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Won't You Be My Neighbor?

A mix of handyman and psychologist, Japan's benriya help the anxious, the isolated and the just plain neurotic with life's basic tasks.

October 09, 2003|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — Some clients' apartments were chest-high in garbage because they were terrified of running into other people at the communal trash bin.

Others needed help filling out their wedding parties, including a bride who was supplied with two 27-year-olds posing as her bridesmaids.

And then there was the young woman who'd retreated to her bathroom after finding a single dead roach in her living room. After an emergency phone call, the time required to remove the offending object: less than a minute. Charge: $50.

Part handyman, part psychologist, Japan's benriya, or "convenience-doers," solve problems once easily handled by relatives, neighbors and friends. And business is thriving in this society beset by social fears, alienation and an apparent inability -- or unwillingness -- to perform many of life's basic tasks.

Job requirements for benriya include discretion, patience and the moxie to do whatever it takes, without blinking an eye, bursting out laughing or worrying too much about scruples.

Even as they happily pocket often-hefty fees, however, some benriya reflect on the social changes that have fueled demand for their services. "Business is business," said Kanji Sugimoto, head of the Project K benriya firm. "But it's sad that Japanese find it so difficult to ask each other for even simple favors."

Benriya are unlicensed, and most are men working alone -- an estimated 5,000 nationwide, including 1,000 or so in Tokyo. They advertise on handbills, in phone books, over the Internet and by word of mouth, and are another of Japan's many unusual niche professions. These include wakaresaseya -- specialists in breaking up relationships -- and yonigeya, experts at crafting escapes for people heavily in debt and hoping to flee creditors.

Though every nation has its handymen, benriya perform far-wider-ranging tasks than most of their overseas counterparts. They've been featured in movies, television shows and comic books as the profession becomes a magnet for laid-off corporate warriors.

The bulk of most benriya's business involves cleaning, moving furniture and fixing items around the house. While some customers are yuppies with more money than time, benriya say a surprising number of Japanese these days lack the confidence or know-how to do everyday chores.

"Compared to Americans, Japanese are far less independent or self-reliant," said Yutaka Iwase, director of the Osaka-based Japan Benriya Assn. "In Japan, benriya do a lot that people really should do themselves."

As the lives of young Japanese have become more divorced from nature, the tolerance for dirt and unusual smells has dropped sharply, bringing more calls to rid apartments of odors that sometimes seem largely rooted in the customer's imagination.

But ordinary cleaning jobs aren't always so ordinary. BS Planning benriya Ryuji Watanabe recalls cleaning an apartment after someone committed hara-kiri, or ritual disembowelment, a now-rare form of suicide. "I was called in six days after the death," he said. The job wasn't pleasant, and he won't soon forget it, he said.

Many benriya also have firsthand experience with hikikomori -- the social breakdown and acute depression now on the rise in Japan. Tokyo-based ACT Service, which specializes in female clients, offers a combined house cleaning and psychological counseling package for those unable to cope, women who are fearful of even the slightest contact with neighbors.

"One apartment I just did had pickles in the fridge that expired in 1996," said Project K's Sugimoto. "There was an egg that looked like a fossil."

Given the importance in Japan of saving face and avoiding confrontation, benriya also provide the social lubricant required to extricate a customer from a sticky situation, including saying no to a troublesome neighbor.

"They fill a real need in Japanese society," said Motoo Murata, an independent analyst.

That can also include spying on lovers, supplying alibis, pretending to be the husband of a loan applicant or sitting in as the fiance for a gay or happily single client during parental visits.

Yutaka Manabe, head of Benriya Japan outside Tokyo, said he once earned $200 buying souvenirs at Tokyo Disneyland for a customer. He never asked why, but he suspects the woman was covering up for an affair with a supposed work trip to the Magic Kingdom.

A problem that might be dismissed with a laugh in the United States can be hugely embarrassing in formal Japan.

Many benriya have been called in to pose as wedding guests by brides or grooms loath to admit their side of the aisle is smaller. Manabe earned $450 pretending to be a groom's university professor, going so far as to give a glowing speech about the young man's nonexistent academic accomplishments.

"I don't know why these people need to show off so much," Sugimoto said.

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