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Breakups Are Their Business

In Japan, professional 'breaker-uppers' employ James Bond-like tactics to divide lovers, spouses and even corporate partners.


TOKYO — It's an industry that thrives because Japan is still a nation that can't say no. For the right price, operatives will dump your girlfriend for you, lose your husband, drive away that mistress or fire that longtime employee.

Wakaresaseya--literally "breaker-uppers"--are specialists in destroying relationships. In a nation that eschews confrontation and shuns public displays of passion, these terminators extricate clients from close encounters of the emotional kind.

While Western psychiatrists, investigators and attorneys abet those in the throes of separation, wakaresaseya take a far more active role, and the result isn't always pretty. The agents, who are unlicensed, do whatever it takes, including entrapment, betrayal or worse, to get the job done.

"If this wasn't my business, I'd consider a lot of what we do immoral," says Hiroshi Ito, a handsome 33-year-old wakaresaseya with Tokyo-based Office Shadow.

There are few statistics on the dodgy field, but Tokyo-based Daiko Research Office estimates that a dozen firms like itself, mainly here and in Osaka, pull in tens of millions of dollars a year handling hundreds of cases. This compares with just two companies a few years ago.

Psychologists and wakaresaseya firms cite several reasons for the industry's recent success--and why the idea probably wouldn't fly overseas. Women in Japan these days are stronger and increasingly likely to initiate separations, yet law and culture still encourage them to make it look as if it's the man's idea.

In addition, many people who once helped others break up, including village dignitaries and matchmakers, are no longer around. "Intermediaries are very important in Japanese culture, but many are being eliminated as society changes," says Shizuo Machizawa, a psychiatrist and professor at Tokyo's Rikkyo University. "So commercial services are springing up to fill the gap."

Some clients are so desperate for emotional closure that they arrive at the first meeting with $5,000 in cash. Complex jobs can run to $150,000.

Each wakaresaseya company has several, even dozens, of operatives skilled at playing roles, from sexy flight attendants and powerful officials to wholesome housewives and movie moguls.

The person a client hopes to banish--the "target," in industry parlance--often is lulled into a trap through a seemingly chance meeting in a bar, at a party, on a flight. A moment of weakness captured by a camera hidden in a cigarette box or behind a lapel is enough to upend his or her life. Though breaking up is hard to do, these firms boast 95% success rates.

The process generally starts with a client's call or e-mail. Most firms prefer not to divide families (but will). And virtually all try to weed out troublesome customers, including stalkers, those with a grudge, the indecisive.

"I purposely wait four or five days to see if they really want it," says Hiroyuki Yoshida, president of Office Shadow. "We need to see how serious they are before we destroy people's normal lives and emotional ties."

After a down payment is received, the wakaresaseya launch an investigation, beginning with the client: Why did your husband take a mistress, what prompted your wife to sleep with her boss, why do you want to dump your boyfriend? Further afield, interviews with neighbors and colleagues, printed records and tailing fill out the details of the target's preferences, lifestyle, favorite golf course or department store, and commute.

With the bead drawn, wakaresaseya devise a "scenario" to entrap the target and ultimately convince or pressure him or her into ending the relationship. Wakaresaseya deny breaking the law and insist that no one in their profession has been arrested in the course of work.

Love Can Fade in Face of Scandal

Stubborn targets can even be lured into fake business deals, saddled with huge financial debts and visited by faux mafia-linked debt collectors. Threats of a career-ending scandal also work wonders to weaken tender ties, often before a sympathetic new "friend" guides the target emotionally into accepting the divorce or breakup.

Finally, there is "after-care"--for an additional fee, of course--to ensure that people stay apart. After driving away a mistress, operatives might plant rumors that a neighbor finds the wife attractive to rekindle a husband's interest in his spouse and keep him from straying again. After-care may also include advising the client to stop complaining incessantly, lose weight, even dress and act more like the girlfriend her husband has just given up.

"It's like a cancer operation," says Kiyoshi Hiwatashi, managing director of Lady's Secret Service. "You remove the tumor but need to make sure it doesn't grow back."

Like a good movie script, the best scenarios have imagination, believability and a healthy dose of human psychology. Many are used repeatedly, making firms reluctant to reveal too much.

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