Just out of college, one of my friends quit his good-paying, stable job at a big midwestern company to start a "jack of all trades" handyman business. He and another of our college friends mowed lawns, rebuilt decks damaged by tornadoes, repaired drywall, fixed sprinkler systems, and did other odd jobs. General handyman stuff.
One day he was called to a house to change light bulbs. This was a common call; it was easier for people to call him than to get their own ladder and defy death above a stairwell. When he finished, the elderly lady who'd called him offered him a glass of water and a seat while she paid the bill.
"How much would it cost to have you here weekly?" she asked. Again, this wasn't an uncommon request. Many people kept him on retainer and had him come by periodically to do little jobs. My friend eased into his spiel about the packages he had available, and what services were available at each price point.
"No, no," she said. "How much would you charge just to come by and talk?"
I don't know what happened after this. Every time I heard him tell the story it ended there with all of us groaning about how sad it all was. How sad that an old lady was so lonely that she was willing to give money for company. The reason I bring the story up at all now is that I just read "How to Hire Fake Friends and Family" by Roc Morin in The Atlantic.
"[Ishii Yuichi]'s 8-year-old company, Family Romance, provides professional actors to fill any role in the personal lives of clients. With a burgeoning staff of 800 or so actors, ranging from infants to the elderly, the organization prides itself on being able to provide a surrogate for almost any conceivable situation."
Some details are heart-wrenching: single moms hiring men to pose as Dad so they aren't discriminated against. Some of them are creepy: one of those single moms has never broken it to her daughter that Yuichi isn't her real dad after eight years. Some of them are downright strange, like this example of surrogacy that seems right out of an Uday and Qusay tale:
"Usually, I accompany a salaryman who made a mistake. I take the identity of the salaryman myself, then I apologize profusely for his mistake. Have you seen the way we say sorry? You go have to down on your hands and knees on the floor. Your hands have to tremble. So, my client is there standing off to the side—the one who actually made the mistake—and I’m prostrate on the floor writhing around, and the boss is there red-faced as he hurls down abuse from above."
Because of the "Romance" in the company name, I suppose, and to head off the inevitable comparison to prostitution, no, Yuichi and his workers do not provide sex. He claims that they aren't even allowed any physical contact besides hand-holding.
I've written several times in the short life of this blog about the dangers of loneliness. I've spoken about it even more. So this post isn't meant to poke fun at the sometimes bizarre social norms like this that crop up in Japan. They may only be bizarre to my western eye. After all, much of what we do in medicine, particularly in palliation, boils down to the act of being present for a person. And sometimes that's the hardest thing of all. My friend didn't take the lady's money for his company. But even if he had, I think we could argue he'd earned it.
In the words of Yuichi himself, "It feels like work to care for a real person."