-establishing connections with existing family members or joining clubs and societies to form new relationships. While it may seem unorthodox, it is a system popular with those who need it – for whatever reason they need it.