Small Business

You Can Rent a Dad in Japan

Ryuichi Ichinokawa’s Heart Project can help if you don’t have a date to a family reunion or the relations to fill a proper wedding.

Ichinokawa, 52, who’s often hired to act as a father, needs to keep a low profile; he founded the Heart Project in Tokyo in 2006.

Photographer: Ko-Ta Shouji for Bloomberg Businessweek

Ryuichi Ichinokawa: We don’t want clients to use our service as an emotional crutch. We won’t take any illegal requests. Parent stand-ins are the most expensive: 30,000 yen ($275) per person. To attend a wedding is 15,000 yen per person; giving a speech is 5,000 yen.

About 20 percent to 30 percent of the jobs are for weddings. The next big one is a stand-in for parents and introducing parents to a prospective spouse; that’s another 30 percent to 40 percent. Clients are typically in their 20s to 40s. I take every job with the understanding that we are only doing it once.

There is something in Japanese culture about people’s excessive concern for appearances and how they are seen by others. And often there is this idea that there is a single common sense and nothing else. Sometimes it’s just plain vanity that leads people to us. It’s not always life or death. Some guy tells his parents he has a girlfriend, then panics because he really doesn’t. I tell him honestly, “That was a stupid thing to do.”

When I started, I planned on doing this alone—a father role for people raised by a single mom and stuff like that. Then people started asking for women, for younger people, for a man in his 60s. So I posted a note on my home page looking to hire people. All the people who work for me are amateurs. There are more than 100 now. I never interview staff in person. Everything happens over the internet, by email and phone. I gather basic information about their availability, skills, and looks. You might get a request for five bridesmaids. If they are all drop-dead gorgeous, that will look suspicious, so you have to mix it up. Sometimes you need 30 to 40 people for a wedding.

Before I began this business, I started a website offering people counseling by email for 3,000 yen per message. I got a lot of emails at first, a couple of hundred—people worried about surgery, women wanting to talk about their body image and appearance. Then an acquaintance asked me to appear at a wedding. The groom needed someone to give a best man’s speech. Of course, I’d never met the guy. The groom wrote the speech for me. I was in my late 30s. It went pretty well, and I added that service to my email counseling.

People who come to us often have no one else to ask. We are their last resort. There are times when I ask myself, What will happen if I don’t help this person? Maybe it will just result in some short-lived embarrassment, or perhaps the damage will be deeper, rippling through their life. —As told to Pavel Alpeyev

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE