Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Family Values - beyond Politics

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Family Values - beyond Politics

Article excerpt

THE importance of the family can be measured by the price people will pay for consoling substitutes. In Japan, lonely retirees whose children and grandchildren live far away or seldom visit can now hire make-believe relatives to take their place. For $1,130, plus transportation, they can rent a simulated "family" for three hours, complete with warm conversation, hugs, and even babies to cuddle.

Clients help to plan the "family reunion" by stating what kind of "family" they want and how they wish to spend the time together. The make-believe relatives are actually entertainers who have received two years of training in acting and psychology. So far at least 25 clients have used the service, provided by the aptly named Japan Efficiency Corporation. More than 80 people remain on a waiting list.

One retired couple whose grandchildren are grown rented a "son," a "daughter-in-law," and an infant, because the woman said she "wanted to touch the skin of a baby once again." A computer salesman in his 30s, claiming he can't find time to visit his parents even though they live just 10 minutes away, hired a stand-in. A working mother who is too busy to see her own mother on a regular basis rented a "family" to visit her.

Nor are older people the only ones craving family ties. A young couple paid for a substitute grandfather and grandmother for their two-year-old son, whose real grandparents live at a distance.

The instant family - just add money and stir. Satsuki Ohiwa, president of the company, explains the poignant appeal of her service by noting that clients are "thirsty for human love." She adds, "Our purpose is to fill a hole in the heart."

For lonely or isolated people with less money to spend, another possibility exists for filling a hole in the heart. A fake cat called Mew, which retails for $92, meows and wags its tail when it hears a voice. Already more than 100,000 have sold in Japan. A spokesman for Takara Company explains: "Mew drives away loneliness."

The Japanese, of course, have no corner on loneliness or on a yearning for kinship. Although no American entrepreneur has started a rent-a-family business - yet - the longing for domestic stability and security intensifies as more families are separated by physical or emotional distance. …

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