Society

Rent-A-Friend: A Solution For The Lonely People Of Japan

Instead of actually forging relationships, or continuing those they have already, Japanese people are hiring actors to play the roles of loved ones.

Tokyo doesn't have to be so lonely
Philippe Mesmer

TOKYO — It used to be common in Japan to rent priests. For what exactly? To officiate at fake wedding ceremonies. Foreign guests could also be rented — it made weddings more international, more chic.

Those were just for fun. Today, though, people are hiring “friends” in Japan, but for other reasons. More and more lonely Japanese people are willing to pay a pretty yen to spend some time with people, sometimes for just a day, in the company of a random actor who is looking for a bit of income on the side.

There are at least 10 companies — twice as many as eight years ago — who offer a multitude of services to those who can't find companions or might otherwise choose to avoid the responsibility that real friendships and relationships bring.

At Client Partners, one of the leading companies, the standard hourly rate is about 2,980 yen ($28), though the first hour costs double, including transport costs. And, by some accounts, it works pretty well. Client Partners, active all over Japan, receives dozens of requests each month. One company official explains: “These are people who lack self-confidence and are particularly sensitive to other people’s judgement.”

Although it’s difficult to measure the exact extent of the problem, loneliness is increasing in Japan, and it becomes evident from university days. “Fewer and fewer students participate in the activities organised by the clubs and societies,” says Sohei Ide, from Osaka University, an expert on issues relating to isolation and author of an investigation about student’s social attendance and participation. “If they fail to make contacts during their early days on campus, they will remain permanently isolated.”

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“Nobody likes being alone that much. I don't go out of my way to make friends, that's all. It just leads to disappointment.” — Japanese author Haruki Murakami

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This phenomenon is set to increase. “Young people today are immersed in a world where they can live entirely separated from others and it’s happening right before our eyes,” says psychiatrist Rika Kamaya, who traces the root of the problem to the development of smart phones and gaming consoles. Some of her patients say that they feel “lonely, even in the middle of a crowd,” and “consider establishing a real relationship with another person as an effort.”

This is where the students become customers of these rent-a-friend agencies. So, for a while, they can chat and get their worries off their chests, go shopping or watch a movie. To sum it up, they want be with a real person who appears to care about them.

(Catt390)

In a general sense, these agencies take advantage of friendships gone awry and bad family situations, and offer services suited to even the most diverse of situations. Hagemashi Tai advertises actors who are able to play any of your relatives; uncles, aunts, or even your distant relatives, to help fill out attendance at both weddings and funerals. If you want them to make a speech, that costs extra.

Single mothers can rent husbands for 5,000 ($48) an hour, where the actors can help the kids with their homework or “solve minor problems with the neighbors.” It’s also possible to rent someone to play your mother or father so you can confide your problems in them. A woman planning to get married could even get someone to play her husband, just to see what it’s really like to live with a partner.

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Society

Oui-haw! American Country Music Has Global Appeal

Some might ask: Why is there such a thing as International Country Music Day? Turns out the American musical genre has pockets of popularity around the world, from twanging sounds in Japan to South Africa to line dancing in France.

Japanese cover of a Dolly Parton album

To the rest of the world, there may be nothing more American than singers with acoustic guitars crooning about beer, trucks and Southern living. But the longstanding genre has had surprising relevance faraway countries. Academic papers have even been penned on why these cultural symbols — so specific to the Yankee experience — have such global appeal.

The examples abound of the traveling power of this popular music genre that blends folk, blues slavery-era spirituals and Southern gospel. One famous story recounts that during his time as a political prisoner, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was allowed to play one song over the loudspeakers. What tune did he pick? The Dolly Parton classic "Jolene," in which the Tennessee icon pleads with another woman not to take her man.

Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow freedom fighter in the cell next to Mandela, told the podcast "Dolly Parton's America" that the choice was somehow perfectly natural: "We are all human beings. The jailed and the jailer. But we all come from one country, but we all don't want to lose. Whether it's a man or your country, nobody wants to be hurt. Don't hurt me."

With this theme of art's ability to transcend geographic boundaries in mind (and to mark International Country Music Day, here's a swinging tour of country music's worldwide influence.

Africa: Classic Country Imports And Kenya's Own Elvis

Nigerian country music singer-songwriter Ogak Jay Oke — Photo: Mgbo
  • Back in 2007, NPR reported about the popularity of country music in Nairobi, Kenya — particularly Dolly Parton and Texan singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers, who received extensive television and radio play. Reporter Gwen Thompkins highlighted how, despite cultural differences, Kenyans found strength and a common ground in songs about agriculture-based economies facing societal and political challenges. As Henry Makhoka, the head of programming at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told Thompkins: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
  • In fact, country music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s, with local artists across the continent interpreting the genre's musical and thematic elements (see Ivory Coast duo Jess Sah Bi & Peter One and Nigerian country-disco pioneer Emma Ogosi). Many harken back to country music's roots; the banjo was in fact an instrument brought to the Americas by African slaves.
  • Currently, one of the biggest country stars is Elvis Othieno (a.k.a. Sir Elvis), who grew up in a country music-loving household and was inspired by Garth Brooks and Hank Williams. Originally from Kenya, Sir Levis has performed around the world — he started his first country band while living in Norway — and is part of a generation of African country stars that also includes newcomers Esther Konkara and Ogak Jay Oke, who hails from Nigeria.

Asia: A John Denver Classic Hits Home

John Denver in 1975 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is known for its rich depictions of Japanese culture and mythology, so it's somewhat surprising that the 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart centers around a country song: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver's ode to West Virginia is a unique fit in the coming of age story about the stress of urban life in Tokyo, but Studio Ghibli is far from the first to adapt "Country Roads" to a foreign audience.
  • The song has been covered by over 150 artists (from Olivia Newton-John to Hiwain singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) in at least 19 different languages, from Hindi to Greek to Hebrew, often changing the lyrics to be about the singer's homeland. Researchers in 2009 found that it was the most popular American song among college students in China. (Denver was in fact one of the first American artists to tour modern China in 1985 and his music was played widely on Armed Forces Radio in countries like Philippines, Korea and Vietnam where the U.S. had an important military presence.)
  • This ode to the Appalachian Mountains also has a special meaning for many who came to the U.S. searching for the American Dream. As Jason Jeong wrote in the Atlantic, many Asian-American immigrants see the song as both "an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States" and "a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life."

France: Translating Country Sounds — And Dance Moves

Linedancing in France — Photo: Country-France Facebook page
  • France, a country proud of both its language and cultural output, has a long history of rock stars pillaging country standards, often completely changing the songs' meanings: from American-French singer Joe Dassin changing "City of New Orleans" into "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello Lovers") to "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home" by Bobby Bare somehow becaming Richard Anthony's "J'entends siffler le train" ("I Hear the Train Whistle").
  • Whether it's creative liberty or cross-cultural miscommunication, this trend has been popular since the days of big '60s household names like Johnny Hallyday to Eddy Mitchell to Hugues Aufray. The result usually infuses the French ennui of the "everyday man" into these American classics.
  • Line dancing has also become somewhat of a phenomenon in France, with clubs around the country (especially in more rural areas) featuring dancers who dress the part in cowboy hats and boots. According to weekly news magazine L'Express, some 4 million people — nearly 9% of the French population over 18 — have tried country-style dances.



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