Can money buy you love? Perhaps not. But, in Japan, you can certainly buy the illusion of it. Meet Ishii Yuichi, founder of Family Romance, the company spearheading the hugely popular Japanese phenomenon of ‘family rental services.’
37-year-old Ishii Yuichi is a father to over 25 families and a husband to over 600 women – but none of them are his real family members. Together with the 1,200 actors he employs at his company Family Romance, he has played every part from stand-in father for a wedding, missing dad to long lost son and even make-believe groom in his job as a companion for hire. For a fee starting from JPY 8000, customers can place an order at his Tokyo-based family rental service company for professional companions tailored to their specific requests (i.e. temperament, appearance, behaviour), whether they’re searching for a friend to pose with in happy Instagram photos, an infant to impersonate a grandson or a groom for a staged wedding. He explained to Hive Life why Japanese society has never needed his services more.
Ishii’s unusual business idea has its origins in a favour he did for his friend back when he was 24. “She was a single mother. Her 4-year-old son was denied eligibility for a kindergarten admission interview because of his family background,” he recalls. Having worked as an actor in TV dramas, movies and commercials, he volunteered to help. “I pretended to be the child’s father,” going along to the interview with his friend to give the impression of the perfect, nuclear unit. And so he stumbled across the idea for Family Romance. Now 10 years in business, his proposition has never been more popular. Garnering write-ups in the New Yorker and The Atlantic, for Ishii, its core purpose of troubleshooting some of the most deeply-rooted social issues in Japan could not be more timely.
Family Romance is a business Ishii says he simply could not have started anywhere else. “In a nuclear family oriented society such as Japan, single parents are marginalised,” he explains. “Family rental was a good way to fill the gap.” Named after the psychological complex ‘Family Romance Neurotics,’ identified by Freud in 1908, whereby children fantasise that they’re the offspring of people with a higher social standing than their actual parents as a way to cope with a disillusionment with their own family, Family Romance was built on an undertaking to help people deal with all sorts of difficult experiences.
Bizarre though it may seem, Family Romance is just one of many companies in a new wave of family rental services gaining traction in Japan. A number of rental platforms have emerged in recent years, offering everything from family and friends to funeral guests and dinner dates, with strict protocol specifying the prohibition of intimate acts. One of the new additions is New Start, a non-profit organization centred around drawing hikikomori (men who shut themselves off from society) out of their seclusion with the help of a rental sister. There is also a service, ‘Ossan Rental,’ that connects young women needing guidance with experienced ‘uncles’ who’d listen to their problems, offer career and love advice, as well as companionship at bars and concerts. Ishii and his employees have filled in the shoes of absent fathers, deceased parents, missing matriarchal figures, estranged sons and daughters and even make believe grooms in weddings where everyone except the bride and her parents are actors.
A lack of human connection due to social change is one of the reasons why rental family services have become such a recent hit. “There’s an increasing number of young people who don’t know how to socialise because they don’t have the same family setting we had during the postwar era,” Ishii explains. For him, the purpose of family rental is to, “alleviate people’s suffering from an unreasonable society. It’s not a good thing that this kind of family substitute service exists,” he states. “But it’s needed in our society because it helps people deal with problems that are prevalent in Japan.”
In a culture that places huge importance on social standards, continually seeking them can be a tremendous emotional burden. “We Japanese have strong character. But we aren’t good at dealing with emotion,” says Ishii. Facing significant stigma surrounding mental illness and an adherence to conformity, people can be reluctant to seek professional support. Providing their customers with more than just an actors, Family Romance offers a listener, a replacement who can sub in for an estranged or lost family member, a fake husband to appease the parents, someone to fill the gap left by a lost spouse, a person who can make one feel better than the reality may seem. “Japan is not an ideal place for the care of the mind. We want to enrich the lives of our customers by attending to their emotional needs, and help them move forward,” says Ishii.
This year marks Family Romance’s 10th anniversary. Having been an imposter for more than a decade, Ishii hasn’t always had an easy ride. There have been times when the role has led to emotional entanglement, some stalking situations, and more than 250 marriage proposals, which he’s had to politely decline. The real complication, however, is in figuring out exactly what’s required.
Despite all these twists and turns and endless identity crises, Ishii maintains that the rewards of his unusual job way outweigh its challenges. “The gratitude from the clients is very rewarding,” he says, sharing a story of how he prevented a customer from taking his own life 5 years ago by posing as his rental friend and listening to his stories. “I think that this service is needed all over the world.” Friends and family for hire. Maybe it’s not quite such a far fetched concept, after all.