Life for rent: Exploring the mysterious world of human rental services in Japan

This article is originally published in Japantimes.

Hideki Nakahara, 66, is a retired Japan Airlines employee with years of experience in human resources. He graduated from Kyoto University with a degree in educational sociology. He is a great listener who can offer advice on everything from life and relationships to careers. He is married with two children. He charges just ¥1,000 per hour (including tax) for his services.

His services?

Nakahara is one of several “new products” featured on the Ossan Rental website, literally a service that dispatches middle-aged or elderly men.

“A lot of people need advice on their lives, their careers or their relationships,” Nakahara says. “I’m not a counselor, but I thought my experience might help someone out there.”

Nakahara was in the job market for 38 years, working with JAL for 34 of those.

Toward the end of his career, Nakahara was diagnosed with depression. And when he retired in 2012, he didn’t know what to do with himself. He felt lethargic and found it increasingly difficult to get out of the house.

“I didn’t have any local friends and your education, career or job description mean nothing when you’re an elderly man hanging around the neighborhood,” Nakahara says. “I began to wonder what my purpose in life was.”

After receiving treatment for his depression, Nakahara began to take action. He attended seminars where he met other retirees, sought volunteer opportunities, worked as an assistant for special needs children at an elementary school and taught students in after-school programs a few afternoons a week. Nakahara then approached a university and offered to work as a career counselor.

“I realized I shouldn’t just sit around and do nothing,” Nakahara says. “I was still in good shape physically and my mind was still in a reasonable condition despite suffering from depression.”

Reading the newspaper one day, he came across an article on Ossan Rental. Impressed by its objectives, he met with its founder, Takanobu Nishimoto, a few weeks later and signed up to join the roster of men on the website.

‘Cool’ middle-aged men

Fifty-year-old Nishimoto founded Ossan Rental in 2012.

Nishimoto has worked with individuals and department stores as a fashion coordinator, and also teaches at universities and vocational schools. One day, he overheard high school girls talking about how disgusting middle-aged men were with their ear hair and so on.

“It was then that I realized middle-aged men in general were considered ‘gross,’” Nishimoto says. “I wanted to do something to restore our reputation … and prove that middle-aged men were useful, that we were cool.”

He created a website and posted a profile of himself with a photo, offering to help others in whatever way they required. It didn’t take long before requests started to pour in. He has since worked with about 3,000 clients.

One of Nishimoto’s first clients was an 88-year-old woman he still sees frequently. Almost every week for the past six years, Nishimoto visits her in Chiba to chat and take walks.

Another woman asked Nishimoto to help her buy an outfit to wear to see her estranged son for the first time in 35 years. She is now living with that son. Nishimoto recalls another client who used the agency to confirm that her own husband “isn’t that bad.”

“There’s so much drama,” Nishimoto says. “There are moments when I feel happy or as if I’ve learned something myself because of the service.”

Nishimoto continued to offer rental services for three years by himself, primarily because he didn’t wish to be responsible for the actions of another middle-aged man. Many of Nishimoto’s clients were women and he wanted to ensure they were treated properly and that they would be safe.

“I was afraid of the risks involved — I can vouch for myself but not for others,” Nishimoto says. “However, I realized that I needed to give my clients a choice because some people might not want to rent me.”

Nishimoto receives an endless stream of CVs from men who wish to join the team. He says he screens the candidates carefully, inviting them for a face-to-face interview once he has checked out their profiles and photo. Many candidates don’t make the cut, and Nishimoto had to turn down an 82-year-old man recently because of his physical frailty.

Nishimoto says he has yet to receive a serious complaint regarding the men on his roster, although a few have been late on occasion or perhaps a little cheeky during their conversation.

The rental service now has 78 middle-aged men on its roster in locations as far flung as Aomori and Fukuoka. The youngest are in their 30s, the oldest in their 70s.

The Ossan Rental website features photographs or illustrations of the men on the roster and their profiles, including that of an IT expert who also plays the violin and a reggae-loving mountain climber.

“Loads of people want to be a member of Ossan Rental,” Nishimoto says. “They think it’s cool and want to contribute to society.”

Rent a family

A number of rental services exist in Japan, offering everything from family and friends to weddings guests and dinner dates. Most websites offering such services specifically state that sexual services are not provided.

Masahiro Yamada, a professor of family sociology at Chuo University, believes people in Japan and some other Asian countries are open to rental services because such undertakings are common in those societies.

Yamada, who coined the term “parasite singles” in the 1990s to describe adults who still live with their parents, notes that men in Japan visit hostess clubs and maid cafes just for the sake of casual conversation and a bit of flirtation.

“People already go to such places and pay for comfort or intimacy,” Yamada says. “That’s why there’s little discomfort over the idea of renting people.”

Support One, for example, offers rental services for almost any purpose. Clients can rent a family for a social occasion or a friend to go shopping or see a movie with.

Read more.

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