Can You Really Rent-A-Family in Japan?

The popular Beatles song says “Money Can’t Buy Me Love,” but in Japan, it can certainly buy you the appearance of love through the unique concept of family rental Japan services. 

Yep! You read that right. In Japan, you can rent a family, or basically any companion you need.

Meet Ishii Yuichi – a father, a loving husband, a friend, the perfect boyfriend, the long-lost uncle, and lastly the founder of Family Romance– a company at the forefront of the hugely popular Japanese phenomenon of ‘family rental services.’

At 43 years old, Yuichi has taken on several roles for countless clients – a father to over 25 families and a husband to over 600 women –  but none of them are his real family members. “I have so many families I am a part of as a fake husband and father I sometimes forget which role I’m playing. I am worried I am going to think myself into one of these roles and lose my own identity,” Yuichi said in an interview in 2017 with The Atlantic. 

Family Romance gained so much popularity that now it has a team of 1,200 actors. With a wide range of services, from playing a stand-in father at a wedding to acting as a long-lost son, a pretend groom or just a friend to take Instagram photos with, you can get any companion for hire.

For a fee starting at JPY 8,000, you can hire professional companions customized to your specific needs, including temperament, appearance, and behavior. 

Let’s understand the fascinating reality of this industry a little more, starting with how the concept of Japanese rental family started.

The Reality Of Family Rental Industry in Japan

Yuichi emphasized that Japanese society has never needed these services more; there is a societal need due to which this intriguing concept has emerged. 

You see, loneliness is a big issue in Japan. The country has a population of 123 million people, 31% of which report living in single-person homes. As per a source, Japan has also seen a decline in birth rates and fertility rate leading to an increase in its population of elderly people.

Statistics show that Japan has nearly 30% of its population aged 65 and older as of January 2024 and it is projected that by 2050, about 40% of Japan’s population will be 65 years or older. This elderly population alone has significantly contributed to Japan’s status as a “lonely” nation.

Moreover, there is also a culture in Japan of hiding your true feelings, commonly known as ‘Honne and tatemae’. ‘Honne’ refers to what you are actually feeling and ‘Tatemae’ refers to what you decide to show publicly. 

Dealing with the complexities of ‘Honne and tatemae’ is becoming a growing problem. 

Apparently in Japan, public failure and disapproval from others is taken very seriously. People go through great lengths to avoid confrontation or disagreements. 

Due to this, a contemporary phenomena known as hikikomori, commonly known as social isolation, has become very popular especially in the new generations. 

Although hikikomori is common in Japan, some people still hire rental friends to break that isolation. 

This superficiality, and the rising loneliness, is why the family rental industry is booming in Japan. There is a need to hire professional companions to substitute for missing loved ones or to cover in awkward situations.

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How Did Rent-A-Family Service Take Shape?

In Japan, people care a lot about what other people think. There is a Japanese concept called Mentsu. Loosely translated, it would mean ‘saving face’ to maintain one’s honor. This is what makes the rent a family service so popular in Japan, according to Yuichi.

He shared in his interview: I had a single-mother friend, and she had a son. He was trying to enter a private school, but they denied him solely because he had no father. I wanted to challenge the unfairness of Japanese society, so I posed as his father.

“I saw a need,” he explained. People were longing for genuine connections, whether it was an elderly person missing their grandchildren, a single mother needing a father figure for her child, or a businessman who needed a companion for a social event.

Yuichi, who was an actor, recognised the scope of this service and evaluated how this could potentially help bridge the emotional and social gaps. 

The Japanese rental family concept might sound bizarre to outsiders, but in Japan it makes sense, as social expectations hold significant weight.

“I saw how actors could step into roles seamlessly,” Yuichi recounted. “Why couldn’t we apply the same principle to real life?”

This need gave birth to Family Romance. The idea was simple– hire trained actors to fill a gap– but the impact was massive. They offered carefully trained professionals who could not only fit a role, but also provide emotional support and fulfil social stigmas by creating a temporary yet impactful presence in their clients’ lives.

The industry grew big and successful very quickly. 

However, with this they received a good amount of backlash as well. As the industry grew, it sparked debates about authenticity and the ethical implications of such services. Critics argued that it was deceptive and could lead to emotional dependency. 

However, supporters and users of the service emphasized the positive impact it had on their lives. For many, it wasn’t just about filling a void but also about experiencing genuine human connections, even if they were temporary.

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One notable example shared by Yuichi is of Kazushige Nishida, a Tokyo salaryman in his sixties, who started renting a part-time wife and daughter after losing his real family. “I thought I was a strong person,” Nishida shared. “But when you end up alone you feel very lonely.” The rented family helped him regain a sense of normalcy and provided emotional support. He said “when he came home from work, the lights were on, the house was warm, and a wife and daughter were there to say, ‘Welcome home’”.

The concept of renting family members has also inspired similar services. 

New Start, a non-profit organization helps men come out of hikikomori and guides them to come back to society with the help of a rental sister. 

Another service called ‘Ossan Rental,’ connects young women with middle-aged men. These are women who need guidance with experienced ‘uncles’ to listen to their problems, offer career and love advice, as well as companionship at bars and concerts. As creepy as this may sound, there are strict rules to keep things professional. 

Yuichi believes that Family Romance creates a positive impact by helping people cope with unbearable absences in their lives. The world is increasingly becoming isolated and family substitute services can provide the social support systems that one would need. 

The family rental industry in Japan is a testament to the country’s ability to innovate and address social needs creatively. 

While it may seem unconventional, it provides an important service for many, offering companionship, emotional support, and a sense of normalcy in an increasingly isolated world. 

What are your thoughts on renting a family? Could you see yourself hiring a stand-in relative or companion to fill a gap in your life? Would you try it?