Meet the Japanese man paid to do nothing

Shoji Morimoto has built a cult following by offering himself as a warm body who can simply be there, liberating his clients from social expectations, write Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Julia Mio Inuma

Wednesday 23 March 2022 09:58
Comments
<p>Shoji Morimoto, 38, known as Japan’s ‘do-nothing guy’, waits for his client at an underground station outside Tokyo</p>

Shoji Morimoto, 38, known as Japan’s ‘do-nothing guy’, waits for his client at an underground station outside Tokyo

Before moving out of Tokyo for her new job, Akari Shirai wanted to eat at the favourite restaurant she used to visit with her former husband. There was one issue: she didn’t want to be flooded with thoughts about her divorce by going alone. But she didn’t feel like inviting a friend and explaining the situation, either.

So she rented Japan’s “do-nothing guy”.

Their near-silent lunch lasted about 45 minutes. Shirai ordered her favourite dish and intermittently asked questions. She shared memories of her marriage with the man, and showed him a photo from her wedding. He nodded and gave curt answers, sometimes a dry laugh. He never initiated conversation.

It was exactly what Shirai wanted.

“I felt like I was with someone but at the same time felt like I wasn’t, since he existed in a way where I didn’t have to be attentive of his needs or think about him,” says Shirai, 27. “I felt no awkwardness or pressure to speak. It may have been the first time I’ve eaten in complete silence.”

For years, there’s been a cottage industry in Japan and South Korea of renting strangers to impersonate friends, family members or other acquaintances, as a way to save face at social functions where plus-ones are expected.

But over the past four years, Shoji Morimoto, 38, has built a cult following by offering himself as a warm body who can simply be there, liberating his clients from the social expectations of the spoken and unspoken norms of Japanese society. Morimoto – nicknamed “Rental-san”, which incorporates an honorific – has inspired a television series and three books, and has drawn international attention through his viral social media posts.

Morimoto’s gigs have run the gamut. He waited at the finish line of a marathon for a client who wanted to see a familiar face at the end of the race. Someone hired him to sit with them while they finished their thesis, because they might slack off if they were working alone. He listens to healthcare workers describe the mental health toll of the pandemic.

I think when people are feeling vulnerable or are in their intimate moments, they become more sensitive toward people that are close to them, like how they will be perceived

He charges 10,000 yen (about £64) per session, and is most frequently hired to accompany people who are at a turning point in life, or want to rewrite traumatic memories, or are facing a vulnerable moment that they feel uncomfortable sharing with friends or family. He’ll just be there, with no judgement, and away from their personal space.

One woman hired him to accompany her as she filed her divorce papers. He once sat with a client for a haemorrhoid surgery consultation – with plenty of graphic photos. Someone hired him for a dramatic farewell as they boarded a bullet train to move from Tokyo to Osaka; he showed up and waved goodbye.

Morimoto often finds that his clients don’t want to burden people they care about with their needs.

“I think when people are feeling vulnerable or are in their intimate moments, they become more sensitive toward people that are close to them, like how they will be perceived, or the kind of actions they will take for them,” he says. “So I think they want to just reach out to a stranger without any strings attached.”

Unlike in other areas of the rental industry, expectations of Morimoto are minimal. Still, he provides the sort of emotional support that many people crave but may have trouble finding, especially during a pandemic that has exacerbated feelings of isolation, says Yasushi Fujii, a psychology professor at Meisei University in Tokyo.

Akari Shirai buys a copy of Morimoto’s book as he stands nearby

“Interacting with friends and other people, there are always unknown factors that can come into play. But meeting with Rental-san, it’s very easy to know what to expect and to be in full control of the situation,” Fujii says.

A handful of other “rental” people have similar shticks, like a guy who gets hired to be treated to meals, and a self-professed “ugly” guy who claims to boost others’ self-esteem. But Morimoto has cornered his niche market of doing nothing for cash, and many people now hire him for the novelty.

Morimoto, who grew up in Kansai, a southern region of Japan, stumbled into the role after being told in previous jobs that he wasn’t doing enough and didn’t have enough initiative to succeed. He has now fulfilled roughly 4,000 inquiries, and has one to two clients a day, down from three to four before the pandemic. Between his gigs and royalties, he says, he makes enough to do his part in maintaining a dual-income household and raising a son.

“I was often told that I wasn’t doing enough, or that I wasn’t doing anything, so this became a complex for me. I decided to take advantage of this and make it into a business,” he says.

The lifestyle works well for Morimoto, who is not that talkative or expressive even when he’s not working. He wears his signature blue hat and a hoodie – and a blank stare – so that clients can easily recognise him, but dresses up when the situation requires him to look more formal.

Morimoto hesitates to make too many assumptions about why his business model has gained viral fame. He says he has learnt not to judge others, and to have empathy for people who may be going through deep personal challenges but aren’t showing it.

“Even if people look normal and fine on the surface, they often have shocking pasts or secrets, or impossible problems,” he says. “People who come to me with crazy problems, they’re usually not people who look like they’re suffering. Everyone, even the ones that seem well, all have their own sets of problems and secrets.”

© The Washington Post

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in