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Japan’s Rent-a-Family Industry
The New Yorker · Elif Batuman · 4/23/18
The New Yorker
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10 comments
52 min read

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  • erica - 1 month ago
    Part of me thinks, we need to learn how to accept and let go. But another part of me thinks this is beautiful. I love that Nishida's rental wife and daughter start to act like themselves, and that Reiko doesn't become disillusioned when she learns that Inaba is Ishii.
    Ishii says that his goal is “to bring about a society where no one needs our service.” I wonder if that's the goal of every CEO: they identify a problem, found a company to address that problem, and hope that their company solves the problem and so becomes obsolete.
    I had this thought, and then I read it: "And what are babysitters, nurses, and cooks if not rental relatives, filling some of the roles traditionally performed by mothers, daughters, and wives?"
    This article reminds me of that Black Mirror episode where the woman's husband dies in a car accident, and she has "him" reconstructed and sort of reincarnated in physical form. It also reminds me of The Orphan Master's Son - how Jun Do takes the identity of Commander Ga and becomes Sun Moon's replacement husband.
  • Pegeen - 2 months ago
    Wow, Elif Batuman has taken me on the wildest of rides! What an absolutely far out concept! There is much to consider and I will certainly be reading it again with pen in hand. Very memorable piece. Absolutely loved it.
  • jlcipriani - 2 months ago
    I found this moving and lovely and deeply sad - which I guess is really just a response to our bone-deep human need for connection and care - and the wrenching emptiness when that connection and care are absent.
    I was initially most troubled by the deceptive aspects - not the man hiring a fake wife and daughter, where all parties are aware of the nature of the interaction- but the fake weddings and apologies and thinner parents (ouch) and boyfriends. Some (but not all, I am too American for that) of my outrage was abated by the passage describing the significance that societal expectations play in Japan and the gratitude that the wife expressed for her husband hiring fake parents to save her the difficulty of dealing with the fact that his actual parents are dead.
    I think that the issue of whether there can be unconditional love without the exchange of money mistakenly conflates the concepts of love and care. Love is the feeling, and care can be either the expression of such feeling, or a commodity. It is the concept of unconditional love which is blindly exalted in our society without examination. Love that survives ill-treatment is certainly a reality - but that is not the same as an unlimited willingness to provide care in any form for an unlimited amount of time or regardless of one’s own circumstances and emotional or financial resources.
  • Ericwhitney808 - 2 months ago
    Beyond the great reporting and writing, not to mention the fascinating subject matter, what struck me was the historical research in the middle. Her vignettes on the conceptual evolution of “family” in Japan as well as the intersections of familial expectations with feminism, Marxism and capitalism, and Freud really made me pause.

    I had never fully considered the fundamental assumptions we carry about our relationships and how much they are shaped by our social and economic context. What a wild ride. I need a massage.
    • crystalhanakim - 2 months ago
      This was such a fascinating read. Elif Batuman is an incredible writer, and I thought in addition to the research, she brought a lot of conscience and empathy to the piece. I agree with Eric that the historical research was interesting. Coming from a Korean family, those explanations about the evolution of family in Japan made a lot of sense to me, though I hadn't thought 'family' in those exact ways before.

      I felt so conflicted while reading this article. Moved, sympathetic, confused, a bit horrified at all of the deception. What an incredible read!
  • geolina - 2 months ago
    Just great. And I know now I need to go to Japan to see with my own eyes what a culture that is. What kinda of drama, and stigma, and lack of love, one can come across.
  • jamie - 2 months ago
    This was a detailed and disturbing article with many different angles . I was both disturbed and at times touched by the need many of us have for human connection. "Is it possible to have unconditional love without paying for it?" ?
  • bill - 2 months ago
    This is wild and crazy and fascinating stuff that left me in a stupor. Multiple times I had to stop, stand up, pace around, then return. It’s a ton to process. Twenty-four hours and another full reading later, I’m still shell-shocked. Here’s a re-enactment of my first pass: Wow. Wait, whoaaaa. No!! What? YES! Wowwwww. WOWOWOW!!

    How we love is how we live and the way that souls find and attach—or attempt to attach—to others is the story of the history of humanity. What Elif Batuman has accomplished here is nothing short of magic. This yanked me from fear to optimism and back again. And again. Revelation after revelation, each one an explosion, all with “the eerie ring of something uttered at a séance.”

    I still can’t decide if this is dark or light.

    I guess it’s just.... who we are.
    • courtney - 2 months ago
      I think I had the same initial reaction of wow this is dark, but after taking the day to reflect on it I think it's sort of beautiful. It seems like a lot of the surrogates are really considerate of their clients and want to provide some sort of comfort to those struggling in need.

      I was reminded of all of the people that work in hospice care, a lot of times just providing companionship to those whose family's don't want to deal with it. The more I thought on it the more it seems like a symbiotic relationship. The actors get paid, gets to feel like they're providing something meaningful, and the clients get to fill an emotional void. In it's own way I think it can take on a form of therapy, though, I wonder if a lot of their business would exist without intense societal stigma.
  • joanne - 2 months ago
    I agree with you Bill, what a wild ride. Fascinating to creepy to pathetic and back to crazy. The more emotional connection to the rental family member the more insane the story, hard to keep the lie from compounding. I think it might be fun to be a wedding extra but playing a dead wife seemed over the edge. And to think this goes on in a culture that stigmatizes talk therapy. It's well worth the hour.