How to Rent a Friend

Life, states the all-knowing novelty coffee mug, begins at 40. But not everyone sees it that way. In the United States, the 40-plus crowd is often called “middle-aged,” and while not a derogatory term per se, it’s also generally not seen as a good thing to be. In Japan, some people go a bit further, using the word “ossan” (おっさん) which, as Kotaku notes, “is somewhat of a rude word for middle aged-dudes.” No, there’s nothing creepy about those of us in that category. Rather, we’re allegedly guilty of a much different sin: we’re boring at best and, in any event, not a lot of fun to hang out with.

Or, at least, that’s the stereotype. And in a Japanese entrepreneur named Nishimoto Takanobu decided to prove it wrong. His theory? Not only were there middle-aged men out there who were fun to hang out with, but others would probably pay for the companionship. In 2013, Nishimoto put this to the test, launching a new business called “Ossan Rental.”  Here’s his website, and yes, it’s real.

For the equivalent of about $10 an hour, customers can hire an ossan to hang out with. The relationships are wholly platonic; per Tofugu, the rules of the service prevent touching, erotic requests, and trying to sell the ossan on other goods or services. As the above-linked Kotaku story explains, “you are renting an ossan to do things like, for example, going to art galleries, having lunch and talking about your love life, test driving cars with you, renting weepy DVDs, looking at new apartments together, complimenting you, and even giving you ideas.”

But that’s just the basic framework. You’re allowed to get more creative than just hiring someone to hang out with — according to Tofugu, you can also use Ossan Rental to “get help moving something heavy” or to have someone “stand in line for movie seats or a new iPhone while you’re at work.” And there have been many unique ways customers have taken advantage of the rent-a-friend service. Per the Japan Times, “one woman asked Nishimoto to help her buy an outfit to wear to see her estranged son for the first time in 35 years,” and it may have helped; “she is now living with that son.” Another, according to an interview with Nishimoto by SoraNews24, had him “announce one woman’s marriage to her family since her father had been looking forward to doing it but had passed away before he could.”

And ultimately, that’s what the service is about — finding ways to be part of a larger community. The business isn’t a huge money-maker — nor is it intended to be. Per CNN, the $10/hour fee is a “token payment” — “a symbolic gesture that helps both the clients and uncles respect the transaction.” Nishimoto, who rents himself out using the service, is hoping to bring dignity back to those who society, in his view, has turned into a punchline. And he’s found success in doing so: CNN reports that “his website has roughly 45 ossan rentals a day now, or 10,000 encounters per year.” 

Bonus fact: What if you’re in Japan and looking for some temporary companionship, but hanging out with a middle-aged man isn’t your thing? You may be able to rent a cat instead. In 2009, “cat cafes” became an increasingly popular destination in the country. As the BBC reported, these hangouts “provide visitors with short but intimate encounters with professional pets” for the price of about $10/hour. For many Japanese singles, a busy work life that is heavy on travel makes caring for a pet difficult; the proprietors of the cat cafes see their service as a good way to counter loneliness without having to take on those responsibilities.

From the Archives: How to Get a Good Cry In When In Japan: Another interesting business idea.