It is midday on a Saturday and salarymen, teenagers in school uniforms and a handful of tourists are waiting in front of the traffic lights at Tokyo’s famous Shibuya crossing. Ruri, 27, patiently waits for it to turn green, and when it does, she waves to a woman approaching from across the street. After a polite bow, they take off to a nearby café, as so many other friends do during the weekend.
But this friendship is slightly different from your average friendship. There’s a price tag attached: Nonna pays $50 an hour for Ruri’s company. She is what is known in Japan as a “rental friend”—she works for an agency called Client Partners_._ (The last names of all rental friends and their clients have been withheld to protect their privacy.)
With five branches spread across Japan, business is going well for Client Partners. In fact, it can barely keep up with demand. According to Ruri, many Japanese people can’t show their true feelings around colleagues, friends, or even their husband or wife. It causes what she calls existential loneliness.
This is what Nonna experiences as well, she explains to me as she sips an iced latte. Although it is the first time she has met Ruri, Nonna starts to rant to her about her life.
“A few years ago, I left my friends and family behind in the countryside, hoping to find a nice job and a husband in Tokyo. Now I work in a hostess bar, I pour glasses for rich men who believe that I love them, but for me it’s just work.” Despite the huge numbers of hostess bars available in Tokyo and elsewhere in Japan, it is still taboo to discuss it with friends and family. Although Nonna makes a lot of money from it, she needs to hide it in her private life.
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Nodding her head, Ruri patiently listens to Nonna’s heartache. After about an hour, Ruri looks at her watch: “Let’s go karaoke!” she says excitedly. The women make their way to a karaoke bar.
Once the door of their karaoke booth closes, Nonna completely lets go and begins belting out her songs. Ruri sits obediently next to her, shaking a tambourine. After an hour of singing, the pair bid goodbye. Ruri tells me that she doesn’t care that her customers never ask her a question about herself: “It’s about the client, my life is irrelevant. I’m happy to see that she enjoyed her time.”
Will they meet again? She shrugs. “I just hope she had a good time, that’s all.”
A few days later, I learn that Nonna’s case is relatively innocuous compared to other requests fielded by other rental friends.
Aki, 27, sits at a table of an Italian restaurant in Tokyo’s shopping district Shinjuku. The setting reminds her of one of her regular clients, a retired executive named Hokuto.
“He was forced to leave his job when he turned 60, the official retirement age in Japan,” she says. “He became depressed. He had a high position in the company at an advertising agency. All of a sudden he lost his purpose in life.” In a country where people often completely identify with their work, retirement can lead to an identity crisis.
He started drinking, Aki says. She remembers their first encounter vividly: “He was drinking like a maniac—beer, sake, you name it. He was wasted, behaved aggressively towards the restaurant staff.”
As Aki explains the situation, she calmly arranges her table and pours drinks. It’s easy to see why people in distress might find comfort in talking to her.
“The more often we met, the less he drank. He got better at expressing his feelings. For Japanese men of his age it is rare to talk about feelings, you know. It relieved him to talk to me.”
I ask her if she has you ever been in a threatening situation; if clients have ever scared her. She points at the people surrounding us: “We always meet in public places, with enough people around. In principle, we don’t go to people’s homes, and I never go home with a client.”
Aki has no idea whether Hokuto has a family, or whether he meets her without telling his family. “But that doesn’t matter, our relationship is platonic.”
She did have one relationship with a customer—well, a fake relationship. A university student named Yoshi called her with a special request: Could she pretend to be his girlfriend for a day? His grandmother was sick, Aki explains, and the doctor said she only had several weeks to live. “In Japan, it is a matter of pride that your children are successful in life, also in their love life,” Aki explains.
On another occasion, a teenager asked Aki to join her for an hour to take photos to share on her Instagram account. Other customers have asked her to go shopping with them, or watch a movie at the cinema.
These were other jobs where Aki was more concerned for her customer’s well-being. Her more serious cases involve hikikomori, people who haven’t left their room for extended periods of time, and live isolated lives. According to the Japanese government, around half a million Japanese people are hikikomori. Sometimes family members of hikikomori contact Client Partners, hoping they manage to pull them out of their isolation.
“Once I received a phone call from a woman, she was concerned about her son. He was being bullied at school. For weeks, he didn’t leave his room. The only thing he did was reading cartoons.” She used their shared interest for manga to get the conversation started. “Eventually I managed to get him outside. Now we meet every second week in public places to talk about his life.”
Although the rental friends must read books on psychology and psychotherapy, Client Partners emphasizes it can’t help people who are suffering from a depression, and will refer them to a doctor or therapist. Although the climate for speaking openly about mental health has improved, seeing a therapist in Japan is still not as common as in other western societies.
Aki does warn her clients that they aren’t friends, as much as it may appear otherwise. “The only thing I can do,” she says, “is teach them how to build friendships.”