OPN Shoji Morimoto
Shoji Morimoto who charges 10,000 yen ($71.30) per booking to accompany clients and simply exist as a companion, makes his way to meet his client in Tokyo, Japan August 31, 2022. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon Image Credit: Reuters

The unassuming photo of Shoji Morimoto in a white round neck tee posing at Shibuya crossing of Tokyo has been doing rounds of world media last few weeks. Morimoto is the man of the hour whose otherwise inconspicuous life has been under spotlight for his dream job of “doing nothing in particular”.

The 38 years old self employed, ‘rents out himself” against a fee of 10,000 yen just to hang around with his clients, doing nothing specific. And it has been the same for 4000 plus sessions so far.

While the world dogged by poverty, unemployment, climate catastrophe willfully situates Morimoto’s livelihood as a ‘dream job’, there’s more that needs to be probed at. “Doing Nothing in Particular” is the newest sub category of employment in a prosperous service industry initiated in Japan called ‘Rent A Family’ which began in 1990s.

In a more defined terms ‘Rent a Family works as a stand – in professional service for many who wish to pose that they are at per with social expectations and not deviant. Over years’ service requests have varied from having parents, husbands, wives, daughters, and sons and most importantly partners. Morimoto adds to this demand – supply chain.

A lonely country

Japan is world’s one of the loneliest country. Loneliness isn’t a complex psychological state in Japan, but bears a whole range of ramifications at different levels. A national survey conducted in May this year states that 40% percent of Japanese are “lonely”.

The report infers about people in their 20s and 30s increasingly feeling lonelier than their older generation, who are currently in their 60s.

Loneliness however isn’t new to the country; neither is it a phenomenon that erupted during Covid 19. References to loneliness have been wide spread across Japanese literature, and cinema signifying it’s all pervasiveness. On his official Facebook handle Haruki Murakami, perhaps the most widely read Japanese author globally, wrote a post on August 5, 2011.

His pondering words read “Why do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?”

Noble prize winning novelist Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1912) blamed ‘urbanisation’ as the key reason to ‘isolation’ while another prominent literati Natsume Soseki in his novel Kokoro in 1914 writes, “Loneliness is the price we have to pay for being born in this modern age”.

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Though the authors are separated by decades, imprints of loneliness from occupy the centrality of their creative thoughts. Fictional characters in contemporary literature are more often than not loners, bored, clueless people, burdened by existential crisis, leading reclusive lives.

Murakami’s novels have ample such scenes where a loner is shown spending hours alone, at a quiet café or a bar with a drink to their company as a strain of melancholic music play in the the backdrop.

If one were to give contemporary authors like Murakami a benefit of doubt as chroniclers of global urban isolation, in real Japan’s loneliness is more than a century old issue.

Japanese culture went deep into ‘face-saving’ mode by late 19thcentury and by mid-20th century work life imbalances in a rebuilt Japan started setting in. The struggles of post economic bubble only got added to the plight of loneliness. By 1990s the term ‘lost generation’ became an affix to who are now well in mid-40’s failing to find a ‘proper’ job or livelihood, and thus may not have had a chance to marry or be in a marriageable partnership.

To contextualise and describe this category of Japanese people particularly men, even new words like ‘hikikomori’ (the failed lot) and ‘kodokushi’ (lonely death) emerged.

Though predominant in Lost Generation loneliness was certainly not limited to them, it cut across demography. The ‘humane’ disappeared from Japanese society in no time.

It is in these years of 1990s, that the first ‘Rent a Family’ service of the country, Japan Efficiency Corporation popped up. Founded by Satsuki Oiwa in the autumn of 1991, Japan Efficiency began as a “a sympathetic listener” to unhappy, stressed out people.

In just a year Japan Efficiency Corp now a market dealer in the booming business of family rent out had 400 applicants waiting. For Oiwa this was a heart matter as she felt her country had neglected the softer aspects of people’s lives while rebuilding economy during post war days.

Oiwa had no personal experiences of acting a family before starting her organization a contrast to Ishii Yuchi who had agreed to act a father on request to a friend, a single mother whose son was denied admission in a kindergarten school. Till date Ishii who heads Family Romance another big name in the business with an employee strength of more than 1200 actors has played husband to 600 women and a father to 25 families.

Undeniably business aspects got added to heart affair over years. Family Romance charges a staggering fee of 8000 yen for customized requests of a friend, companion, a daughter or even grandchildren and someone like Morimoto who would pose for happy pictures on Instagram.

Spreading human love through businesses

Despite the transactional nature of the industry, the pioneers do believe that they have their heart in the right place. Oiwa once went on record saying she wanted “to spread human love through businesses” for she believed “everyone has the right to be happy”.

Situating Shiroji Morimoto in a country that’s trying hard to fight isolation, loneliness and culture of validation makes sense, rather than projecting as someone who has secured a dream job for ‘doing nothing’. While Morimoto makes a living out of being rented out, with no particular job profile, at the core of his livelihood lies empathy.

He and his likes are a need for Japan which has a red alert rank of 143 out of 167 in measures of social wellbeing and interpersonal relationship in a survey of 2021, despite being one of the 20 prosperous nations of the world.

However, being in this ‘heart’ matter has a flip side occasionally, having to deal with unwanted emotional engagements like marriage proposals or offers to get into serious relationships.

At end of course one would say it’s a win win situation, the rewards outweigh the even identity crisis that such service providers may face.

Until Japanese society sees the inherent complexities of over restrained, socially standardized culture and abandonment as rampant as eating a bowl of ramen, there would be film and fictional characters like Kirin Kiki (an abandoned granny who finds a new family) in Shoplifters (2018) or Sakeya Murata’s Keiko Furukura (Convenience Store Woman, 2016) and last but not the least living remedial like Morimoto.

Their numbers will go up and then it would not be a “dream job” but a job that comes with its complications like any other.

Nilosree is an author and filmmaker