During a person’s younger years, their parents play a vital role in helping them grow as an individual. Moms and dads across the world have an incredible responsibility, as they must guide their child through those early stages of life. With that in mind, a Japanese woman named Asako faced a big challenge.
A resident of Japan, Asako is the mother of a girl named Megumi, whom she raised by herself. In fact, following Megumi’s birth, her dad left home and didn’t come back. And in the years that followed, the youngster started to ask questions about her father, although she didn’t seem to be too affected by his absence.
However, as time passed Asako picked up on something quite troubling. Megumi’s demeanor had begun to change when she’d turned ten years old. The young girl had become increasingly unsociable, in fact, to the point that she was blocking out her mother out at home. As a result, Asako formulated a somewhat bizarre plan to remedy the situation.
It seemed that Megumi needed her father. But Asako couldn’t just produce him out of thin air. Or could she? A plan was subsequently hatched that saw the desperate mother hire a man named Ishii Yuichi to play the role of Megumi’s absent dad. For a fee of around $200 for every few hours of his time, he would adopt the father’s identity and come back into their lives, with the girl completely unaware of the truth. And for the next decade, that set-up continued.
While this may sound completely bizarre to most people in the Western world, relatives for hire are a very real phenomenon in Japan. These businesses provide companionship to those in need. For example, they might be used by individuals who find the thought of attending an event or function alone daunting. And as we’ll see, in Japan, someone can be hired for almost every type of situation.
The Japanese man we hear about earlier, Ishii Yuichi, sought to capitalize upon this trend when he launched his own business named Family Romance. With a large number of actors at his disposal, Yuichi began to attract customers who wanted a “surrogate” to play a certain part in their life.
“The agency and proxy attendance service will be a substitute for someone and will be a service that helps you,” reads an explanatory post on the company’s website. “We receive about 250 requests a month, and our customer satisfaction rate is 98 percent.”
With those numbers in mind, Yuichi believes that Family Romance has the potential to become even bigger in the future. “It is a company that is moving, because of the desire to make people’s lives better,” he writes on the firm’s website. “[We are] a venture company presenting new common sense to the world through the web.”
While Family Romance provides actors for commonplace events such as weddings, its services extend far beyond that. Indeed, Yuichi’s company can be called upon in numerous different situations. And one in particular stands out: if a person wants to avoid an angry dressing down at work, they can recruit a stand-in to take the brunt of it.
To provide some background, Yuichi explained to The Atlantic in November 2017 that business people in Japan are expected to make a personal apology to an organization if they’re responsible for an error. According to him, such meetings usually end with the person dropping down to their knees and asking for forgiveness. However, thanks to Family Romance, that no longer has to be the case.
During the interview, Yuichi recalled some of his experiences in those particular situations. “Usually, I accompany a salaryman who made a mistake,” he said. “I take the identity of the salaryman myself, then I apologize profusely for his mistake. Have you seen the way we say sorry?”
“You have to go down on your hands and knees on the floor,” Yuichi continued. “Your hands have to tremble. So, my client is there standing off to the side – the one who actually made the mistake – and I’m prostrate on the floor writhing around. And the boss is there red-faced as he hurls down abuse from above.”
Unsurprisingly, Yuichi can often find such moments a little awkward. “I [would] feel extremely uncomfortable,” he added. “I’m just thinking, ‘I’m innocent!’ I want to point at the actual culprit and shout, ‘He did it!’” Family Romance’s services don’t end there, either.
In other instances, the company can be called upon by people looking to fix a relationship. According to Yuichi, women who’ve been unfaithful to their partners have contacted Family Romance to help smooth things over. To pull that off, an actor would play the role of the “other man” and apologize to the husband or boyfriend.
However, to avoid any physical confrontations with the angered spouse, Yuichi uses an ingenious ruse. “There’s a manual for everything in this company,” he explained. “We use psychology to determine the optimal outcome. In this case, the standard tactic is to make me look like a yakuza [gangster].”
And Yuichi’s tactics normally lead to a peaceful conclusion. “Typically, I arrive with the wife, and the husband is there. And suddenly I will just bow then deeply apologize,” the Family Romance founder added. “Usually, the husband will berate me, but because I appear to be a yakuza, he won’t pursue the matter further.”
Away from these more intense jobs, Yuichi can also play the role of a boyfriend, although there are boundaries he won’t cross. As the business owner explained, this would be a platonic arrangement with no sexual intimacy. And having had plenty of experience as a “fake” partner, he tried to sum up why ladies wanted to hire him.
“The women typically say that in a real relationship, you’re slowly building trust,” Yuichi explained. “It takes years to create a strong connection. For them, it’s a lot of hassle and disappointment. Imagine investing five years with someone and then they break up with you. It’s just easier to schedule two hours per week to interact with an ideal boyfriend.”
Meanwhile, the origins of Yuichi’s company stemmed from a somewhat unusual situation. Many years ago, one of his single friends needed some help regarding their child’s school. He subsequently stepped in, taking on the part of the boy’s dad at a crucial meeting.
“I had a single-mother friend, and she had a son,” Yuichi explained. “He was trying to enter a private school, but they denied him solely because he had no father. I wanted to challenge the unfairness of Japanese society, so I posed as his father. [I wasn’t successful] in that situation, but it inspired the idea for this business.”
Moreover, that Japanese mindset of treating children differently if they’re from a single parent household eventually led Yuichi to his most challenging role. Much like that first job, he was contacted by a concerned mother – but this time there was a key difference, and it would see his skills really put to the test.
In fact, it was Asako who reached out to Yuichi for help. As we’ve heard, being a single mother to Megumi, she’d watched her daughter grow up without a father figure. During her child’s early years, Asako hadn’t foreseen any major issues relating to Megumi’s dad being absent. But that would all change, of course.
“Ever since [Megumi] was little, she’d ask me where [her dad] was,” Asako told BBC News in November 2018. “All she knew was that he had gone soon after she was born, so she blamed herself.” However, it wasn’t until years later that the Japanese mother noticed the true impact the father’s departure had had on her daughter. Indeed, she started to witness worrying changes in Megumi’s behavior as she grew older.
According to Asako, Megumi became quite introverted as a ten year old and shut herself away from the world. The mom eventually found out that this was a result of bullying at school. The “stigma” of being raised by a single parent had apparently led to this abuse, so there wasn’t an obvious solution.
At that point, as she started to read about companies such as Family Romance, Asako decided to take some drastic measures to help her daughter. Her plan was to hire someone to play the role of Megumi’s father, hoping that would fill the void in her daughter’s life. And following a few discussions, she chose Yuichi for the part.
“I found [Yuichi to be] the easiest to talk to,” Asako continued. “He’s very kind and sweet, so I just followed my instincts. My requests were very simple. Firstly, I wanted him to say how sorry he was that he couldn’t be in Megumi’s life until then. Secondly, I wanted him to listen to whatever she wanted to tell him.”
With the instructions in place, Yuichi then began to prepare himself for the role of “Yamada.” Films proved to be the biggest influence in the end, as he didn’t have any personal experience of parenthood. From there, Asako put together a plausible back-story, in which Megumi’s “dad” had another family.
After that, Asako informed Megumi that her dad wanted to reconnect with them, which led to the first meeting. “It was a very complex emotion that was there,” Yuichi told to BBC News. “She asked me why I hadn’t come to see her before, and I felt her resentment.” Despite that, though, the elaborate plan appeared to work.
Yuichi started meeting up with Megumi and Asako each month, in fact, all the while maintaining the persona of Yamada. “After a time, Megumi became much happier and more outgoing,” the mom said. “She loved to talk, she was lively. She even wanted to go back to school, and that’s when I thought, ‘This has all been worth it!’”
And Yuichi has continued to play the role of Megumi’s father for the past decade. He explained that the job will only come to an end if Asako decides to pull the plug. However, the future threatens a host of potential complications if he keeps up the act.
“If the client never reveals the truth, I must continue the role indefinitely,” Yuichi told The Atlantic. “If the daughter gets married, I have to act as a father in that wedding. And then I have to be the grandfather. So, I always ask every client, ‘Are you prepared to sustain this lie?’ It’s the most significant problem our company has.”
Given the possible longevity of a role like this, Family Romance has a strict policy in place for its actors. “In this company, one person can only have five families at a time,” Yuichi said. “That’s the rule. It’s not only about secrecy. The client always asks for the ideal husband, the ideal father. That’s a very difficult role to maintain.”
Yuichi proceeded to touch upon his ongoing relationship with Megumi, who completed her high school studies back in 2017. Despite spending so much time with her over the past few years, he said he hasn’t lost sight of the fact that that this is just a job. With that being said, though, the Family Romance owner still can’t escape one particular emotion.
“It’s a business,” Yuichi continued. “I’m not going to be [Megumi’s] father for 24 hours. It’s a set time. When I am acting with her, I don’t really feel that I love her. But when the session is over and I have to go, I do feel a little sad.”
“The kids cry sometimes,” Yuichi added. “They say, ‘Why do you have to leave?’ In those instances, I feel very sorry that I’m faking it – very guilty.” On the subject of complex emotions, Asako’s job was arguably even tougher, as she had to maintain the facade at all times back home as well.
Nonetheless, Asako has continued to stand by the bold decisions she’s made over the past decade. The mother has never forgotten the desperation she’d felt before hiring Yuichi. But in another twist, she’s had to face down an additional challenge that threatened everything they’d built together.
“When the three of us are together, I feel at peace,” Asako said of her relationship with Megumi and Yuichi, during the interview with BBC News. “We talk, we laugh, and we are very kind to each other. He’s been in our lives for such a long time now, I would like to marry him and become a real family.”
Ultimately, though, Asako knew that just wouldn’t be possible in the end. “I have told [Yuichi how I feel], but he told me to my face that he’s with us because it’s his job,” she said. “It’s very complicated. I’m very aware that he’s only with us because we’re paying him.”
As for the secret itself, Yuichi has naturally considered what might happen if Megumi did eventually discover the truth. In his mind, there’s a good chance that she wouldn’t react too badly. And even in a worst-case scenario, the business owner still believed she would appreciate the work he’s done.
Asako, meanwhile, had one last thing to say on the matter. “I know some people think it’s foolish to pay money to lie to my own daughter and to have a pretend father, but I was desperate,” the mom added. “My situation isn’t unique. I’m sure there are loads more surrogate fathers and mothers out there.”