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I’ve walked through indomitably cute toy stores and narrow alleys thick with yakitori smoke. As we nibble at pork with ginger, Yumi cheerfully tells me about the gigs she has had since joining Client Partners. From Yumi’s vantage point, the breadth and depth of that need says something profound about her country.

I’ve stared at white-gloved parking attendants and a poster showing a muscular cartoon figure winding up to punch someone. From my miniature Airbnb studio, 10 stories up, I’ve tried unsuccessfully to snap everything into some kind of mental framework. (The six-year-old agency is the largest in Japan, with eight branches across Tokyo and another that recently opened in Osaka.) There was the mystery writer who wanted her to read the novel he’d toiled away at for 10 years. Yumi explains that these are just the more theatrical gigs. There’s a word in Japanese, , that translates roughly as stoic forbearance in the face of the unbearable.

I don’t understand the lunch menu, or even if it is a lunch menu. At least not for another 90 minutes, which is how much of her friendship I’ve paid for.

Could be a religious tract or a laminated ransom note. Miyabi isn’t a prostitute, or an escort or an actor or a therapist. For the past five years she has been a professional rent-a-friend, working for a company called Client Partners.

Cuddle cafés exist for the uncuddled, goat cafés for the un-goated.

But the rent-a-friend world isn’t typical, I would soon learn, and in some ways it wants to subvert all that is.

Contrived Instagram photos aside, Miyabi’s career mostly comprises the small, unremarkable acts of ordinary friendship: Shooting the breeze over dinner. Speaking simple kindnesses on a simple drive to the client’s parents’ house, simply to pretend you two are in love and absolutely on the verge of getting married, so don’t even worry, Mom and Dad.

Handsome men will wipe away the tears of stressed-out female office workers.

All to say I expected something more or less goofy when I lined up several English-speaking rent-a-friends for my week in Tokyo.

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