Japan's lonely may rent 'family' for home visits

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

August 06, 1992|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- The grandfather sank onto the tatami mat, sighed and lighted a cigarette as the visitors left. The grandmother sang and chattered as she cleared plates of fish bones from the table.

It had been pretty much your typical Saturday visit from the younger generation, save for a few details. Like, who the visitors really were.

The "family" that had just left were utter strangers -- a part-time actress and a part-time actor, paid $200 each to play the elderly couple's daughter and son-in-law, and an 8-month-old boy, rented from his parents to play the grandson.

The baby's real mother and a manager from the rental agency watched the family get-together from the entryway.

"We loved it the first time we tried it, so we asked to do it again as soon as the agency could book it," the grandmother said. "It's fun to fix the meal and fix up the house, and have the baby to play with."

"It costs a lot less than what some people do for entertainment, like taking a trip to Southeast Asia," the grandfather said.

"And after the first time, when our own children heard about it, they brought the grandchildren around for visits several times. It was almost worth it just for that."

The rent-a-family business is the latest face of the practicality that distinguishes Japan's approach to the social problems this country's prosperity has created in the second half of the 20th century.

"Our company helps to train salarymen for small companies," Kaoru Inoue said. "A few years ago, some of the trainees kept complaining that their companies demanded so much of their time that they couldn't visit their parents the way dutiful Japanese children should."

Mr. Inoue's company is Japan Efficiency Headquarters. He is the head of Japan Success President Institute, the JEH affiliate that invented the rental family.

"When we suggested sending actors to substitute for them, some of the young men thought it might help," he said.

Thus was created a new kind of actor, one who plays roles that fill gaps in real-life situations.

And family members aren't the only surrogate roles the enterprise has developed.

"We also send actors to get chewed out by office managers in front of the staff," Mr. Inoue said.

"That way, the boss can let the workers know what's bugging him, without pointing the finger too directly at any one employee."

It's a business, of course, and there's a fee.

The grandfather, a retired carpentry contractor, and his wife paid 120,000 yen (about $960) for the two-hour visit. The couple agreed to let reporters watch on condition their names not be used.

Theirs was the 27th family visit by actors from Success President since the business started last year.

Even $960 a pop might not sustain the enterprise, but it turns out that, for Success President, the rent-a-family business provides a less visible, and much steadier, source of revenue.

Before being considered for assignment to an old couple's home, the actors and actresses -- Success President prefers to call them "entertainers" -- have to go to school for two or three years. They pay $3,360 for a six-month course, plus $3,900 to register the first time, with no guarantee they'll get an acting job.

"This is a unique kind of work," Mr. Inoue said. "These people go into the homes of older people who are well enough off to pay this much for two hours' entertainment. We have to be careful of their character, so they won't be trying to establish lasting relationships and make contact afterward to try to sell insurance or jewelry."

Does renting a family satisfy?

"This was our second time," the grandmother said. "After the first time, our own children grew closer to us and sent Mother's Day and Father's Day gifts. My husband happened to catch some fish this morning, so I fixed them for the 'family.' "

How does it feel to rent yourself out as a daughter or son-in-law for a few hours?

"I take it as a business matter," said Masaaki Takiguchi, 29, who two hours earlier had started by kneeling in prayer before the family altar as the visiting son-in-law. "We're not supposed to let it become personal. I am not ever permitted to contact these people on my own even once."

"It was my first time, so I was really nervous," said Kaoru Shindo, 26, who played the daughter.

"But the two hours went by in a minute."

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