Monday, March 21, 2016

Renting a Friend in Tokyo

It's muggy and I'm confused. I don't understand where I am, though it was only a short walk from my Airbnb studio to this little curry place. I don’t understand the lunch menu, or even if it is a lunch menu. Could be a religious tract or a laminated ransom note. I’m new in Tokyo, and sweaty, and jet-lagged. But I am entirely at ease. I owe this to my friend Miyabi. She’s one of those reassuring presences, warm and eternally nodding and unfailingly loyal, like she will never leave my side. At least not for another 90 minutes, which is how much of her friendship I’ve paid for.

Miyabi isn’t a prostitute, or an escort or an actor or a therapist. Or maybe she’s a little of each. For the past five years she has been a professional rent-a-friend, working for a company called Client Partners.

My lunch mate pokes daintily at her curry and speaks of the friends whose money came before mine. There was the head of a prominent company, rich and “very clever” but conversationally marooned at “hello.” Discreetly and patiently, Miyabi helped draw other words out. There was the string of teenage girls struggling to navigate mystifying social dynamics; at their parents’ request, Miyabi would show up and just be a friend. You know, a normal, companionable, 27-year-old friend. She has been paid to cry at funerals and swoon at weddings, lest there be shame over a paltry turnout. Last year, a high schooler hired her and 20 other women just long enough to snap one grinning, peace-sign-flashing, I-totally-have-friends Instagram photo.

When I learned that friendship is rentable in Tokyo, it merely seemed like more Japanese wackiness, in a subset I’d come to think of as interest-kitsch. Every day in Japan, it seems, some weird new appetite is identified and gratified. There are cats to rent, after all, used underwear to purchase, owls to pet at owl bars. Cuddle cafés exist for the uncuddled, goat cafés for the un-goated. Handsome men will wipe away the tears of stressed-out female office workers. All to say I expected something more or less goofy when I lined up several English-speaking rent-a-friends for my week in Tokyo. The agency Miyabi works for exists primarily for lonely locals, but the service struck me as well suited to a solo traveler, too, so I paid a translator to help with the arrangements. Maybe a more typical Japanese business would’ve bristled at this kind of intrusion from a foreigner. But the rent-a-friend world isn’t typical, I would soon learn, and in some ways it wants to subvert all that is.

Contrived Instagram photos aside, Miyabi’s career mostly comprises the small, unremarkable acts of ordinary friendship: Shooting the breeze over dinner. Listening on a long walk. Speaking simple kindnesses on a simple drive to the client’s parents’ house, simply to pretend you two are in love and absolutely on the verge of getting married, so don’t even worry, Mom and Dad.

As a girl, Miyabi longed to be a flight attendant—Continental, for some reason—and that tidy solicitousness still emanates. She wears a smart gray skirt and a gauzy beige blouse over which a sheet of impeccable hair drapes weightlessly. She doesn’t care that I am peccable. She smiles when I smile, touches my arm to make a point. Her graciousness cloaks a demanding job. With an average of 15 gigs a week, Miyabi’s hours are irregular and bleed from day into night. The daughter of a doctor and a nurse, she still struggles to convince her parents that her relatively new field is legitimate. The money is fine but not incredible; I’m paying her roughly $115 for two hours, some percentage of which Client Partners keeps. So why does she do it? Miyabi puts down her chopsticks and explains: It helps people—real and lonesome people in need of, well, whatever ineffable thing friendship means to our species. “So many people are good at life online or life at work, but not real life,” she says, pantomiming someone staring at a phone. For such clients a dollop of emotional contact with a friendly person is powerful, she adds, even with a price tag attached.

So this isn’t secretly about romance? I ask. Not at all, she replies. (...)

During my time in Tokyo I develop a seamless routine of leaving the apartment, drifting vaguely toward the address on my phone, squinting confusedly, doubling back, eating some gyoza, and eventually stumbling onto my destination. On a drizzly Friday morning, my destination is the Client Partners headquarters, a small but airy suite in a nondescript Shibuya district office building. I rope my translator in for this, and we’re met by a round-faced woman in a long robelike garment. Maki Abe is the CEO, and for the next hour we sit across a desk from her and talk not about wacky interest-kitsch but about a nation’s spiritual health.

“We look like a rich country from the outside, but mentally we have problems,” Maki says. She speaks slowly, methodically. “Japan is all about face. We don’t know how to talk from the gut. We can’t ask for help. So many people are alone with their problems, and stuck, and their hearts aren’t touching.”

Maki and I bowed when we met, but we also shook hands. She brings it up later. “There are many people who haven’t been touched for years. We have clients who start to cry when we shake hands with them.”

It’s not that people lack friends, she says. Facebook, Instagram— scroll around and you find a country bursting with mugging, partying companionship. It just isn’t real, that’s all. “There’s a real me and a masked me. We have a word for the lonely gap in between that: kodoku.”

by Chris Colin, Afar |  Read more:
Image: Landon Nordeman