Rent-a-Fantasy in America

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Inspired by this piece of auspicious reporting on Japan from venerable British news organization the BBC, we sent veteran Néojaponisme reporter Matt Alt out to the United States to see how the deteriorating economic situation is causing desperate Americans to pay cash for the companionship of their fellow man — or animal.

Don’t call him a rat! His name is Mikki, or “Mickey” as Americans pronounce it, and there’s no shortage of people willing to make this mouse’s acquaintance. In most cultures, mice are considered vermin, scourges of urban environments. But not here in America. They want to touch him, give him a big hug, and have their photograph taken by his side. Sometimes they come alone — other times, they bring their whole families. Many travel large distances and pay great sums for the privilege of a visit.

Mickey is the mascot of a uniquely American service called an “amusement park.” Disneyworld, as this one is called, is located in the state (prefecture) of Florida in America’s remote southeast. While inside the confines of this park, visitors pretend that friendly, human-sized animals like Mickey are their friends. His compatriots include giant ducks, dogs, and chipmunks, and in this subculture, no one considers them strange companions.

Bobby, who speaks with a lisp and just turned six years old, is normally rather shy with people. He longs for a “Mickey” of his own. But his mother will not allow a mouse in the house, making Disneyland the perfect solution to his problem.

Statistics for 2007 revealed that tens of millions of people felt compelled to stay in Disneyland, some never leaving the grounds for upwards of a week or more. And it’s only one of many parks in America that provide fantasy services for increasingly despondent American people.

Pay to Play USA

Of course American fantasies aren’t limited to mice and bunnies, as people who work in America’s sex industry will testify. The vast industry specializes in offering opportunities to exchange money for fantasy situations. Perhaps most common are so-called “escort services” that allow American men to rent a pretty woman who will pretend that she loves him. It’s an open secret that everyone from janitors to politicians make use of these services, though operators claim their numbers of clients have plummeted in this time of recession.

One specialty agency even rents women who dress up in furry costumes reminiscent of cartoon characters, although whether this involves seduction or merely heavy petting is not exactly clear.

A Desparate Plea for Help

Perhaps the clients of these Furries are attempting to relive the experience of visiting “amusement parks” in their youth. America’s sex experts seem to agree. “Is it any wonder,” asks syndicated columnist D.S., “that a tiny percentage of this Disney/abstinence generation came to fetishize the safe and cuddly stuffed animals of their childhoods?”

As we’ve seen, loneliness is a problem faced by many people in this spacious nation, with some American states boasting low population densities unthinkable here in Japan. The use of antidepressants among children grew tenfold between 1987 and 1996. It seems a sense of lonesomeness is a problem for many people in the land of the free and the brave.

Matthew ALT
January 19, 2009

Matt Alt lives in Tokyo and is the co-author of Hello, Please! Very Helpful Super Kawaii Characters from Japan and Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide, among others. His blog can be found at http://altjapan.typepad.com.

24 Responses

  1. M-Bone Says:

    Fantastic.

  2. TheStrawMan Says:

    Funny, read as a lampoon of the western media tendency to over-exoticize reports about Japan.

    However, the themes of the two stories don’t exactly correspond, as while in America, Disney fans are hugely numerous, and visiting Disneyland or a similar Theme park is by no means a niche activity.

    Whereas, in Japan, rental-pet, or rental-relatives or rental-husband agencies are, probably in my opinion, only utilized by an extremely small fraction of the population.
    (Going to a hostess club, less so, but still by no means a majority of the pop.)

    So how would you have the BBC, or any western news agency, report this story? Maybe by trying to put it into more context? Mention other countries that have similar services?

    If I were writing the story, I would be tempted to point out that Japan lags behind many western countries in the number and usage of counselors, therapists and psychiatrists etc, and the practice of visiting a paid companion (be it host, hostess, “father” other relative or eikaiwa teacher) for conversation can be seen as similar to visiting a therapist to talk about one’s life/problems…

    That’s my own, completely subjective, not based on any research, pet theory, so I may be just as off the mark.

    I’m curious to hear how others think a story like the above should be reported, or should it be reported at all?

  3. M-Bone Says:

    “So how would you have the BBC, or any western news agency, report this story?”

    I noticed that the Russia story in the same series is about the gas war with Ukraine. That says a lot.

    For me, it is not the Disneyland stuff that is great about Matt’s version – that is deliberately silly. It is the way that it captures the non sequiturs present in much Japan reporting that is great.

  4. Daniel Says:

    That mouse in the graphic is almost uncomfortably phallic.

  5. MattAlt Says:

    If you enjoyed how the BBC managed to connect the offbeat but innocuous pet cafes to mizu shobai, you’ll love how they connect high-tech toilets to “a dark underground trade in DVDs filmed in ladies’ toilets”:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/7750870.stm

  6. M-Bone Says:

    We should play a “six degrees of Aso Taro” game where we connect any single thing in Japanese history to him.

    Himiko – thought to be Amaterasu – lived in the “land of the gods” – said by Mori Yoshiro – wait a minute, this is too easy.

  7. W. David MARX Says:

    I, for one, would like to know the actual name and phone numbers for the “rent-a-dad” service. The way the BBC writes about the place, it could be WaiWai-level myth for all we know.

    I agree that this is not an exact parallel, but still doesn’t excuse all these huge newspapers and media organizations sending over people who know exactly nothing about Japan and then are only allowed to send back light-hearted reports about how crazy Japan is without any perspective on how niche these services are. Maybe Tokyo has all this kinda crazy stuff because it’s the most populous first-world city on the entire globe, not because it’s Japan.

  8. M-Bone Says:

    These stories usually get back to me from students and family as “So I hear that the Japanese are all going to pet cafes now.”

  9. MattAlt Says:

    “I, for one, would like to know the actual name and phone numbers for the “rent-a-dad” service.”

    I believe he’s referencing this site:

    http://www.hagemashi-tai.com/

    It’s on the Web, so it must be some kind of trend.

    Note that agency’s contact number is a cell phone, and that the site carries absolutely none of the corporate info (会社概要) that any legit company would post. And that “quote” from “Mr. M.O.” in the article appears to be translated directly off the agency’s website.

  10. Ian Duncan Says:

    I think what the BBC have realised is that Japan is quite a lot like Britain. Both little islands where the people are both reserved and eccentric at the same time.

    It’s fun to have a giggle at Japan’s little absurdities because it distracts us from the men in silly red coats and bearskin hats that still parade around parts of our capital.

  11. W. David MARX Says:

    Re: hagemashi-tai.com

    Apparently if one guy starts some totally dumb idea for a company, it’s a national trend for Japanese people.

    I want to see Japanese media reciprocating by elevating every dumb Craig’s List ad into a sign of American decline.

  12. Bashcraft Says:

    Those crazy Americans and their kooky mouse fetish. So strange!

  13. MattAlt Says:

    “So how would you have the BBC, or any western news agency, report this story?”

    I don’t know, but even putting aside the preposterous link between what amounts to a petting zoo and mizu shobai, I don’t think I’d fail to mention the fact that the average citizen of Japan finds the concept of renting a faux relative as creepy as the average Westerner does.

  14. Adamu Says:

    One reason the blog Stuff White People Like works so well (just like this piece) is because of the cognitive dissonance it produces in readers who aren’t used to having their society picked over with a fine-toothed comb.

    I have to wonder if the Japanese environment for “trends” plays a role in feeding this attitude in foreign observers.

    Every company that puts out a press release wants to portray its products as the next big thing, usually to a willing domestic press. It’s as if people who have a product to promote and a fat enough PR budget can just walk up to an ad agency, sign a contract, and guarantee that they will get placement in an appropriate news show. Just one example: Every morning NHK news tells me that, say, the latest line of ecologically sound, reusable doggy bags is “ninki” ie “popular” even though it was only released maybe a week ago and bringing home leftover food at restaurants is almost universally never done here.

    In the US, screwball business ideas usually don’t see the light of day, but perhaps the fact that there is such a large media platform for what are often truly bizarre products will only naturally result in “look at those crazy Japanese” type coverage.

    (It looks like the “From Our Own Correspondent” segment is a lightning rod. Mutant Frog went to town on a previous segment about what it was like to interview former PM Fukuda.)

  15. Daniel Says:

    “When I called, there were 12 felines and seven customers, mostly single men.”

    You’ve gotta love that dig at single Japanese dudes…pretty low.

    You can also see a video of Nekobukuro. Looks like a lot of fun (but some traumatized kitties): http://jp.youtube.com/watch?v=JbaWScZA9pw

    Adamu: Are you referring to the “Machikado no corner” on NHK? That segment is ridiculous.

  16. M-Bone Says:

    “In the US, screwball business ideas usually don’t see the light of day”

    I think that the 24 hour news channels, especially CNN headline news, do throw up a lot of silly product segments, as do local news shows promoting a local gimmick.

  17. Adamu Says:

    Yes that is the one. My favorite part is the ecstatic look on the anchor’s face when she announces it’s time to unveil the latest product… I wonder if she’s got any insider deals going??

    I should have added “in quite the same way” since yes there are lots of gadget/oddball segments on CNN etc,and even equivalent morning shows like Good Morning America. Its just that the impact of those spots seems lower compared to the situation in Japan, where morning shows like Zoom In are highly rated but feel like nothing BUT ads.

    I guess the only thing that would have an impact similar to the buzz that Krispy Kreme and H&M received is an endorsement from Oprah. Look what it did for Obama.

  18. M-Bone Says:

    On the subject of Krispy Kreme, did you guys see this -

    http://blogs.miaminewtimes.com/riptide/2009/01/pro-life_group_up_in_arms_over.php

    I hate to see the culture wars flare up on such an auspicious day (dead serious).

    I see your point on the differences in the morning shows.

    In looking at this whole issue of reportage, it always seems to me that in Japan, the love of wacky stuff is tongue in cheek – people are in on the joke. When it gets reported in “The West” however, it is almost as though reporters are arguing something akin to – Japanese don’t know how wacky and dysfunctional they really are and it takes US to tease out the connections and the pathologies. The project of teasing out, however, shows a whole bunch of pathologies on the other side….

  19. Connor Says:

    I am going to go out on a limb and put forward a postulate:

    The overall credibility of any given general-interest news organization IS DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to the likelihood that any trend piece written under the purview of that organization will be inaccurate, misleading, lazy, and/or transparently shoddily-constructed. Trend pieces are usually terrible, but can be awesome– IF and ONLY IF total crackpots write them.

    A corollary:
    If a given general-interest news organization is putting together a trend-piece relating to any foreign country, as the overall credibility of that organization approaches infinity, the likelihood that the trend piece will make an explicit link to depraved sexual practices approaches 1.

    I don’t think this is totally specific to Japan, although the Japan-related ones tend to have a grimly predictable flavoUr (shout out to Britain!). Speaking of, did anybody see that NYT trend piece about how Britons were fucking everything up on some Greek Island somewhere, all like giving birth in hotel showers in the middle of partying all night? Same kind of thing.

    Counterexamples? Am I off base?

  20. M-Bone Says:

    “Am I off base?”

    I think that you are on to something.

  21. Hurghhhh Says:

    Now that was some good, effective writing.

  22. Adam Says:

    To play devil’s advocate for a second, is the link between these ‘cat cafes’ and the host/hostessing industry really as tenuous as you all seem to be suggesting?

    Of course, I highly doubt many of those frequenting cat cafes are the same people you’ll find frequenting a hostess joint later on, but surely the underlying concept of paying someone/thing for a brief session of emotional (as opposed to sexual) bonding is a common variable in both of these examples?

    I think the problem of comparing the two lies, as many of you have mentioned, in the disparity between the number of clients they attract and the relative size of the industries (in that the article’s equating one with the other seems to suggest that the ‘cat cafe’ industry is becoming a social phenomenon in itself, which I highly doubt is the case).

    But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s noteworthy in the UK not by dint of its very existence, but by dint of the apparent mainstream tolerance and acceptance these ‘emotional support’ industries find in Japan. Of course escort services exist in all countries – but the scale and mainstream acceptance of the host/hostessing industries in Japan are both alien concepts to British people, and as such surely it’s understandable that they’re going to be written about.

    (Argh, but argh. Having just read what I’ve written above, I suppose the big question, and the one that probably undoes everything I’ve written, is: are these cat cafes/fake dad services actually ‘emotional’ services, or are they just intended as a bit of fun in the first place? Certainly, quotes from customers in the BBC article would suggest the former, but…

    Oh well, I’ll press ‘post’ anyway.)

  23. MattAlt Says:

    There’s a bar that offers patrons the chance to shoot pellet guns in Roppongi, a bar with a big R/C car track in Akihabara, a ninja restaurant in Asakusa, a ghost bar in Kichijoji, and a cafe filled from floor to ceiling with robot toys in Yoyogi. This is just off the top of my head.

    Tokyo almost by definition is a city of niche establishments. I don’t think many of them represent nationwide trends, and I don’t think a cafe filled with cats is anything more or less than another attempt to differentiate in an extremely crowded marketplace.

  24. Jordan Says:

    re: pet cafes

    Normal reasons to go:
    1.) don’t always want to clean up after pets, but like them
    2.) love animals but can’t have a pet due to apartment regulations
    3.) have a partner or family member who is allergic
    4.) think cats are cute and want to chill and drink a coffee while playing with them

    the tendency to explain everything that is “unusual” (i.e. not present in the West) is an odd type of exoticism.

    Do some research and you’ll find that pet therapy is huge in the West too, we just keep it confined to medical treatment regimes and haven’t shifted it to public casual settings, like cafes. But the principal is the same: pets are a great source of stress relief.

    The Mickey article is spot-on in highlighting the way that critics/writers/academics tend to seek psychosexual explanations for behavior of individuals that links to simplified notions of economic history and that sees every Japanese person as an allegory for the whole nation. Funny.