Just when you thought you could escape the phoniness of social media by engaging in conversation with a real life human being, Japanese innovation comes along and snatches that away from you, too. As a new article from The Atlantic reports, there are a number of burgeoning companies in Japan that allow clients to rent human beings to fulfill roles that are otherwise lacking in their life. Whether you need a fake friend for your selfie, a fake husband for your parent-teacher conference, or even a fake baby, they’ve got you covered. It may sound like the premise of a creepy sci-fi movie set in a near-future dystopia, but it’s real—or at least, as real as fake people get. Ishii Yuichi, the CEO of one such company called Family Romance, sat down with The Atlantic to discuss the services his company offers and the roles he’s personally played for clients over the years, and some of the examples are astonishing:
Yuichi: I played a father for a 12-year-old with a single mother. The girl was bullied because she didn’t have a dad, so the mother rented me. I’ve acted as the girl’s father ever since. I am the only real father that she knows.
Morin: And this is ongoing?
Yuichi: Yes, I’ve been seeing her for eight years. She just graduated high school.
Morin: Does she understand that you’re not her real father?
Yuichi: No, the mother hasn’t told her.
The gut reaction to someone deceiving a child like this is understandably one of discomfort, but Yuichi explains that, in his role as a stand-in father, he has a real emotional connection with the girl and claims it’s “easy to feel her love.” As for what it’s like to be the person playing pretend, Yuichi admits that the job results in some unexpected existential crises.
Yuichi: It’s a business. I’m not going to be her father for 24 hours. It’s a set time. When I am acting with her, I don’t really feel that I love her, but when the session is over and I have to go, I do feel a little sad. The kids cry sometimes. They say, “Why do you have to leave?” In those instances, I feel very sorry that I’m faking it—very guilty. There are times, when I’m done with the work and I come back home, where I sit and watch TV. I find myself wondering, “Is this, now, the real me, or the actor?”
Morin: How do you answer that question?
Yuichi: I don’t think I have an answer. The person that used to be me—is he me now? I know that it’s common for actors to feel that way. If you’re a really good actor—if you’re in it all the time—it feels very unsettling.
But Family Romance doesn’t just offer fixes for familial relationships, they also dabble in the professional field. If you’ve recently screwed up at work and don’t want to get publicly berated by your superior, you can hire one of the company’s actors to be disciplined in your stead for only 10,000 yen. Or maybe you’re headed to Vegas for the weekend and don’t want people to think you don’t have any friends? Hire fire or six strangers at 8,000 yen a pop to take selfies with and boost your social media presence.
Yuichi even describes one instance in which a married woman had slept with another man and when the husband found out he demanded to confront the man face-to-face. In order to avoid a violent confrontation, the CEO dressed as a member of the yakuza and allowed himself to be berated by the husband until all parties were satisfied.
While the lack of authenticity in these relationships can feel eerie and uncomfortable, Yuichi believes we’re already living in a world were the concept of “realness” is regularly called into question. “I believe the term ‘real’ is misguided,” he says. “Take Facebook, for example. Is that real? Even if the people in the pictures haven’t been paid, everything is curated to such an extent that it hardly matters.” In the end, Family Romance is a company that believes it’s evening the playing field for their society and, for many of their clients, these fake relationships are as real as it gets. “The child had a father when she needed him most. It might have been a brief period, and she might know the truth now, but she had a meaningful experience at that time.”