I might have been late to meeting my newly rented friend as a test of true friendship. Or I was just late. I’m never admitting which one is true! But there I was, almost breathless and 20 minutes late to our lunch appointment.
How did I get here? I thought to myself. I DO have friends, I swear I do! I even have proof!
But if I’m being honest… I’ve always wanted to try renting a friend, and luckily Tokyo Survival Channel challenged me to do it for a whole day to see what happens. We contacted Family Romance, LLC, one of several companies that provide companionship for filling voids in your life… for a fee. This business model has been a success in Japan since the 90s. As cities grew bigger and families smaller, work-life balance became more precarious. and loneliness turned into a huge problem.
Who can you rent?
In Japan, people have been renting fake boyfriends and girlfriends, fake spouses, fake mothers, fathers, siblings and other family members, fake coworkers and fake friends for years. And it’s not always because of loneliness. Sometimes it’s to improve their social standing or to impress other people in their life. Family Romance’s very own CEO and the owner has been playing a father to a girl for years; her single mother resorting to extreme measures because her daughter was being bullied at school for not having one. People have been renting fake family members even when their real family is alive and well, but they are either on bad terms or deemed too “unsightly” to bring to special occasions like graduations and weddings (all too-often because they’re overweight). Single people pressured by families have even been paying for whole fake weddings!
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this industry.
…And why would you RENT a friend?
So why am I doing this (aside from being challenged, that is)? Well, renting a friend is close to a real need that I have. In the Tokyo megalopolis where time is money and people calculate every second of their day, rushing past you and almost knocking you over to get into that exact 8:27 train, it’s unsurprisingly hard to make new friends. It’s a struggle to meet up with the friends you already have—desperately scribbling in schedule books, sucking through your teeth, trying to carve out some time.
The pressure to have international and Japanese friends
The concept of the “Japanese friend” is highly valued and almost mythical. Foreigners like to show off their local friends, and by the same token Japanese like to show off their foreign friends. While these foreigners often become the butt of many jokes, the ultimate measure of how well you’ve integrated into Japanese society lies with the presence of Japanese friends. Japanese people have been known to rent foreign friends to show up at their weddings, implying that the Japanese person must know many languages and is well-traveled.
Despite this mutual demand, we can’t seem to pair up easily. Language and culture barriers, not having any free time, awkwardness – become just a few of the culprits. But hey, it’s lovely when you can just trump any argument in a conversation with, “Well, my Japanese friend told me this!”
Aaahh… time to rent a Japanese friend. BUT, I’m not going to make it easy for her. Let’s see how well she stands up to several of my TRUE FRIENDSHIP TESTS.
Order up for a perfect friend
I purposely had no idea what my “best friend” looked like or even what her name is. When it came time to meet her, I found the only girl sitting by herself, waving at me enthusiastically. I guess she passed the first friendship test – she didn’t mind me being late. (Oops!)
The cool thing about this service is that you can specify your friend’s style. I specifically requested my friend to be cool, fashionable, confident, funny, and so on. Her pigtails seem at odds with her age – I guess they misinterpreted my request a bit, mixing up ‘fashionable’ and ‘kawaii.’ If I wanted to, I could have requested hair color, eye color, height, and even her name, but I didn’t. I wanted to be surprised. I wanted to be shown around. I wanted to relax for once and try that ‘omakase life,’ leaving everything to fate.
I asked for my rental friend to go through my social media to determine what kind of places I would like to go, and she invited me to a fairly unknown Shibuya cafe. Excellent! My friend also planned for us to frolic around Harajuku, so I must say she researched me well. Kudos!
Introducing yourself is also not something you do with friends – they already know you. It was such a relief for someone not to ask the typical questions, “Where are you from,” and, “When are you leaving Japan?”
When arranging this service, I also had to decide in advance how many hours I needed with my friend and specify what kind of activities I wanted to do. For safety reasons, actors from the rental agency are not allowed to come to your home or go into small private spaces like karaoke booths (with certain exceptions).
8 hours of companionship peppered with friendship tests
The ponytailed girl waving at me introduced herself as Rie… in English! I vaguely remembered saying in the form that an English-speaking friend was preferable. Rie naturally slides into the role of best friend within minutes—zero awkwardness. Is she that good at her job or could we actually have chemistry? This is a question I keep asking myself all day. The spell was somewhat broken when I handed her an envelope full of money for her service, a prearranged sum made out to Family Romance, LLC. Rie quickly salvages the situation, however, by complimenting me and starting to make plans for the day.
She is spontaneous, makes suggestions, is talkative – this is going way better than normally meeting new people. I can’t get over how smoothly this is going—I expected something much more awkward.
We are having such a great time ordering food, taking selfies, flipping through a magazine… We then go shopping, take purikura photos, and it all feels so natural that I find myself doubting if any friendship I have is real… you know, the usual stuff.
A friend in need is a friend indeed!
After lunch, as we’re strolling down Omotesando snapping endless photos, I spring a couple of tests on Rie. The first is to test her spontaneity. I pull her into the first drugstore we see. See, a real friend is there to help you, so I ask her to give me advice on what supplements to buy.
Acquaintances in the past have squirmed their way out of this situation, not wanting the responsibility of even recommending a brand of shampoo to me. Supplements are pretty close to medicine, a very personal thing, so I am expecting Rie to find a creative way to get out of this. But see, this activity was on my request form. She handles the situation great, giving me a personal recommendation and waving down a store clerk to help as well. I definitely feel like I’m with some of my real friends, those who message me detailing how I should take iron supplements because I seem tired. That kind of honesty is friendship to me.
Let’s up the help-game a notch with test #2. Only true friends would help with government-issued insurance documents. I pull them out of my bag and ask her to translate and help me find a way to pay the bill most efficiently. At this point, I don’t even know if this is against agency rules or not. Rie proceeds to give me the best and clearest advice on the paperwork I have ever received in Japan. Rie-chan, are you becoming my real friend? And why do I keep breaking the magic by reminding myself I am renting her for these services?
Could I be betraying my real friends?!
Rie gets me. She takes photos of me when I ask, she hunts for random coffee shops with me, and our conversation never runs dry. At this point we’ve been out and about for 5 hours.
She’s on my side. I tested it several times – when I complained about bad things I experienced in the past, not once did she jump to defend “the system.”
Rie is honest. She tells me about her real husband, her real hometown, her real university major. She doesn’t even dodge difficult questions like, “What do Japanese people really think of the Imperial family?”
It was time to test MYSELF. Am I really comfortable to ask Rie to participate in one of the traditions we have in my circle of long-time friends? Can I let her stand-in for them this once? Maybe I can. After all, they all live on a different continent. But even though I asked for their permission to pimp out ‘our thing’ and they teased me for becoming “Japanese” before saying I don’t need their permission, I still feel like I’m betraying them.
Here are my real brothers and sisters in art shenanigans:
And this is me and Rie, recreating classical art on the spot:
She’s a natural! I think she is genuinely having fun. She says she is not acting today, because it’s really fun hanging out with me, but my own mind is my enemy. I will never know if that is completely true. This must be how most users of this service feel. After a couple of meetings, maybe they’re able to let their doubts go and enjoy the moment. After all, who is to say that after so many ‘rental meetings’ the connection doesn’t become at least a little bit true?
Is Rie ready for the Friendship Finals?
We wind our way down to a basement nabe restaurant to enjoy a dish that is social by nature. One of the saddest things you can do alone is eat a nabe, or hotpot. Most restaurants won’t even serve it to a single customer because it’s too big; indicating on the menu that a minimum of 2 people is required to order it. So, of course, I took the opportunity to go eat nabe with my new friend.
Between mouthfuls of hot miso broth, I deploy my final friendship tests.
“Can I call you Riri?” I ask.
“Yes, of course!” she beams. “And I decided to call you Zizi!” she adds. (Like that cat for Kiki’s Delivery Service, Gigi!)
For those who don’t know, calling people by their first name, let alone a special nickname, is very rare in Japan and reserved for only the closest of friends.
Full disclosure: I did request this from Family Romance. As well as this next and last test.
“Riri, I have to test our friendship,” I say. “Please tell me a small secret of yours, and I will tell you one of mine, too.”
Riri laughs. She tells me her secret. I realize I won’t ever know if that secret is real. But, being a good friend, I will never reveal it. Sorry, dear readers!
We then look at the time, there’s a strict policy that the meeting must end exactly as prearranged. Our 8 hours are up.
Post-credit scene: the mystery phone call I almost ignored
When planning the rental process and what friendship means to me, I put a huge emphasis on spontaneity. I went on about how I miss friends calling randomly to ask me to go get coffee with them, or just drop by if they are near my home or workplace. I tried requesting this for the friend rental service, but completely forgot about it until I got a call from a Private Number.
Who doesn’t hate picking up the phone? To the one person reading this who’s thinking, “I don’t,” you are the exception, mate. I dread phone calls in Tokyo especially because I might need to speak Japanese and everyone around will stare at me. But somehow, one week after my meet-up, I decide to answer that call—and it’s my Riri!
Friendship pop quiz!
She suddenly calls me to tell me she’s near my workplace and asks if I want to come down and have lunch. I give up wondering if it’s real or not. My happiness that someone came to see me at work was real, and that was enough.
Riri came with gacha gifts that made her think of me. It was such an attention to detail, that once more it truly didn’t matter whether or not I was paying her to be this sweet. She made my day and also a precious life-long memory for me.
Is it possible to rent a life?
This whole experience was eerily similar to virtually any service job and any job that requires dealing with people. When you hire a tutor you basically pay another human to give you their time, attention and knowledge. Just swap ‘hire’ with ‘rent’. You rent a lawyer to help you, you rent a person to drive you around, and you rent a nanny to look after the kids… (Isn’t a nanny or au pair like a fake family member anyway?)
Is it really so strange to rent someone to be your friend or sister? To pay someone for their time and their service? Is it so weird to allow a stranger into your life that way, when so many of your friends were strangers at some point, too? Your husband or wife is no different, and people go on blind dates all the time…! All much riskier than renting someone of your choosing from a certified business.
I guess renting and paying actors to play someone important to you will always be tricky. Humans value authenticity, and the human connection should be free. In a world where we’re selling everything, our whole lives broadcast online and our personalities becoming brands, we need to draw a line somewhere.
There is something unsettling about the commodification and sale of feelings, and a lot of the value is lost in the transaction. It is also too reminiscent of host clubs and escorts, being paid to flirt with you and flatter you. If you take it to the extreme, buying emotions like love goes right along with buying sexual services—a big taboo even today. I have sometimes been uncomfortable even hiring a masseuse as I am worried I am forcing them to touch me. I will never be completely comfortable with people bowing deeply to me. And my own mind will probably never let me relax, overthinking everything.