Shoji Morimoto was constantly being told by his boss “it makes no difference whether you’re here or not” and his presence contributed nothing to the company. Morimoto began to wonder whether a person who “does nothing” could still have actual value and a place in the world. Perhaps he could turn “doing nothing” into a service? With one tweet, Rental Person was born.
In Rental Person Who Does Nothing, the author describes a life that is at once extraordinary. From accompanying a divorcee client to her favourite restaurant to waving goodbye to a client from a train platform, to simply being someone who listens without judgment, Rental Person’s encounters are brilliantly revealing about both Japanese society and human psychology.
In his unique line of work, Morimoto reflects on how we consider relationships, jobs, and family in our search for meaningful connection and purpose in life.
It would be misleading to say we pay for friendship, but friends certainly cost money. If I went out eating and drinking with someone and they always paid, then it wouldn’t feel like friendship.
I don’t really know how to define ‘friend’ or ‘friendship’, and I suppose different people would define them in different ways. But it seems to me that being with friends often involves getting out your wallet. You may go to a restaurant with friends, for example. And when you do, you share the bill, so that you have a balanced relationship. You don’t want there to be debts on either side.
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If you play a computer game at someone else’s house, then it may not seem as if it’s costing you anything, but if you live some distance away, then you have to pay for the train or bus to get there. And if you have snacks or drinks, then you probably share the cost.
But just going to someone’s house once to play a game doesn’t guarantee a real friendship. You’d have to keep meeting up and every time there’d be a cost involved. I know I’m sounding stingy; the point is simply that building and maintaining friendships involves spending time and money.
And besides financial cost, there are costs in terms of emotion and energy. Friends often lend things to each other. In Japan, this happens a lot with manga books. I did that with colleagues I got on with at the company I worked for. I’m not the type of person who wants to read something just because someone recommends it to me—I’d borrow it just because it seemed unfriendly not to. And if you borrow a book you have to read it, and when you give it back, you have to give comments. If you didn’t enjoy it, you either have to lie and say you did, or you have to choose your words very carefully so as not to harm your relationship. I find all this kind of thing very stressful.
I suppose this psychological burden is the cost of adapting to the other person. As I said earlier on, I’m bad at building relationships within a fixed community, and I think one reason for this is that I can’t easily adapt. I guess this makes the mental cost of relationships greater than it would otherwise be.
To reach the stage where you can just be yourself with the other person takes a lot of time and energy. You probably argue sometimes, or spend long periods hesitating whether to say things or not. And this is all a type of psychological cost that mounts up over time until you reach the day when you can say without reservation, ‘That manga I borrowed, it was rubbish.’
So I think you could certainly say that skipping the whole process would cut costs, financial and emotional.
Though I found lending and borrowing manga with my ex-colleagues stressful, I don’t think I felt like that when I was a child. For Japanese children, manga are simply one of life’s great pleasures. Any manga you haven’t read is welcome, especially one your parents won’t buy you. And it was just fun having friends.
There’s certainly a difference between childhood and adulthood in terms of the cost or stress that friends or friendship involve. Friendship for an adult seems very complicated. Rather than all-round friends, people seem to have friends for specific purposes – friends to go drinking with, for example, or friends to play computer games with, and friends to go to concerts with.
I think this specialization of friendship is apparent in some of the requests I get. When someone asks me to go with them to a restaurant, a computer game tournament or a pop concert, I think that rather than having nobody at all they could ask, it’s more a matter of not having a friend for that specific purpose.
Unless a friend shares a particular interest, inviting them to come along might feel like asking a favour and thus puts you in their debt.
People want to enjoy life, and having friends for particular purposes allows them to do so. But this means friendship for adults often has ulterior motives.
Why is it difficult to ask a friend to go with you to a restaurant you feel awkward going to on your own? Maybe it’s as I said just now, if you don’t have a friend for that particular activity, you might put yourself in debt if you ask someone else.
In Japan people are very conscious of reciprocity. Someone receiving a gift will try to reciprocate with a gift of greater value. This mentality promotes a gift-giving cycle, which helps to sustain relationships. I think people look for similar reciprocity in terms of behaviour between friends. If A does something for B, then B will try to do something more for A.
The writer Tomoaki Kageyama describes the sense of obligation that a recipient feels as ‘a healthy feeling of debt’. For me, though, there’s nothing healthy about it at all. The feeling that I have received more than I should from somebody is a source of extreme stress. If a friend does something for me, I have no idea how to repay them, let alone give them something of greater value. After all, I’m somebody who can’t actually do anything, so I end up just carrying a burden of guilt. And with actions, as opposed to gifts, what makes matters even more complicated is that you cannot easily put an objective value on them. The two sides may have quite different ideas about their value; sometimes one side may not perceive any value at all.
I think people are tired of the cycle of excess reciprocation. They want to get away from the etiquette of insincere customs, such as summer and New Year gifts, and New Year cards. Although I don’t want to criticize people who like these traditions, it’s obvious that many others, for their own reasons, find them a struggle. I think this is one reason why there’s demand for Rental Person, where there’s no debt on either side, just payment for transport and food.
Excerpted with permission courtesy Pan Macmillan India (Picador imprint) from Rental Person Who Does Nothing: A Memoir by Shoji Morimoto (translated by Don Knotting).