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Culture : Want a Family? In Japan, You Can Rent One : A Tokyo company blurs the line between reality and fantasy with professional stand-ins for relatives.


TOKYO — It's family time on a Sunday afternoon in a suburb of Tokyo. A couple and their 2-year-old son greet the wife's 70-year-old mother at the train station and escort her back to their home for an afternoon of Japanese noodles and warm conversation. Grandson kisses grandma and daughter holds her hand as they talk about all living together someday.

In the touching scene, captured on a recent Japanese news show, grandma's emotions may be real. But her "family" isn't.

In fact, they are professional stand-ins, hired by the grandmother at a cost of $1,125 so she could experience the warmth of even a simulated three-hour family visit. The woman's real daughter, a 37-year-old working mother of two, is too busy to see her mother regularly.

In today's Japan, a dazzling marketplace of every product imaginable, one can now buy even family love. Or at least rent it.

A Tokyo firm, Japan Efficiency Corp., is doing a booming business renting families to the lonely. It also offers personal assistants to recognition-starved homemakers, sympathetic ears to stressed-out executives, even people to scold for those who are dying to tell someone off but can't in this culture of restraint.

The firm has supplied its bizarre services to 21 clients so far and has a waiting list of 84 others; more than 400 have applied to become stand-ins. And the enthusiasm of its clients may say as much about social changes in Japan as about the firm's business acumen.

"It was really enjoyable," said the 70-year-old client, a widow whose weakened legs have further isolated her. Glowing, she added: "To spend a pleasant afternoon like that was my dream, and it finally became a reality."

Indeed, Japan Efficiency's success underscores the facts that behind the bright

exterior of Japan's material wealth are some pressing emotional wants and that a society stressing the harmony of human relationships is in fact riddled with tensions about them.

"It's extremely strange to me that people would want to rent families, and even more surprising that they seem to be satisfied," commented Takeshi Sato, sociology professor from Tokyo's Hitotsubashi University. However, he added, "I suppose people nowadays really find the need for kinship. Compared to 50 years ago, the family system in Japan has really changed, and family-like relationships are gradually disappearing."

Japan Efficiency's success also illustrates how the nature of reality has changed in this modern society, Sato said. It's like computer graphics, where things that are not real nevertheless seem so. "The meaning of reality has changed, and lies rather than truth have become real."

Japan Efficiency president, Satsuki Oiwa, analyzes her firm's success somewhat differently. "Since the war, Japan has been so busy manufacturing products that we've forgotten about the human heart," she said. "We have been good at 'hard service,' but we lack in 'soft service,'--reaching others with a sympathetic heart."

Oiwa, 38, a trim woman who wears Polo tinted glasses and impeccably tailored suits, speaks with the zeal of a messiah. She started the company five years ago to offer employee training programs to Japanese giants such as Yamaha and Sony, and it still makes most of its profits from those services. But during her work with those big-name corporate clients, she heard constant laments about unsatisfactory relationships. To her, it was a market gap, and she began her rental services last fall.

Now, Oiwa's firm serves as an unusual window on Japanese society. The increasing isolation of the elderly as the traditional extended family breaks down, for example, is seen in the fact that more than half Oiwa's clients are older couples.

"I wanted to touch the skin of a baby once again. My grandchildren have already grown up," one 75-year-old grandmother, who asked not to be named, said in explaining why she and her 79-year-old husband rented a couple and a child. The elderly clients have a son and two daughters of their own and asked the rented stand-ins to play the roles of a second son and his family.

"I had no feeling that they were strangers. When I saw my 31-year-old 'second son,' I thought, 'How tall he is! How manly he is!' When I met his 'wife,' I thought she was a very open-hearted person--that she really was my daughter-in-law," the grandmother said. "She talked about old times--when there were no washing machines and when we had nothing and had to make things ourselves by sewing and knitting. . . . It made us very happy to talk about the old days.

"When they left, I wasn't sad. I felt I wanted to meet them again. . . . My real son and his wife didn't oppose this. Indeed, the experience became a topic of conversation for us to discuss with them," she said.

But not all clients are old. A couple in their mid-20s with a 2-year-old son rented an older pair of stand-ins to play their child's grandparents, who live far away and are too old and feeble to visit.

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