Sunday, April 29, 2018

A Theory of Relativity

Shopper in Tokyo's Harajuku district, 2016

     Sometimes a story is incredible because it didn't actually happen. 
     The New Yorker has been famous for nearly a century for its high journalistic standards, particularly for its vaunted fact-checking department. But it dropped the ball with the story I share amazement over below, which turned out to be incredible because it was largely untrue.  You can read a 2021 Washington Post article about the fiasco here
     How did it happen? Maybe the oddness of Japan to Western eyes: the rent-a-family just seemed to fit in, and didn't require extraordinary diligence. Maybe journalism isn't designed to handle straight-out-deceit by numerous people. Maybe the New Yorker should have dug more. At least it doesn't seem an intentional deception on the part of the author or magazine, which is a comfort. 
     Anyway, I'm leaving this up as my own cautionary tale. I believed it occurred because the New Yorker said it was true. But they were wrong so I was wrong too. I regret the error.                                                                                                 1/22/2021

     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. 


  1. Interesting to say the least. Will definitely check out this piece.

  2. Musicians will recommend other performers, why should writers be any different? I understand reluctance to criticize other writers. If the fools can't see that James Patterson being prolific doesn't make him worth reading. But to point readers to John McPhee is like leading the thirsty to a well.

  3. Did you follow that shopper? I'd like to know what is in his bags and what he is going to buy next. Nighttime in Shinjuku is boring compared to that guys palatte.

  4. I started reading A Theory of Relativity at 7 o’clock this morning , but had to stop at the point where the rental daughter advises Mr. Nishida how to treat his real daughter; otherwise I would be going to church with tears streaming down my face. After church and breakfast with my nephew, whom I would have to create if he didn’t exist, I read the rest of the article. I found it sad and wonderful, simple and complicated, similar to the way I regard psychotherapy — perhaps helpful, perhaps destructive, maybe leading to an improved life, maybe blocking the path to improvement. Thanks for the recommendation.


  5. Japan also has a thriving rent-a-pet industry. One can rent a canine to take to a dog park, or buy a drink and hang out at a bar that allows you to pay by the hour while interacting with any or all of their felines. The Japanese love cats. An Japanese-speaking, cat-loving, American bar-owner could relocate to Tokyo and make a fortune. Too bad the name "Hello Kitty" is unavailable.


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