If you’re a fan of Conan O’Brien, you might have watched his recent travel video to Japan where he rented a family for a day. Yes, you heard that right; this service does exist. Coincidentally a few months ago, our Malaysian crew also went to Japan to shoot a video on the same topic. You can watch it here.
While both of these video presents the more lighthearted take on this Rent-A-Family industry, the reality can be a little more grim.
Many Malaysians are exposed to the Japanese culture from a young age, mostly through manga, anime and our Look East Policy championed by Tun Dr Mahathir back in the 90s. As such, most of us are already familiar with some of the weirdest Japanese stories such as guys getting married to their pillows or their video game characters.
However, renting a fake family takes weirdness to a whole new level. It sounds quite sad, if not downright depressing.
Or is it, really?
Like all things, it starts with good intentions
The New Yorker wrote a lengthy article on their interviews with different companies that offer this service.
Ishii Yuichi, the CEO of Family Romance, recalled his memory of entertaining the elderly, dressed up as Marilyn Manson in drag. (Marilyn Manson? IN DRAG? We never knew Japanese grandparents were so hip.) In a way, he was already a rental grandson.
His service grew exponentially. Customers came for various reasons.
Nishida, a lonely widower, rented a family to fill the family void after his daughter left following his wife’s death. At first, the fake family acted just like the real one, down to their demeanour and mannerism.
One session after another, the rental family started loosening up and began showing glimpses of their true selves. Once, Nishida even counselled the ‘wife’ on her own marital problems. In another instance, the ‘daughter’ advised Nishida to contact his real daughter. Which he did.
Their relationship may have been transactional, but it was still a relationship. However…
Where does it cross the line between comfort and deceit?
Many of the requests are really meant to fool people, and not necessarily to cause harm.
Single women rent fake boyfriends to get their parents off their backs. In more extreme cases, they have been known to staged entire weddings, sometimes hiring actors as guests. These fake weddings can cost up to ¥2 million which is also the exact emotional cost of having overbearing Asian parents.
There are also requests for a ‘rental scolders’, where customers ask actors to scold them, often as a means of motivation.
‘Rental apologisers’, on the other hand, can probably cause more confusion. A worker who has upset his client can hire a stand-in manager to apologise to the client, without the knowledge of the real manager. During instances when the apology is not accepted, the agency sends a stand-in division head . Sometimes it even escalates to sending a stand-in president!
Even more complicated are apologies involving marital affairs. Remorseful husbands and wives who have cheated on their spouses hire stand-in lovers to apologise to their scorned significant other since they cannot get the real ones to do so. But as anyone can imagine, the whole situation can get really heated.
Some cases have longer and more significant impacts than others.
An actress had a recurring role of replacing overweight mothers at school events because children of overweight parents are more prone the to bullying
The same actress also replaced an overweight wife when her husband had a night out with his friends. She did it for seven years!
Ishii himself had played a father to a 12-year-old girl with a single mother. The girl was bullied because she didn’t have a dad, so Ishii became hers.
Ishii’s ‘daughter’ recently graduated from high school, and her mother still hasn’t told her the truth.
Is this just one of those ‘weird Japanese things’?
Listening to these stories we are both shocked and fascinated at how the Japanese society works.
But are we Malaysians that much different?
For most of us, Hari Raya, Chinese New Year, or any kind of big family gatherings can either be something to look forward or dread.
“Got boyfriend anot?”
“When to bring home?”
“What he work?”
“When to have kids?”
Although we haven’t heard many cases of Malaysians renting a person to pose as a partner, such services are already available through sites like Rent-a-Friend.
However, there have been cases of Malaysians renting expensive cars just to show off to their relatives. This speaks to the societal pressure that we face, albeit on a more material side.
Then there are also the underlying issues of loneliness and grief.
In its most noble form, the Rent-A-Family industry in Japan provides a service to alleviate these two emotions. An alternative, non-clinically-certified method of seeking a psychologist.
The last time we checked, we still don’t have such services here in Malaysia. Do we need them? It’s harder to generalise Malaysian culture as we are not as homogenous as the Japanese. Not only are we made up of different ethnicities, we also speak different languages that can largely shape the way we perceive our relationship and community.
So, let us know what you think. Do you find the concept distasteful? Or have you encountered a situation so dire that paying someone can actually help? Share with us in the comment below!