“All my clients are normal people without mental problems. Normal people with normal jobs, who want to seem normal. They want to show themselves and others how normal they are, so they rent friends and family.
“It started when I was running a mail service, answering questions for a fee. Clients sent me questions they couldn’t ask anyone else, like whether they should get plastic surgery, and one day, a client asked me to speak at his wedding. He wanted his best friend to give a speech, but he didn’t have a best friend, so he wrote the speech and I went to the ceremony and read it out. Everyone cried, which made me less uncomfortable about it. I did about ten marriages after that, pretending to be the husband’s friend or boss, and I always gave an emotional performance.
“More requests began to come in, but I had to turn a lot down. Alone, in my thirties, I could only do light acting, not important roles like someone’s father. I started recruiting, and now about 5o people work with me. I don’t hire models or trained actors because beautiful people stand out too much, so I use normal office ladies, housewives, and white-collar businessmen. Some old people request young children, and then I use professional actors, but I don’t offer that service on my website. Nobody has a contract because our work is illegal.
“I only earn ¥20,000 (US$260) a week, but I think of this as volunteer work where I can listen to lots of interesting, real stories: if someone has to make an apology, they’ll bring an actor because they don’t want to do it alone; girls whose fiancés are too busy to go to a tailor rent a boyfriend to get a tuxedo fitted; recently-divorced women just want someone to eat the dinners they cook. I’ve rented out ex-girlfriends, managers, old colleagues and groups for group dates. A child will hire a parent to take part in the school three-legged race, and during child marathons – when sons traditionally eat lunch with their families – parents rent some parents to go in their place.
“I rent out ex-girlfriends, managers, old colleagues and groups for group dates”
Ryuchi Ichinokawa, 41, founder of Hagemashi Tai, Chiba, Japan
“The most common request is for a father and mother. Perhaps a girl lied to her boyfriend and told him she has parents. The relationship develops, they get engaged, and she has to introduce them, so she rents them. I get that request about once a week. Another common one in recent months is men who say, ‘I have a wife and a mistress, but my wife’s found out about the mistress and wants to meet her.’ Of course, he doesn’t want to bring his real mistress, so he rents a girl that will pretend to be her. And if his wife asks him to bring the mistress’s husband to the meeting, he’ll hire a husband, too.
“When I agree to a job, the client tells me the name, age and profession of the person they need. I choose someone for the part and spend one week writing the character for them to memorize. I refuse requests for 80-year-old grandmothers because actors old enough can’t remember all the information. When I do an assignment myself I write key details on my hand.
“Generally, requests from women are very detailed, describing the height and face shape they want. Men are shier – perhaps they want a beautiful woman to come and can’t bring themselves to ask. But if anyone requests a photo, I decline the job. This isn’t a marriage or prostitution business. And I don’t tell clients, but my employees always use fake names.
“Sometimes my phone rings at midnight. My wife doesn’t care because we sleep in separate beds. The phone calls aren’t requests for characters, just lonely people who want to talk about their problems.I’ll talk to them for a long time, and I do it for free.”
— Ryuchi Ichinokawa, 41, founder of Hagemashi Tai (“I want to cheer you up”), Chiba, Japan