For the low, low price of US$8.89 per hour, a middle-aged Japanese man could listen to your woes, do your chores, accompany you to a dance class, or even offer you tips on how to better live your life.
— おっさんレンタルCEO 西本貴信が日々感じたことをつぶやきます♪ (@ossanrental) March 8, 2016
Talk to Takanobu Nishimoto. According to Business Insider, the 50-year-old fashion consultant has been absorbed in a rather peculiar occupation since 2012: a rental service based at his home in Tokyo, Japan, called “Ossan Rental.”
“Ossan,” for those who have never heard the word before, is a slightly condescending denotation for “uncle” in Japanese. It is used casually to refer to middle-aged men, a demographic who often find themselves the punchline of a mean-spirited joke owing to their thinning hair, pot bellies, and laissez-faire attitude toward taking care of themselves.
Nishimoto, however, revealed that his service aims to overcome negative perceptions about this often overlooked yet infinitely valuable band of brothers. The creative businessman’s imagination was sparked after overhearing “high school girls making fun of middle-aged men on the commuter train. I never realized that ossan were disrespected that much,” he said. “I thought, ‘I need to regain the honor of ossan.'”
Initially, Nishimoto thought that young men would make up the majority of the clientele. However, “the young men did not come.” In fact, “it was women from their twenties to fifties.”
Their reasons for hiring an “uncle” vary, Nishimoto explained, but there’s one common denominator: they all want a little support from a friendly, fatherly type. Some troubled women seek advice on their careers and romantic lives, and some need help with household chores. Some, Nishimoto revealed, even hire an “ossan” to pretend to be their boyfriend in order to scare away any undesirable suitors.
According to CNN, “most people in Tokyo prefer anonymity when it comes to their wants, needs and vulnerabilities. Someone familiar,” they suggest, “might judge them.”
“Stories will spread if clients talk to someone they know,” Nishimoto added, perhaps explaining the specific appeal of an uncle-for-rent for Tokyo’s young female population, the women most susceptible to gossip. But can they trust the uncles?
“Ossan Rentals” diligently screens their potential uncles. What are they looking for? A criminal history, for one: a criminal record would immediately shatter any middle-aged man’s dream of finding work as a hired uncle. According to CNN, Nishimoto prefers “weird” men, “men outside the spotlight,” but nobody with nefarious intentions.
He likes brevity, too. Apparently, clients have complained in the past about uncles who talk too much.
Nishimoto keeps the business model afloat by charging his “ossan” US$88.89 a month for membership. The men can make up to 10 times that amount, with a good reputation, but signing up is not for the faint-hearted as uncles are obliged to commit to a one-year minimum contract. “Ossan Rentals” often receives over 900 bookings a month, and the business model is so good that it has even been copied.
Nishimoto has the perfect insider’s perspective: he used to be an “ossan” himself. “‘Ossan’ themselves also grow through this role,” he shared of his experience. “Either they gain more confidence, polish their image, or learn lessons in life from other people.”
The company now has 80 “ossan” in 36 cities and counting. Ken Sasaki, a 48-year-old experienced uncle who loves his job, hopes that the rental service will spread to include “obasan.” You guessed it: middle-aged women.
This would make the world “a fun place,” he said.