|Shopper in Tokyo's Harajuku district, 2016|
As a writer, my task is to find interesting stuff and write about it, in the newspaper and here. It is not my job, generally, to bird dog the good writing of others and point you toward that instead. For two reasons.
First, because I assume you can find enough to read on your own, without my direction. And second, that would make me kind of a eunuch at the orgy: standing idly by while others act, denied the pleasure of doing it myself.
Who wants that?
And yet. Sometimes a story is so extraordinary that ignoring it in order to present whatever little finger puppet display I've got going here feels wrong. That's like showing you a cat's cradle while a comet streaks overhead. Sometimes, you have to drop the string and point at the comet.
The opportunity doesn't arise too often, unfortunately. It's been well over three years since I played carnival barker to Patricia Marx's delicious send-up of comfort animals. So I don't think it's a bad thing for me to say today, in essence, stop reading here and instead rush to Elif Batuman's jaw-dropping Letter from Tokyo, A Theory of Relativity: Japan's rent-a-family industry, which would be incredible were it merely reporting what it is about: that in Japan you can hire people to pretend to be your mom or dad, sister or brother, son or daughter. This proves useful in all sorts of settings: a groom whose parents have died will hire an older couple to fool people at his wedding. A widower hires a woman to come to his house and make pancakes, and a surrogate daughter to laugh at his jokes and poke him in the ribs.
It would be incredible enough just discovering the practice—I've visited Japan, twice, and my sister-in-law is Japanese and somehow I never heard of this. My hunch is that most people are similarly unaware.
But Batuman, a Turkish novelist, does something more difficult: she puts the practice into cultural context, and wonders why we find it ordinary to, oh, hire somebody to clean your house or give you a massage, but find the idea of hiring someone to pretend to be your mom almost repellent.
You might react differently, but by the time I finished the article, I found myself shifting from shock and near-revulsion to almost envying the practice, wishing I could hire myself a temporary father ("Neil, I know when you started your career as a writer, I shrugged it off as non-scientific failure, but now I'm proud of you, and what you've done...") or a couple of surrogate sons, ("Hey dad! Wanna play catch? Oh, and by the way, thanks for putting me through four years of college. That was nice of you.")
It's a deeply strange, human and heartbreaking world, and the privilege of the writer to find it and present it on a platter. Enough throat-clearing from me for today. Go read Elif Batuman's piece in the New Yorker.