Japan’s Lonely Youth Turns to Rent-a-Friend Services

Recent surveys suggest that Japanese university students are finding it increasingly difficult to make friends, and that this is a leading cause for them failing to attend classes, and even dropping out of university altogether.

But most striking of all, are the stories of those who are so afraid of being seen alone and labelled as a ‘loner’ by their peers.

Not Going To Class Because They Can’t Make Friends: Frightened of loneliness…Eating in the toilet, renting friends.

Prompted to ‘get into pairs with someone you think you’ll get on with’, around seventy young people face each other in twos, and begin to introduce themselves.

At Kansai University of Welfare Sciences (Kashiwara city, Osaka Prefecture), there is a ‘get-together’ that gathers together third year high-school students set to enter the school. It was held among those meeting for the first time, an ‘interview game’ in which they can ask about what their partner is good at.

Little by little the atmosphere becomes more comfortable, and here and there the prospective students begin to exchange e-mail addresses.

The meeting was first held three years ago, to help students make friends. ‘We hold it since there are even students who don’t attend classes and who quit school altogether because they say they can’t make friends’, explained Associate Professor Nagami Makiko, who acts as the host of the meeting.

According to the Ministry of Education, in 2012 those not attending classes in university rose to a record high of 31,000 students, which means that in the past ten years, it has increased by almost 10,000 students.

On the other hand, in a survey held in 2009 in 57 national universities by Fukushima University Professor Uchida Chiyoko shows that this trend has been continuing since 2003, when the most common reason for not attending classes, given by 31% of students, were ‘reasons of passiveness’ such as they’d lost the will to do it anymore, and so on.

In the case of Shouta (24, alias) who attends a national university in the Kansai region, he stopped going to university one month after matriculating.

It’s different from middle school and high school; in university you decide which classes you’re going to take yourself, and for each class the classroom also changes. Even though he waited, no one spoke to him. Still, he couldn’t go and talk to them, because he thought people would think him strange. Before he realised it, he was alone. He didn’t want people to think that he ‘didn’t even have anyone to eat with’, so he would take bread and onigiri into a bathroom stall, and eat there with bated breath.

When he looked on internet message boards, he was being called ‘loner’ by the students around him who’d isolated him, and being made a fool of. ‘My hands would shake even if I just went towards university, and my stomach would hurt. I was frightened of people I didn’t know,’ said Shouta, looking back on his anguish from 6 years ago.

In a survey by Ide Sohei, a part-time lecturer at Osaka University, and his colleagues, over 80% of university students who fail to attend school had attended regularly up until high school. ‘Now university students don’t attend circles and clubs as much as they used to. If they fail to make friends in the first instance, they’ll be isolated the whole time,’ suggests Ide.

Last summer, the place that Koichi (25, alias) phoned an odd-job firm in Tokyo called Client Partners, requesting ‘Won’t you come along with me?’. He wanted to go to a club that was bustling with young people who liked dancing, and applied for a paid service called ‘rent-a-friend’.

It cost 30,000 yen ($344) to go the club with two girls pretending to be his friends. For a freeter this was a painful expenditure, but he was reluctant to go alone, and he hated being turned down by acquaintances he’d asked to go with him.

Late night one week later. ‘Koichi, do you want to dance?’ The girls came up to ask him to dance in a friendly way, never failing to smile. Even after he left the club over an hour later, he had fun with them in a restaurant until dawn.

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July 2017
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