Japan has so many strange human-renting services, like offering you the ability to rent a boyfriend or girlfriend for a night (no special extras involved), to rent a family to come to your graduation, to rent a homeless person, and, among others, to rent an ossan (a middle aged man) for whatever reason one might want to do that for.
What is NEET, you ask? It is an acronym for "N\ot in E\ducation, E\mployment, or T\raining." The term originated in the UK and has spread to other countries, like Japan. At first, it was just used for young people who were not employed, not engaged in housework, not enrolled in school or any work-related training, but eventually it even came to include "not seeking work." Some politicians these days say it's a problem, but that's how it always is with kids and their avocado toasts these days.
NEET is an acronym for "Not in Education, Employment, or Training"
So if someone calls you NEET, it usually carries a negative connotation, like being called a mooch. Harsh! Hey, them's fighting acronyms! But seriously, who would actually want to rent a mooch for a day? Turns out that's us, I suppose.
Now, here is some avocado toast for thought that we hope to chew through in this article: if a person was rented out and thus earned money, then that person would no longer be a NEET, no? They'd technically have a job, making them a… NET? Well, in order to clear things up, we decided to get to the bottom of this conundrum by renting someone who does exactly this. Along the way, we heard some interesting stories about living a very non-typical life (for Japan, at least). I was a little inspired when we parted ways, but I'll save that for later.
Finding a NEET to Rent
With the decision made, we began our NEET rental research. Apparently there was a company made up of many NEETs who seek to become employed by starting new businesses. It's called NEET 株式会社 (NEET Inc.) and it was established in January, 2013.
One such business, Rental Neet, was created by the CEO of NEET Inc., Yosuke Naka (仲陽介). In June 2014, he started renting himself out as a NEET in Akihabara. His whole marketing plan involved him holding a sign on the side of the road saying "RENTAL NEET: you can rent me." We sent him a message asking if we could interview him, but we never got a response.
Then, we came across a woman who has been doing a version of Rental NEET on her own. Her name is Mio Kawai (河合未緒), and her pen name is 意識~~高い~~低い系ニートgoma (いしき~~たかい~~ひくけいにーとgoma), which means "high-self-awareness (go-getter-type) low-self-awareness NEET." That description doesn't sound very reassuring, does it? But I emailed her anyway and got a reply back right away. She told us she is actually not currently a NEET as she runs her own company, but we can still rent her to talk about it.
Well, now we were very curious. She used to be a low-self-awareness NEET but now runs her own company? This should be interesting!
Our scheduled meeting day was a rainy one, so we decided on a convenient location—the Akihabara Denny's right in front of JR Akihabara. Well, that and we had done a couple interviews in there before, and Denny's employees never told us to leave, despite our camera equipment.
When we arrived, we were approached by a cleanly dressed young woman. She didn't look like a lazy mooch, nor the shrewd, crafty president of a company. Instead, she looked like a genuine, diligent woman with a warm, soft air about her. As soon as we saw her, we relaxed.
While we were slightly disappointed that she was not a crazy NEET, we also looked forward to the conversation we were about to have with a neat person. Upon seeing us, her reaction to us was quite the opposite. She looked rather surprised to see three American men carrying big cameras. Though, while she seemed hesitant at first, it was only for a moment. She smiled and very amicably said "Hajimemashite." (Nice to meet you.)
Then we all filed into the Denny's and allowed our attention to shift so we could order and find an appropriate table for the interview.
"So, tell us about yourself," we began. "You're no longer a NEET, but you used to rent yourself out as a NEET, right?"
"Yeah, I thought of and started this in the summer of 2015, and I was mainly doing it until the fall. Afterwards, I founded a company called Marianne Inc., which offers help and support to children who don't want to go to school for a variety of reasons, as well as those children's parents, so my focus shifted toward that instead."
"I haven't completely quit NEET Rental, though," she explained. "I still do it, if I get an offer like today. I started with 1,000 yen per hour, but now I only do it for 2,000 yen per hour, which excludes transportation and other expenses, if there are any."
While she spoke, I could tell that Koichi was itching to ask her the question that was on all our minds. As soon as she finished, he let it slip.
"Okay, but if you are working, you are not a NEET. I mean, even before you had your company, you were working as a NEET which instantly means you aren't a NEET. A homeless rental, for example, makes sense. You can still be homeless and work. But working while being a NEET means you're not a NEET, so logically it doesn't really make any sense to me."
She listened to him with a calm smile, but Koichi's frank question turned her eyes as sharp and as shrewd as a company president's. Still, she answered in a very composed manner.
"Everybody says that, but that reaction was precisely what I'd hoped for." Seeing that we were still a bit confused, she continued, "You see, I thought the contradiction would be interesting to people. Just like your name, Tofu and Fugu. It's very memorable, isn't it? Since everybody had pointed it out, the controversy burst out on 2channel and it made me kind of famous. It's called 「炎上商法」which literally means 'flaming viral marketing.'"
"Everybody says that, but that reaction was precisely what I'd hoped for."
"Oh, I see. So this contradiction in your job title was intentional.Does that mean you started the NEET Rental service to become popular?" Koichi inquired further.
"Well, no actually. Before I started it, I did not expect that it would spread so quickly on the internet. At the time, I had just quit my previous job and I was wondering if I should find another or start my own business. I had a lot of trouble making a decision, so I suppose I naturally fell into being a NEET.
A pivotal player in my story is a guy named Ryo Kikuchi (菊池良)," she went on. "He describes himself as「世界一即戦力な男」 'The best immediate asset in the world.' He created a website that he used to market himself, so instead of spending time job hunting, he would make it so companies would come to him. It was essentially like a public resume. He soon had offers rolling in from several companies and he ended up getting a position at LIG Inc.
Well, I happen to know him, and was really impressed by what he was doing. I wanted to try marketing myself like him and see what I could gain from it.
At almost the same time, I learned about a service called Ossan Rental where you can rent an ossan (a middle aged guy) for 1,000 yen per hour. Quite frankly, I was shocked that somebody came up with such a service. Of course, shocked in a good way. I thought it was so cool that I soon found myself wanting to do something fun like that as well, so I decided to do NEET Rental and I began by writing a blog post about it.
At that time, my blog only had a few pageviews and I thought it would just be a fun project that only a few readers, or even just my friends, might take part in. I thought I would only get offers from people I knew personally, or perhaps their acquaintances. But I was very wrong.
It got off to a very unexpectedly popular start and I received many job and interview offers. I don't know whether it was all from the NEET Rental article, but there was a time when it got about 800,000 pageviews in a month." The look on her face showed that she was still quite surprised by all of this.
"Wow, those are some serious numbers," Koichi said, following an astounded gasp. I chimed in with, "Do you remember how many offers you got?" She hummed for a brief moment before conceding, "I don't exactly remember, but I think I received 20 to 30 emails a day at its peak."
Koichi's eyebrows gave her an impressed rise followed shortly afterwards by an empathetic bow as he said, "Replying to that many emails by yourself everyday can be quite the task. Surely there is not enough time to take all the offers?" he posited.
"No, no," she chuckled. "I chose offers that I thought would be interesting or important, but, most of all, safe.
For example, there was an offer asking to take a video of me just eating something for an hour or so, but I thought that was a bit too creepy and I turned it down. I've actually only taken about 30 jobs so far."
I wondered briefly whether she was as careful with revealing some of the more obscene offers she'd got as she was at selecting her jobs. I bet there were some that were just ridiculous.
"So what are your typical clients like? What kind of offers did you usually get?" I asked.
"Well", she paused, "I actually only receive offers from men. No women at all. Well, I mean, I do tarot fortune telling as well, so I've done that for women, but if I don't count them. The customers were all male."
When I first heard that she only gets offers from men, I thought maybe it was because those male customers had some ulterior motive, because she is a cute, younger woman, and her service is reasonably priced. Usually, men would have to pay much more to hang out with a girl at hostess clubs or dating services in Japan. I wondered if they would be confused and hoping it was something along those lines.
"Although they were all males," she reassured us, "there is a rule that they cannot touch me, and all the offers I've taken so far have been safe. While the very first offer was just to help clean the house of an acquaintance of mine, the majority of my customers were in their thirties or forties who asked me for relationship advice to get back together with their exes. I was sort of like a love consultant.
For example, I got an offer from a man in his forties. He wanted to get back together with his ex girlfriend and asked me for some advice. I can't tell you the details for privacy reasons, but it actually worked out. There was also a young boy who wanted me to help him choose a present for his girlfriend. I'm pretty confident in my skills for consultations like these and I think I did pretty well on all fronts."
That really makes sense to me. Renting a young, smart girl for relationship consultation is definitely a good idea. I think the older you get, the more difficult it is to ask for relationship advice from somebody else. Plus, I don't think many Japanese men talk about relationship problems when they get together and, as per Japanese culture, many think it isn't very manly to still long for an ex following a breakup. However, if you rent somebody like her, you don't have to be embarrassed to ask for an honest opinion from a different perspective. I can understand why she got so many offers like that.
While I was momentarily enjoying the more positive aspects to this service, she said, "Oh, interestingly, I've also received offers from some company presidents, too." Do I smell a somewhat scandalous story coming, I wondered.
"That is interesting. Did they ask you for dating advice, too?" I asked.
With a chuckle and a dismissive wave of the hand, she calmly said, "No no. Most of them just asked me to come to their company as an extra helping hand. At that time, I was surprised to get these offers, but I understand it now since I have my own company. I learned that it costs a lot of money just to look for workers.
Anyhow, typically, after I worked for them as a NEET Rental, they usually took a liking to me and asked if I'd like to quit being a NEET and continue to work for them. While some of those were job offers that an ordinary NEET would die for, I didn't take any of them."
She went on to explain, "Another reason I started the NEET Rental was because I thought it might support people who wanted to quit their jobs. I mean, I didn't want people to worry about quitting their jobs if it didn't suit them, or if they had something else in mind that they really wanted to do. It could be a backup while they pursue things more important to them. I wanted to tell people that being a NEET isn't scary.
At the time, I was searching for what I really wanted to do for my own business. I was a NEET, but I also had this NEET Rental service as an emergency income source, so I wasn't desperate. That's why I didn't take any of those offers." I easily understood how something like that could alleviate a lot of anxiety in people with similar problems, and apparently I wasn't the only one.
"I wanted to tell people that being a NEET isn't scary."
"That's a great idea," said both Koichi and I at the same time. I then popped forward to say, "Oh, I just remembered. There is another NEET Rental who started earlier than you, right? I think he started sometime in 2014 and you said you started in the summer of 2015, so you basically trailed him by about a year. Was that because you thought you could prove that being a NEET isn't scary by showing that another person could be successful doing it?"
She gently shook her head side to side while she thought and leaned in when she said, "Actually, I didn't know that there had been another NEET Rental service until one of my customers told me. I should have looked it up, but I didn't, and I ended up being a copycat. If I whittle through the small details, mine is NEET Rental and his is Rental NEET, though." She chuckled a bit at this, as I'm sure she has done many times in the past.
"Ah that's too bad! What did you think when you learned about it from your customer?" I asked. "Well, at first, I thought being second wasn't a bad thing. I mean, I still think that, actually, if there is room for things to work out for you. For example, the ossan rental service hires out a whole bunch of ossan to help people. As I said earlier, I thought NEET Rental should become a popular service that anybody could try, and it should be a kind of go-to failsafe if you lose your job.
Alternatively, if people felt safer leaving a job they are unhappy with because they know about a safety net, then perhaps they could negotiate better with their employers. Additionally, karoshi (overwork to the point of death) and black companies might decrease."
I thought that to be a rather admirable, forward-thinking counter for such problems, and I was just about to make a comment to that effect when she came in with a hanging, "But…"
She glanced at the table and thought over what she was about to say for about a few lingering seconds, then, with a swift head raise, she started, "Actually, other NEETs have reached out to me wanting to do NEET Rental as well. Sadly, none of them worked out very well.
I mean, they were just followers, and there were just no requests for them specifically. I think at first you have to be known by people, like I was because of the internet and 2chan, and then you have to be somebody that people want to talk to. A working NEET sounds funny, but if somebody else has already done it, it's going to be stale and in less demand. I was lucky because I was still the first—the first female NEET Rental.
I didn't know that when this all started, but I realized later that it was that aspect of it that got all the attention. If I was just a NEET who had nothing else to promote myself with, I probably would have just been buried in the vast internet because I wasn't the first one to be a working NEET. People don't want to meet just a mere NEET. You need to have something else to make you stand out. You can still mimic somebody else's business model or style, but you have to appear to be a unique person that most people would be interested in, and be comfortable having you work for them.
That doesn't mean that you have to put a fake version of yourself out there, or be nicer than you are for others, or something like that," she clarified. "I think it's the opposite. I think if you are honest about yourself and if you are unique, which most people are, you will stand out more and get more people's attention. Some people may like you and others may not, but that's fine.
If you're a people person, you're likely to get customers who you like and enjoy working for. So, I'd say, like at all stages in life, don't be afraid to just be yourself and don't hesitate to market yourself as the unique person you are. Finding your own way and being the first of whatever that may be is important to being successful. In that sense, being second is not a good thing."
"I see. That was very interesting," I said, and she thanked me. "Now, jumping back to the previous topic, you said you were searching for what you really wanted to do while doing NEET Rental, right? So, does that mean you were planning out your current career path when you started it?" I asked.
"No. I wanted to start my own business, but I wasn't sure what to do. I thought that maybe I could make a business based on the most common NEET Rental offers. It didn't happen because through my work in the NEET Rental service I did ultimately find what it was I wanted to do, and it wasn't to become a love consultant.
One of my president customers at the NEET Rental service was running a company that supports hikikomori. The job itself involved talking to a hikikomori and giving them advice. What I learned about myself through this job was that it invoked a certain passion in me, and so it was made simple for me—I thought, 'That's it.' I used to be a student who encountered a lot of difficulties at school, so I decided it would be better for me not to go to school anymore. I realized that I wanted to help those who were having the kind of problems that would prevent them from going to school. That is what I am determined to do."
"It's really wonderful you've found what you really want to do in life," I voiced admiringly.
"Yeah", she happily nodded. "I think NEET Rental was great because you can meet people you would never expect to meet. You can learn from them and your experiences, and you would inevitably learn about yourself while interacting with others too. If you were wondering what you really want to do, that could definitely help you find it.
I know one thing for certain: you'll never find your purpose in life without getting out there and experiencing things. Following the realization of what you want to do, you need to take some action. If you don't take any steps toward becoming what you want, well guess what, you'll be five years down the road only to discover you haven't moved.
"I know one thing for certain: you'll never find your purpose in life without getting out there and experiencing things."
Yet, I think doing NEET Rental gives you courage, to that end. If you are brave enough to tell people you are a NEET and want to work as a NEET, you are brave enough to face all the possible judgments thrown your way, and that is an immense strength in my book.
I think Japanese people tend to worry too much about what others think of them. They're not so quick to let down their guard and show their true selves. I think it's both a good and a bad thing, if that's possible. Either aspect can certainly outweigh the other depending on the circumstances. After starting NEET Rental, I feel like I defeated the hurdle of being too 'Japanese-y.' I felt more liberated to follow my mind, do what I really want to do, all without worrying about what others would think or say about it.
Having said that, I've actually deleted my article about NEET Rental. And it's because of my current company. It's not only because I got quite busy with my work, but also because I didn't want to make the kids whom we supported, or their parents, worried that the person helping them might offer some misguided advice. Although I don't want people to be negative about being a NEET, most people definitely regard it with negativity. I didn't want to stoke their anxiety over the possibility of being a NEET, especially after not being able to go to school."
"I completely understand your reasons for wanting to delete it. But, you told us at the beginning that you haven't completely quit NEET Rental, right? If you consider your customers learning of this to be detrimental to their image of you and your company, and ultimately cause them to lose faith in the person who is helping them, why wouldn't you quit completely?"
"Throughout the NEET Rental experience, I learned that everybody has some sort of problem that they need help with. I don't want to ignore that voice, and I've been like that since before starting my business. In fact, I often get emails asking for my advice from girl students who can't go to school. I respond to them, even though I don't charge them. I just want to help as much as possible if somebody is in trouble or needs me, so that's why I haven't completely quit NEET Rental. If somebody still somehow finds me as a NEET for rent and they need my help, I'll take the job."
"So, if our readers wanted to do NEET Rental, can they still request you, if the job details are acceptable and respectable enough?" I asked. She gave a very quick and empathetic, "Sure! Having said that, I'm getting quite busy, so it all depends on whether our schedules can line up properly or if the offer is interesting enough for me to take."
I continued, "So, what kinds of things could you do for them? Can they ask you to guide them around Tokyo, if you are available?"
"Well, my English isn't very good, but I'll try my best. Actually, I used to work in the travel industry, and I have all the Japanese licenses related to traveling, including the tour conductor license, so I would love to. My only real concern is my English. Maybe I could take a friend along who can speak English. Anyway, they can hit me up if they are interested in renting me out via my Facebook. We'll see if I can help them out, depending on the timing of things and the offer."
Then my cell phone alarm went off. She was very interesting and we wanted to ask her more questions, but our time was up. We gave her a Tofugu sticker as a thank you gift, and she put it on her Macbook, alongside many others, but I think Tofugu wound up with a really nice piece of real estate. We interviewed her in March 2016, so a long time has passed since our chat. I hope the Tofugu sticker isn't buried under loads of other stickers, but I bet she has met a ton of other people since then, or gotten a new laptop.
Just to clear up some things for this article, I got in touch with her while writing and she was still really ambitious. Aside from the company mentioned in the interview, she also started a new business named Easy Separate Kimono, which sells kimonos that are very easy to wear for a reasonable price. You can choose a kimono you like from their stack of classic kimono materials (made with silk), they take your measurements, and then they tailor it so that you can put it on very easily. (The only thing you have to do is tie up the strings.) She also teaches how to make such a kimono on Airbnb, Facebook, and Instagram. If you became a fan of her after reading this article and you happen to go to Japan, you may be able to see her at these lessons, if she's unavailable via NEET Rental.
She also told me that she may start another business that provides a meeting place to find partners. Although social media konkatsu is getting more popular, she doesn't feel right about deciding who to date based on data, so she wants to create a place where people can actually get to know each other in person without any data involved. She used to work for a konkatsu company and also had plenty of experience working as a pseudo relationship consultant through the NEET rental service, so she thinks she can take advantage of that, too.
"I know that providing support to students who can't go to school, selling easy-to-wear kimonos and teaching how to make them, and providing a place where people can meet future partners are all completely unrelated things," she confessed. "A smart businessperson would expand their business while linking each subsidiary back to the existing one, but I was never a smartypants. I have interests in many areas and if I see something I want to try, I just go for it.
However, all of the businesses have something in common, and that's making people smile. I want those students and their parents to be able to smile easily again. I enjoy looking at women in kimonos who are having a good time wearing them. I want single people to rest easy knowing that they've found someone. I just want to keep challenging myself to shape the things that I'm interested in into something that brings smiles to people's faces, plain and simple."
It was very nice meeting this ambitious, charming young woman and we had a really fun time interviewing her at Denny's. She accompanied us as we walked to Akihabara Station. It was raining that day, and on days like this, with a quick glance around, you'd have noticed that nearly everyone was carrying an umbrella, including her. As none of us were carrying one, we talked and joked about this difference between America and Japan. When we arrived at the station, we soon parted ways with few friendly waves of thanks. I'm sure she was pleased to know that we all departed with smiles on our faces.