Photo by Miho Aikawa / Getty / Katie Martin / The Atlantic
Money may not be able to buy love, but here in Japan, it can certainly buy the appearance of love—and appearance, as the dapper Ishii Yuichi insists, is everything. As a man whose business involves becoming other people, Yuichi would know. The handsome and charming 36-year-old is on call to be your best friend, your husband, your father, or even a mourner at your funeral.
His 8-year-old company, Family Romance, provides professional actors to fill any role in the personal lives of clients. With a burgeoning staff of 800 or so actors, ranging from infants to the elderly, the organization prides itself on being able to provide a surrogate for almost any conceivable situation.
Yuichi believes that Family Romance helps people cope with unbearable absences or perceived deficiencies in their lives. In an increasingly isolated and entitled society, the CEO predicts the exponential growth of his business and others like it, as à la carte human interaction becomes the new norm.
I sat down recently with Yuichi in a café on the outskirts of Tokyo, to discuss his business and what it means to be, in the words of his company motto, “more than real.”
Roc Morin: Just to be perfectly clear, you’ve come as yourself today, haven’t you?
Ishii Yuichi: Yes, at this moment I am only myself.
Morin: What was your very first role?
Yuichi: I had a single-mother friend, and she had a son. 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.
Morin: Were you successful?
Yuichi: Not in that situation. But, it inspired the idea for this business.
Morin: When was your first success?
Yuichi: I played a father for a 12-year-old with a single mother. The girl was bullied because she didn’t have a dad, so the mother rented me. I’ve acted as the girl’s father ever since. I am the only real father that she knows.
Morin: And this is ongoing?
Yuichi: Yes, I’ve been seeing her for eight years. She just graduated high school.
Morin: Does she understand that you’re not her real father?
Yuichi: No, the mother hasn’t told her.
Morin: How do you think she would feel if she discovered the truth?
Yuichi: I think she would be shocked. If the client never reveals the truth, I must continue the role indefinitely. 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.
Morin: So, you could be involved with her for the rest of your life?
Yuichi: It’s risky that she might discover the truth someday. In this company, one person can only have five families at a time. 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.
. Photo by Roc Morin.
Morin: How do you determine what the ideal husband or father is?
Yuichi: There’s an order form where every possible preference is listed: hairstyle, glasses, beard, fashion sense ... Do you like classy or casual? Is he affectionate or stern? When he arrives, should he be talkative or tired from a long day at work?
Morin: What did the mother you mentioned earlier request on her form?
Yuichi: She wanted the father to be kind, very kind. He would never yell. She wanted the kind of father that would be able to deliver wise advice.
Morin: How did you create that persona?
Yuichi: I’m not married in real life. I have no kids. At first, I couldn’t really find in myself the kind of father that she wanted me to be. So, I watched a lot of movies about fathers, and I cultivated my persona through the movies.
Morin: Can you describe the sessions with your fake daughter?
Yuichi: Sometimes we dine together. We’ve been to theme parks, like Disneyland. We go shopping in Harajuku once a month. The mother pays about 20,000 yen per four hours, plus expenses. That’s about $200.
Morin: What’s your cover story?
Yuichi: I told her I have my own family now, and that’s why I can’t see her often.
Morin: What happened to the real father?
Yuichi: Even the mother doesn’t know. There was a lot of physical violence. They divorced, and that was the end of it.
Morin: Did you take his name?
Yuichi: Yes, I use the father’s name—first and last.
Morin: How do you handle it when the daughter gets angry or sad?
Yuichi: I never yell, no matter what. That was in the order-form description. The girl was bullied also, if you remember, so her feelings can be very unsettling. There was also a rebellious time, in her teens. She was having difficulties with her mother. When she’s with me, though, she always asks, “Why do you have to leave now?” It’s unpleasant, but it is a reasonable emotion.
Morin: Does she love you?
Yuichi: She does. It’s easy to feel her love. She talks about her relationship with her mother, she shares sensitive feelings, she opens up to me.
Morin: Does any aspect of your real self seep in?
Yuichi: I don’t allow it to, otherwise I would become self-conscious.
Morin: Do you feel like you have a responsibility to the daughter, because of your connection to her now?
Yuichi: Depending on the situation, it’s different. The heaviness is different, but everywhere I go, I feel it—the responsibility.
Morin: When you’re working, is it purely acting, or do the feelings ever become real?
Yuichi: It’s a business. I’m not going to be her 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. They say, “Why do you have to leave?” In those instances, I feel very sorry that I’m faking it—very guilty. There are times, when I’m done with the work and I come back home, where I sit and watch TV. I find myself wondering, “Is this, now, the real me, or the actor?”
Morin: How do you answer that question?
Yuichi: I don’t think I have an answer. The person that used to be me—is he me now? I know that it’s common for actors to feel that way. If you’re a really good actor—if you’re in it all the time—it feels very unsettling.
Morin: When do you feel the most like yourself?
Yuichi: When I’m with my family, my real family. It’s agonizing to be alone and just think, “Is this really me, right now?” The inner monologues are tough.
Morin: How do you know that your family hasn’t been hired?
Yuichi: That’s a good question! No one knows.
Morin: I have a project collecting dreams, and often work is a common theme. Do you dream about your work?
Yuichi: I dream about my client—when she cries because I have to leave. It’s a very emotional situation.
Morin: How is the dream different from reality?
Yuichi: Sometimes, in the dream, I tell her the truth.
Morin: What do you say?
Yuichi: I say, “I’m very sorry. I’m a member of the Family Romance corporation. I’m not your true father.” Right before she can respond—just as she opens her mouth to speak, I wake up. I am terrified of the answer, so I just wake up.
Morin: Are you ever someone else in your dreams?
Yuichi: In Japanese business culture, there is a situation where you have to visit a company and say I’m deeply sorry for what I did and just bow and bow. Occasionally, I dream about that.
Morin: How does that work when you’re hired to do that in real life?
Yuichi: Usually, I accompany a salaryman who made a mistake. I take the identity of the salaryman myself, then I apologize profusely for his mistake. Have you seen the way we say sorry? You go have to down on your hands and knees on the floor. 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. Sometimes, I wonder to myself, “Am I actually doing this?”
Morin: What do you feel?
Yuichi: I feel extremely uncomfortable. I’m just thinking, “I’m innocent!” I want to point at the actual culprit and shout, “He did it!”
Morin: Are you ever hired to apologize in other situations?
Yuichi: Yes, sometimes in relationships. Imagine there’s a married couple, and the wife cheats on the husband. When that happens, the husband often demands a confrontation with the other man. Naturally, this can be difficult to arrange, because the man usually runs away. In that case, they bring me instead.
Morin: What happens then?
Yuichi: There’s a manual for everything in this company. We use psychology to determine the optimal outcome. In this case, the standard tactic is to make me look like a yakuza [gangster]. Typically, I arrive with the wife, and the husband is there, and suddenly I will just bow then deeply apologize. Usually, the husband will berate me, but because I appear to be a yakuza, he won’t pursue the matter further.
Morin: I understand you work as a boyfriend too. Can you describe that experience?
Yuichi: Those clients are usually older ladies. It used to be primarily women in their 50s, but now there are even more women in their 30s.
Morin: Is this sexual or just platonic?
Yuichi: It’s a dating situation. It’s not about having sexual relations, although some women have expected that. Generally, the women just want to have fun with a younger man. They want to feel young again.
Morin: Why do you think these women hire you?
Yuichi: The women typically say that in a real relationship, you’re slowly building trust. 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. There’s no conflict, no jealousy, no bad habits. Everything is perfect.
Morin: You’ve been on so many fake dates—what is it like for you, in your own personal life, to go on an actual date?
Yuichi: I don’t have a real girlfriend right now. Real dating feels like work. It feels like work to care for a real person.
Morin: Do you plan on having a family someday?
Yuichi: Honestly, I’m full. I’m full of family, and I feel like it’s a lot to manage. Sometimes, a client asks me to be there in the room when she gives birth. One time, the client was a pregnant woman, and rather than ask her parents, she wanted me to be there. So, I went. Some women propose to me, and I say no, but it’s very hard for me to say no.
Yuichi: Many women say, “I want to marry you.” I say, “You’re in love with an order form. It’s not me—it’s the acting that you love.” If I married her, I’d have to keep acting. And, there are certain women who are wonderful, but the soul I have with them is not my real soul. So, I cannot and I would not.
Morin: Do you ever prefer playing a role to being yourself?
Yuichi: I like playing the caring father. I play with the kids, even when I’m tired. It’s very tough when you're exhausted, but you still show up, and you try to create happiness. That’s the kind of father I admire, even when it’s me.
Morin: What is your favorite role?
Yuichi: It doesn’t happen often, but there are cases when I have to be a groom. There are situations where parents pressure a daughter to marry—if she’s a lesbian, for example. So, they have an entire wedding, and it’s a fake wedding, except for the client’s family. The friends, and everyone else are fake. My side is all fake. Fifty fake people all pretending it’s real. The cost is 2 million yen, for everyone.
Morin: How many times have you been married?
Yuichi: Three times.
Morin: And the brides—they never see you again?
Yuichi: We never meet again.
Morin: Do the brides get emotional—having to marry a stranger?
Yuichi: The women usually don’t like showing emotion to me, but sometimes I feel emotional. Everyone on my side is a coworker, and they’re all celebrating me. So, there is a moment when it does seem very real.
Morin: Why do you think this kind of business thrives in Japan specifically?
Yuichi: The Japanese are not expressive people. There is a communication deficit. In conversation, we do not express ourselves, our opinions, our emotions. Others come first, before our own desires. The family size is diminishing too. Families used to be larger. Now, you eat alone.
Morin: What do you predict for the future of your business?
Yuichi: The demand is increasing. More people, for example, want help to appear popular on social media. We had one man recently who paid a huge sum just to fly with five employees to Las Vegas and take pictures for Facebook.
Morin: Have you or any of your employees hired other actors for your own lives?
Yuichi: It happens. For instance, some employees hire actors to praise them in the presence of people they want to impress. Personally, when I throw speaking seminars, I often bring extras to bolster the crowd.
Morin: Is everyone in the world replaceable?
Yuichi: That’s a very good question. I’m not sure. There was one case of a man in his 60s. His wife died, and he wanted to order another copy of her. We provided that.
Morin: And he called the new woman by his wife’s old name?
Yuichi: Yes, the same name, and he wanted her to call him what his wife had. She called him Otōsan—it means father. In Japan, it’s pretty common to say father, even if you’re the wife.
Morin: Did she have the same memories as the wife?
Yuichi: There are certain memories, yes. There’s a blank sheet, and the client writes the memories that he wants the wife to remember.
Morin: When your employees mimic a strong emotional connection like that—is it ever a problem that they become too emotionally attached to their clients?
Yuichi: Attachment is a problem. So, there are rules. They cannot share personal contact information. If it’s a boyfriend or girlfriend scenario, they cannot be alone in a room. They can hold hands, but they cannot hug. No kissing. No sex.
Morin: What makes your company different from competitors?
Yuichi: We have a huge variation of employees and the dedication to create an experience that surpasses reality. That’s why our motto is “more than real.” We had a case recently where a dying man wanted to see his grandchild, but it would not have been born in time. His daughter was able to rent an infant for the day.
Morin: What does it mean to be “more than real”?
Yuichi: There are less concerns. There is less misunderstanding and conflict. Our clients can expect better results.
Morin: You’re offering a more perfect form of reality?
Yuichi: More ideal. More clean.
Morin: Are there any requests that you’ve rejected?
Yuichi: Unless it’s a crime, we will accept any request. Some people with anorexia, for example, want to see people who are willing to eat in front of them. They just find relief in watching a person who eats a lot. We will even do that.
Morin: What does the word “real” mean to you?
Yuichi: I believe the term “real” is misguided. Take Facebook, for example. Is that real? Even if the people in the pictures haven’t been paid, everything is curated to such an extent that it hardly matters.
Morin: Do you believe that the concept of “realness” has become invalid?
Yuichi: I believe that the world is always unfair, and my business exists because of that unfairness.
Morin: So, you are correcting injustice?
Yuichi: A woman with a boyfriend doesn’t need to hire a boyfriend. A man with a father doesn’t need to hire a father. It's about bringing balance to society.
Morin: Is it possible to avoid the truth forever?
Yuichi: The truth does have to come out eventually. The happiness is not endless, but that doesn’t mean that it’s without value. The child had a father when she needed him most. It might have been a brief period, and she might know the truth now, but she had a meaningful experience at that time.
Morin: In your own personal life, what do you want that you don't have?
Yuichi: There is nothing more that I want. I've met so many clients. I've played so many roles with them. By doing my job, their dreams come true. In that way, my dreams come true as well. I feel fulfilled, just being needed.