The scene: a wedding in Saitama, north of Tokyo. While the 60 guests tuck into dinner, a manager from the groom's law firm stands, calls for quiet and begins reading a speech. "He's a terrific guy, as everyone who knows him will tell you," says the balding, middle-aged manager, glancing fondly at his young charge. "We're very lucky to have him at the company because he works so hard."
As the strains of "Auld Lang Syne" drift from the speakers and the guests stand to applaud, he finishes with a flourish: "Please join me in congratulating this wonderful couple." Eyes are dabbed with hankies, kisses and handshakes exchanged and the manager pats the groom on the back.
All par for the course at any decent Japanese wedding – and all totally bogus. Until the "manager", Kaoru Miyazaki, walked into the wedding in May, he had never set eyes on the groom. Mr Miyazaki, 41, had received the speech – which had been written by the groom – in his inbox the day before, along with instructions on how to play the role.
He spent an hour practicing it before donning a suit and pocketing ¥18,000 (£125) for the gig, including ¥4,000 extra for performing the speech, considered a minor ordeal in Japanese culture. Both parties think it is money well spent. "I helped make the guests happy and they really appreciated what I said," says Mr Miyazaki. "I feel privileged to have done them a service."
Hiring a stranger to eulogise another stranger at one of life's more precious moments might seem strange, but that's not the half of it. The company that supplied Mr Miyazaki, Hagemashi-tai – literally meaning, "We want to cheer you up" – hires actors for many other occasions, too.
Need to have your photo taken with a good-looking guy to show off to your mates? Check. How about a friend for a trip to Tokyo Disneyland? Check. Or let's say your child has been caught shoplifting and, as a single parent, you can't face the storeowner alone with an apology. No problem: Hagemashi-tai's boss, Ryuichi Ichinokawa, will play your husband and accompany your child back to the scene of the crime. "We try to help anyone who comes to us," the 44-year-old says.
When not playing the roles himself, Mr Ichinokawa pays a roster of part-time actors around Japan about ¥15,000 for a four-hour gig. Since starting Hagemashi-tai about three years ago, initially as an NPO-style online counselling service, he estimates he has helped over 200 people. "Some of them are lonely or really in trouble," he says, recalling his most memorable gigs. On one occasion, he played the new partner of a woman in a meeting with her ex-husband, who had a history of domestic violence. "She was scared of him, and second husbands sometimes don't want to get involved in that stuff," he explains.
Families that are looking to pad out wedding parties are the most common clients: a lopsided guest list in a country where weddings are highly ritualised and formal affairs involve a lot of "face" for both families is an embarrassment. Other companies in the booming dispatch agency business rent out old friends from junior high school, bosses, uncles, distant relatives and spouses to wedding ceremonies. The actors are paid a bonus to speak, sing or sometimes even dance. Even funerals have been known to include a few paid fakers among the mourners, though, as Mr Miyazaki admits, that's a tougher gig. "You would have to work much harder because the guests aren't very cheerful."
For many clients, these services offer a convenient way of papering over social cracks. Some don't have enough real friends to fill up a room, others distrust the friends and family they have, or don't want to put them under pressure of having to perform an onerous social task. "I didn't trust anyone I knew to speak well, so I preferred to hire someone instead," says Miyuki Sato (a pseudonym), who asked Osaka-based firm Office Agents to supply a friend from school at her wedding last year.
She admits that she initially blanched at the thought of using an actor but then thought, why not? "I wanted to make everything perfect for my family and this seemed the easiest way because nothing was left to chance."
Amid the recession, a growing number of clients are requesting "fronts" for a lifestyle they no longer enjoy: fake bosses for the recently unemployed, for example, are a way of impressing the family of the bride. A former client of Hagemashi-tai, Ayumi Osanai, 38, simply needed someone to talk to. "I was bullied a lot at school and I'm basically afraid of people," she says. The firm sent a "friend" to stroll with her around her neighbourhood in Shizuoka, in the south-west of Tokyo, and talk about music – her first love. "I had psychiatric problems and was hospitalised, but I found the doctors completely useless. They just gave me drugs. It was much more helpful for me to talk to someone."
Observers say the rent-a-friend trend is a sign of an accelerated deterioration in personal and professional relationships. In the past, many companies were family-like affairs where workers spent most of their lives and knew their bosses.
But the post-1990s disintegration of lifetime employment and the rise of temp agencies – about one third of the Japanese workforce is now casual or part-time – has fractured many of these bonds. Increasingly, family life offers little refuge: grandparents, once unpaid psychiatrists to millions of young Japanese, mostly live apart from their children. A growing number of people are putting off marriage or children and leading atomised, lonely lives in cramped urban apartments.
"The situation at work and home has worsened and you don't have a boss or family who know you," says David Slater, an anthropologist at Tokyo's Sophia University. "But the expectation that families and companies will look after you for life is lingering on. We're still living as if we were in Japan Inc, where all the family and work structures were, at least, ceremonially intact."
That collective desire for the ceremonial touchstones of the past naturally looms largest at events such as weddings. But the broader need for human contact in a culture that traditionally distrusts naked displays of emotion is fuelling other services too. Some non-profit organisations have begun using fakers to help deal with social problems like hikikomori – hermit-like people who have shut themselves indoors, in many cases for years.
Daisuke Kajiya, 26, for example, was hired by the families of "shut-ins" to play a "friend", who would lure them out of their room. "I start with a letter or email, then a visit and later an outing," he explains. If all goes well, the two end up sharing an apartment paid for by the NPO and the shut-in should be on his way to rehabilitation. "Nobody is trying to make money, it's just a way of trying to help those in need," says Mr Kajiya.
Businesses have been quick to note, however, that providing to the needy can be lucrative. Take the Royal Milk café in Akihabara, the centre of Japan's geeky otaku culture. There you'll find Lilly, a sort of manga character brought to life: doe-eyed and petite in a starchy candy-coloured pinafore that sends clouds of scented soap into the air when she walks.
For ¥6,000 yen, she guides men to a pink room filled with stuffed toys and provides 30 minutes of pure affirmation. Fears about exams, work and relationships are spirited away in the lightly perfumed air. "I try to heal my customers by telling them how cool they are," she chirps.
In other parts of the world, Lilly's young male customers might visit psychiatrists, or even talk to their friends, but Japan has yet to embrace the analysis culture of the US. "Right now everyone is so desperate for that kind of contact, and people are figuring out that you can make money providing it," says Mr Slater.
One of the first companies to realise this was Office Agents, which has a troop of about 1,000 fakers ready for the unlikeliest role. Mr Ichinokawa says their "agents" are all down-to-earth people who believe they are helping others. Most have other sources of income; some are part-time actors. There is no formal training: the key quality looked for in recruits is the ability to blend into a crowd. "If they're too good-looking, or if they behave in an odd way such as by drinking too much, their cover will be blown," says Mr Ichinokawa. "They have to be like me – ordinary," he laughs.
However easily they blend in, most fakers take no chances. Most stick to talking with the few who know who they are, and leave as soon as it is polite. If approached by someone, best stick to platitudes, advises fake manager Mr Miyazaki. "I just said what a great guy the groom is and how hard he works." Who could disagree with that?
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