Renting out replacement relatives – family mercantilism Series 1 of 2

When we are lonely and sad, throw everything against the wall and nothing sticks, we start to despair.

We all lose loved ones and fail to find suitable alternatives – the loss may be caused by death, divorce, anger and the human fallout that ensues, separation due to humanitarian crises, etc. Loneliness is killing millions – and moreover, it subjects people to a slow and painful death

The family galaxy and its commercial solutions

But in Japan, is a solution to the above social enigma. An industry sector that is renting out replacement relatives is thriving. Sooner than later, we may have digital and bloodless relatives.

For starters, let us share a short history of the family in Japan and how tampering with history and culture can get you in unfamiliar territory. At the Effectiveness lab, we believe that Uganda and perhaps the wider East-Africa, are headed in the same direction, for better or worse – but more of the latter in series 2.

Post the 1868 Meiji Restoration in Japan, the reformers united Japan under a new civil code and introduced the Western family ideology. A family system (Kazoku in Japanese) was introduced and ushered in a strict form of social organisation – this was called the ‘house’ or in Japanese ‘ie’. The ie was a rigid hierarchical structure in which the head of the family-controlled all the property and had the right to choose one member from the generations below to succeed him. The latter was more often than not, the eldest son. The daughters could stay in the house or marry outside. Sons could start subsidiary house branches.

Familism” became central to the national identity, and was contrasted with the selfish individualism of the West

From the social standpoint, the above was all great for Japan and a strong national culture was established.

But then, fast track to the period immediately after the second world war. The Western powers destroyed the so-called ‘ie’ and replaced it with the ‘democratic’ nuclear family.

The ‘democratic’ nuclear family had Western values imprints: forced marriages were outlawed, spouses became legal equals, and property was distributed evenly among a couple’s children, regardless of gender and birth order. The post-war economic boom and subsequent modernisation started the demise of the Japanese ie. According to the NewYorker, ie households became less common, apartment-dwelling nuclear households consisting of a salaryman, a housewife, and their children became the dominant family structure.

The above is not very different from the trend we are seeing in Uganda and the wider East-Africa

Japan’s family puzzle and the mercantile solution

The ushering in of the Western family and the economic boom that followed brought modernisation and alignment with Western family values, but also the beginnings of a broken society.

For all its positives, like too much wealth and convenience, there is, on the other hand, extreme human sadness and isolation.

Japan’s solution to the broken social fabric – renting relatives

The rental family industry in Japan was born to deal with the ever-increasing social enigma. Replacement relatives from fathers, mothers, sisters, sons, and daughters are rented out to neglected elders, those in social distress, etc. It is a mercantilist’s answer to a vexing societal challenge.  To put it simply: blood and other relationships can be substituted, and effectively at that, by rented ones. Welcome to the age of the commercialisation of the family.

With the Western family under pressure, the first wave of rental families appeared in Japan. The real-life examples from the NewYorker:

‘In 1989, Satsuki Ōiwa, the president of a Tokyo company that specialised in corporate employee training, began to rent out children and grandchildren to neglected elders—an idea she got from hearing corporate workers fret about being too busy to visit their parents. One couple hired a son to listen to the father’s hard-luck stories. Their real son lived with them but refused to listen to the stories. The couple’s real grandson, moreover, was now past infancy, and the grandparents missed touching a baby’s skin. The price of a three-hour visit from a rental son and daughter-in-law, in possession of both an infant child and a high tolerance for unhappy stories, was eleven hundred dollars. Other clients included a young couple who rented substitute grandparents for their child.’

‘Two years ago, Kazushige Nishida, a Tokyo salaryman in his sixties, started renting a part-time wife and daughter. His real wife had recently died. Six months before that, their daughter, who was twenty-two, had left home after an argument and never returned. “I thought I was a strong person,” Nishida told me, when we met one night in February, at a restaurant near a train station in the suburbs. “But when you end up alone you feel very lonely.” Tall and slightly stooped, Nishida was wearing a suit and a grey tie. He had a deep voice and a gentle, self-deprecating demeanour.

Of course, he said, he still went to work every day, in the sales division of a manufacturing company, and he had friends with whom he could go out for drinks or play golf. But at night he was completely alone. He thought he would feel better over time. Instead, he felt worse. He tried going to hostess clubs. Talking to the ladies was fun, but at the end of the night, you were alone again, feeling stupid for having spent so much money.

Then he remembered a television program he had seen, about a company called Family Romance, one of a number of agencies in Japan that rent out replacement relatives. One client, an elderly woman, had spoken enthusiastically about going shopping with her rental grandchild. “The grandchild was just a rental, but the woman was still really happy,” Nishida recalled.  Nishida contacted Family Romance and placed an order for a wife and a daughter to join him for dinner. On the order form, he noted his daughter’s age, and his wife’s physique: five feet tall and a little plump. The cost was forty thousand yen, about three hundred and seventy dollars. The rest is history, as Nishida got the rental relatives’

Lessons for us Ugandan’s and East Africans

Is this not an effective and efficient solution to an increasingly debilitating societal problem?

Is Uganda, especially my village Nakabugu, heading the same way? What are the implications of such a shift? See you next week



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  1. Renting out replacement relatives – Human mercantilism Series 2 of 2 – Gabazira's blog

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