I'd like to say that I saw this coming, but even I am not that cynical. Or at least I wasn't...
Ichinokawa launched his Hagemashi Tai [I Want to Cheer You Up] agency three-and-a-half years ago, after abandoning plans to become a qualified counsellor...
The affable, bespectacled 44-year-old now employs 30 agents of various ages and both sexes, across Japan with the skills and personality to temporarily adopt a new identity: as the father of a boy who is in trouble at school, for instance, or the parents of a woman attending a formal match-making party.
The number of rent-a-friend agencies in Japan has doubled to about 10 in the past eight years. The best known, Office Agent, has 1,000 people on its books.
The rise of the phony friend is a symptom of social and economic changes, combined with a deep-seated cultural aversion to giving personal and professional problems a public airing.
In recent months demand has surged for bogus bosses among men who have lost their jobs; for colleagues among contract employees who never stay in the same job long enough to make friends, and from divorcees and lovelorn singletons.
Ichinokawa's agents charge a modest 15,000 yen (£100) to turn up at a wedding party, but extra if they are asked to make a speech or to sing karaoke.
His preparation is exhaustive, examining every possible question that, if answered incorrectly or not at all, will embarrass his client and ruin his reputation. "In three and a half years I've never once been caught out," Ichinokawa says.
... I love [says Ichinokawa,] helping people with their problems and making them happy. When they email me afterwards to say thank you, I feel fulfilled. |Guardian|
Now I'm forced to consider that people I meet are lying about their very identities.
The world is full of liars, my friends, and some of these liars are very talented.
Don't get me wrong, there are a few people I trust, but it tends to be a small circle.