Culture Magazine

Family Life: I Don’t Understand Japanese Culture

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
I was looking through the video offerings on Amazon Prime and say that they had a number of Japanese programs. So I picked one, Happy Marriage!?, a live TV program based on a manga series from a few years back.
In the first episode we are introduced to Chiwa Takanashi, a young woman in her early twenties who works as a retail clerk during the day and at a hostess bar several evenings. She lives with her father, who lost his business to gambling and who continues to gamble. As far as I can tell, she’s now supporting him.
One night at the hostess bar she meets Hokuto Mamiya, a wealthy bachelor in his late twenties. He offers to marry her and she refuses. However, upon returning home she finds that two thugs have come to collect on her father’s gambling debts. One possibility is for her to work in a brothel until the debt is paid, and they offer her a contract to that effect. At this point I forget just what happened, but she doesn’t do it. Instead she takes Mr. Mamiya up on his offer; she’ll marry him.
Why’d he make the offer? It turns out that his grandfather, a wealthy industrialist, put him up to it as a condition for entering the family business. Why’d the old may do it – we may have passed into the second episode by now? Because Miss Takanashi is the granddaughter of a woman he’d loved in his youth but couldn’t marry because she wasn’t of a proper family.
And so it goes. I’m now five episodes in and it is, well, interesting. My point, though, is simply that you would have this kind of story originating in America. That’s not how our culture works.
That’s one example. Here’s another, from an article by Elif Batuman in The New Yorker. Kazushige Nishida is in his late sixties and his wife has just died. He’s also had an argument with his 22 year old daughter who subsequently left home. He’s feeling lonely. So he contracted with a company called Family Romance to rent wife and daughter surrogates with whom he’s had dinner several times and a rental fee of roughly $370 per evening.
Some paragraphs:
Nishida said that, although he still calls them by the names of his wife and daughter, and the meetings still take the form of family dinners, the women have, to some extent, stopped acting and “turned into their own selves.” The rental wife sometimes “breaks out of the shell of the rental family” enough to complain about her real husband, and Nishida gives her advice. With this loosening of the roles, he realized that he, too, had been acting, playing the part of “a good husband and father,” trying not to seem too miserable, telling his daughter how to hold her rice bowl. Now he felt lighter, able for the first time to talk about his real daughter, about how shocked he had been when she announced her decision to move in with a boyfriend he had never met, and how they had argued and broken off contact.
On the subject of the real daughter, the rental daughter had a lot to say: as someone in her early twenties, she could tell that Nishida hadn’t spoken correctly, or expressed himself in the right way. He’d made it hard for his daughter to apologize and it was up to him to create an opening. “Your daughter is waiting for you to call her,” she told him. To me, this sentence had the eerie ring of something uttered at a séance. Nishida himself seemed uncertain about how and for whom the rental daughter had spoken. “She was acting as a rental daughter, but at the same time she was telling me how she felt as a real daughter,” he said. “And yet, if it was a real father-daughter relationship, maybe she wouldn’t have spoken this honestly.”
Eventually, Nishida called his daughter—something he says he wouldn’t have done if the rental substitute hadn’t helped him see her point of view. It took a few tries to get through, but they were eventually able to talk. One day, he came home from work to find fresh flowers for his wife on the family altar, and he understood that his daughter had been at the house while he was gone.
“I’ve been telling her to come home,” he said carefully, folding and refolding a hand towel that the waitress had brought him. “I’m hoping to meet her again soon.”
Yūichi Ishii, the founder of Family Romance, told me that he and his “cast” actively strategize in order to engineer outcomes like Nishida’s, in which the rental family makes itself redundant in the client’s life. His goal, he said, is “to bring about a society where no one needs our service.”
Very interesting. The article is surprising and worth reading in full. Toward the end:
I’d started off assuming that the rental schema somehow undercut the idea of unconditional love. Now I found myself wondering whether it was even possible to get unconditional love without paying. The questions I’d been asking myself about what Ishii really felt for Reiko and her daughter made more sense when I thought about them in these terms. A person can do things professionally—for a set time, in exchange for money and recognition—that she can’t do indefinitely for free. I knew that Ishii had put a lot of preparation into his job, watching family movies to learn how “a kind father” would walk, talk, and eat. Likewise, I had read about a host-club worker who studied romance novels in order to be able to anticipate and fulfill his clients’ every need, and consequently had no time left for a personal life. “Women’s ideal romance entails hard work,” he said, “and that is nearly impossible in the real world.” He said he could never have worked so hard for a real girlfriend.

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