I rented a friend in Japan, and it made me a better friend

An easy way to make “friends” when you travel to Japan.
An easy way to make “friends” when you travel to Japan.
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Money, we like to tell ourselves, can only purchase superficial pleasures. You can buy a $1,500 gold Tiffany paper clip, but not taste. You can pay staff to do your every bidding, but not to respect you. Wealth might help you find a wife, perhaps, but not true love. Money certainly can’t buy friendship.

In Japan, though, it can. Family Romance is a hugely successful company that rents out members of its 800-strong staff to act as its clients’ friends. Some pay for companionship over dinner, or a group to dress up in various outfits and pose for happy Instagram photos, or dates for a wedding. Others pay for the experience of having a boyfriend or girlfriend (without the physical intimacy), or they hire a groom and stage an entire fake wedding.

After two weeks traveling in Japan with my friend and colleague Sarah Todd, we decided to hire a friend. Neither of us needed more companionship, per se. But we were curious—and skeptical—that such a service could truly replicate friendship. We figured that adding a paid friend to our duo would highlight the differences between our real relationship and whatever Family Romance could offer.

Can you spot the difference between the real friend and the rented one?
Can you spot the difference between the real friend and the rented one?

Urala Fuji, 30, met us at a café in Shimokitazawa, a bohemian neighborhood of Tokyo filled with second-hand clothing stores. Over the next three hours, we chatted about our families, admired sketches (both Sarah and Urala draw in their spare time), tried on goofy sunglasses, complained about sexual harassment, and ate pastries shaped like Miyazaki’s anime character Totoro.

At times, I forgot I was paying for Urala’s company. She didn’t feel like a close friend, but it was easy to believe Urala was an old acquaintance we’d looked up while in Japan. She seemed to genuinely like us, too. But, of course, that was her job.

“I want clients to think we’re dear friends,” says Urala. “It’s easy if the client is a girl. If it’s a boy, I do my best. It can be awkward.”

Before meeting Urala, I instinctively labeled her services “fake friendship.” But I couldn’t dismiss her company without first figuring out what constitutes a “real” friendship.

This is a surprisingly slippery task. Friends can be there for you in times of crisis, they can be great fun, and they can be regular sources of companionship. None of those qualities are essential to friendship, though. We all have friends who drive us mad, but we love them and would never walk away or stop caring. Some friends live on other sides of the globe and don’t speak for years, but their friendship is still unquestionably there, a thread waiting to be picked up when in the same city, or in a time of crisis.

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Paid friends do not offer that indefinable, ever-present care. Instead, they take on the least pleasant elements of friendship, going along to events out of a duty to the client, rather than for their own enjoyment. Can we outsource the downsides of friendship to paid company?

It might sound tempting but, I realized, doing so would leave us with no friends at all. The defining feature of friendship is that it’s not always pleasant. To be true friends with someone, sometimes you will go to Disneyland, or a ex’s wedding, or a dumb movie—not because you want to, but because your friend does. Sometimes you’ll accompany them to a nerve-wracking medical scan or a family member’s funeral. This isn’t about fun; it’s so much more.

Arguably, there’s an inverse relationship between the amount of fun and the strength of a friendship. The less fun you can have with someone, and still call them a friend, the closer the bond. We don’t gladly listen to the neuroticism or whining of people we don’t care about; nor do we reveal our own worries or over-analyze our love lives with acquaintances. Yes, this is “emotional labor,” but we do it gladly and willingly for those we care the most for.

This is an essential truth that Aristotle remarked upon more than 2,000 years ago, pointing out that friendships based on pleasure or personal benefits were easily dissolved. “It is those who wish the good of their friends for their friends’ sake who are friends in the fullest sense,” he wrote in Nicomachean Ethics.

At Family Romance, clients are free to indulge, often complaining about their colleagues or dating life. “I just listen, I don’t tell them my opinion,” says Urala. They’re paying to vent, after all. When you’re paying for someone’s time, you don’t have to worry about whether they’re having fun; you can focus on your own needs.

There’s significant stigma around mental illness in Japan, explains Urala, and many people are reluctant to seek professional support. She says she often plays the role of therapist to those who want to talk through negative feelings or have company when they’re down.

Of course, the staff at Family Romance can’t help but emotionally respond to their clients. Urala mentions one client who seemed very nervous and repeatedly said she didn’t have any real friends. “I worry about her sometimes,” she says. Family Romance staff aren’t allowed to personally message clients, though, so Urala doesn’t know how she is.

Family Romance roles can also involve deceit. In one case, says Urala, a man was pressuring his mistress to get an abortion, and the woman said she would only do so if he apologized to her in front of his father. The man hired an actor from Family Romance to play the role of his father when he met his mistress.

Another woman hired someone to play the role of father to her daughter. The girl has been seeing the actor intermittently for eight years, and she does not know he is not her real father. Urala acknowledges this is dangerous—Family Romance TV advertisements feature the man who plays her father, and she could well find out—but is uncertain about whether it’s immoral. “Sometimes the lie is kind,” she says.

Spending time with a rented friend made me realize just how difficult it is to define friendship, and how these relationships can vary. There’s no one, neat picture of a healthy friendship, no contract or license or certificate, and no rulebook of how to behave or what to put up with. We simply trust that our friends value us and will be there even when we’re having a bad day. Especially when we’re having a bad day.

The formal arrangement that comes with Family Romance, the very act of paying, removes this crucial element of trust. You can count on someone showing up, acting friendly, and being a good listener if that is their job. But this certainty eradicates the delicate dance of hope and faith that is true friendship.

No doubt paid companionship can be fun, and even restorative. True friendship, though, is rewarding even when it’s kind of a pain.