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How The New Yorker Fell Into the “Weird Japan” Trap

Elif Batuman was duped by a source’s fabrications about the country’s rent-a-family industry. What went wrong?

Chris McGrath/Getty Images

It has not been a good year for anyone, but it’s been an especially bad year for the fact-checkers of highbrow magazines. In November, The Atlantic appended an extraordinary editor’s note to a story written by Ruth Barrett, née Shalit, disclosing that Barrett, among other exaggerations and falsehoods, had encouraged a source to fabricate details about her life, including that the source had a son when she did not. Barrett came clean, sort of, admitting that “on some level I did know that it was BS” and “I do take responsibility.” The Atlantic deemed the article, “The Mad, Mad World of Niche Sports Among Ivy League-Obsessed Parents,” so compromised that it was scrubbed from the magazine’s website (it lives on in PDF form).

This week, The New Yorker attached its own extraordinary editor’s note to a National Magazine Award–winning 2018 article by staff writer and novelist Elif Batuman about Japan’s so-called rent-a-family industry, in which desperate and lonely people hire actors to play their absent fathers, wives, children, and so on. The New Yorker reported that three central figures in the story had “made false biographical claims to Batuman and to a fact checker,” undermining the veracity of large swathes of the article and revealing this particular rent-a-family business to be something of a scam. But unlike The Atlantic, The New Yorker kept its story up and offered a partial defense. Citing the “well documented” evidence of the rental family phenomenon in Japan and the “good faith” of Batuman and her fact-checkers, the magazine said it “remains confident about the value” of the story “as an exploration of ideas of family in Japan and more widely.”

So far, The New Yorker has been spared much of the outrage and mockery that rained down on The Atlantic for Barrett’s transgressions. This is for good reason. Barrett was a known plagiarist before The Atlantic granted her the assignment, stretching back to her time as a staffer at The New Republic in the 1990s. (Rest assured, no stones about journalistic ethics will be thrown from within this glass house.) Furthermore, Barrett herself participated in the fraud, while Batuman was merely duped by her subjects. If there is a victim in The New Yorker’s case, it may be Batuman herself. “A reporter’s nightmare,” tweeted the writer Anne Helen Petersen.

An emerging theme in both controversies is that there is a fatal chink in the armor of even the most rigorous fact-checking process—that it is especially vulnerable to a naked betrayal of trust by an author or source. There is only so much a fact-checker can do if someone is intent on telling lies, particularly when the stakes are so low (falsehoods about varsity-level fencing and the sad lives of Japanese people are not equivalent to falsehoods about, say, Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction). Barrett committed such a betrayal and hence bore the punishment: article memory-holed, late-career revival dashed, name (both maiden and married) dragged over the red-hot coals of social media.

You’ll find no objections to her treatment here. Yet, oddly enough, it is Barrett’s article that rings truer for me. In her own defense of the story, Barrett wrote that, aside from the whole business of colluding with her source to lie (admittedly a monster of a caveat), the general thrust of the story was accurate—that, in her words, “wealthy parents in niche-sport hotbeds are spending vast sums of money and pushing their children through extreme training regimens in pursuit of an ever-dwindling supply of Ivy League recruiting spots.” Anyone who has followed the college admissions cheating scandal, or has simply attended an East Coast college in the past 20 years, knows that niche sports are résumé padders and ladders for recruitment. The details may be less lurid than Barrett has made them out to be—with 12-year-old fencers suffering serious wounds to the jugular and the like—but the overall spectacle of parents and students trying to get a leg up is undeniably ghastly.

In contrast, I knew, before I even clicked on Batuman’s article, that it was off; that it would not correspond with reality as I know it as a Japanese person. Now that we know much of the story is bunk, it’s worth examining how such a skewed depiction of a country sailed right over the heads of writers, fact-checkers, editors, and award-givers alike.

Here I am betraying my own biases toward a tiresome journalistic genre: the story that depicts Japan as a menagerie of the weird, the alien, the freakish. In the Western imagination, Japan is rife with shut-ins, celibates, suicides, loners, and obsessive geeks. It is the place where the men fall in love with busty Power Rangers, and the women vanish like ghosts into the gloomy mist of the suicide forest. These stories both satisfy a base appetite for the odd and serve as a projection of Western anxieties about the dissolution of the nuclear family particularly and society more broadly. The future, it seems, is already playing out in Japan, where people are atomized, neutered, and lost in the various fantasies playing out on their glowing screens.

I don’t doubt the veracity of these stories, but I am deeply skeptical of the way they are often framed: to maximize the inherent strangeness of the Japanese. Americans, after all, are also having less sex and committing suicide at a higher rate and dying alone and doing kinky cosplay, yet I don’t get the sense reading these stories that these trends are indicative of the fathomless mysteries of the American soul but rather the product of identifiable material and social circumstances.

Batuman’s article, in typical feature article fashion, heightens those mysteries at the outset to invoke the reader’s awe, before demystifying them in a way that is meant to leave the reader with a more enlightened sense of wonder. “Two years ago,” Batuman begins, “Kazushige Nishida, a Tokyo salaryman in his sixties, started renting a part-time wife and daughter.” Nishida, a widower alienated from his real daughter, turned to a company called Family Romance for this service. The rental wife and daughter had dinner at his home, watched television with him, kept him company. Eventually, the surrogate daughter helped Nishida reconcile with his real daughter, the first glimpse of the story’s heartwarming theme: that the difference between a fake family and a real family is not as stark as we might think.

It’s a crazy story that falls squarely into the Weird Japan genre, showcasing an extreme form of alienation, in which people are compelled to hire perfect strangers to stand in for their closest relatives. Single women hire husbands to appease their “marriage-obsessed” parents. The elderly recruit grandchildren to stave off loneliness. Adulterous wives pay men to stand in as their lovers to apologize to their wrathful husbands. Fakeries abound: fake bosses, fake weddings, fake families. Many of these stories are sourced to Yuichi Ishii, the founder and proprietor of Family Romance, who says he has played a fake husband to a hundred women and organized two to three fake weddings a year. The picture of Japan that emerges is steeped in stereotypes of a childlike country that is so superficial, so emotionally repressed, so cowed by an overbearing society that its people would rather outsource the work of confronting their parents or reaching out to an estranged daughter—the work of being a human being.

The article concludes with a wild story about Reiko, a single mother who has rented a part-time father for her daughter. For nine years, this girl has believed that this fake father, Inaba, is her real one. The deception has done wonders for the girl’s well-being, and Reiko admits that she sometimes wishes Inaba would actually marry her. As Batuman is interviewing Reiko in a Tokyo tearoom, drinking “sweetened yuzu infusions,” Inaba walks in. “Inaba-san!” Reiko cries. Ah, but it turns out that Inaba is really Yuichi Ishii! “Have you wondered about Inaba-san’s real name, and what he does in the rest of his life?” Batuman asks Reiko. No, she hasn’t. The story takes a surreally dramatic turn, as Batuman tries to wrap her mind around these two people who behave like a couple but aren’t a couple. “Her eyes met mine, and I beamed back at her,” Batuman writes. “I wasn’t faking—it was a real smile. But what was I smiling at?”

A con, as it turns out. The trouble began a year after the article was published, when a Japanese magazine reported that an employee of Family Romance had pretended to be a client of the company in a documentary produced by the giant Japanese broadcaster NHK. NHK confirmed that Ishii had told his staffers to carry out the ruse. The New Yorker then began its own investigation, culminating in the stunning admissions that were published this week: that “Kazushige Nishida,” the lonely widower, was in fact married and did not provide his real name; that “Reiko Shimada,” the lonely single mother, was in fact married and did not provide her real name; and that, craziest of all, Reiko and Yuichi Ishii are married to each other. Despite these elaborate deceptions, they all insisted that their stories were otherwise true.

This is real hall-of-mirrors stuff, to the point that it is impossible to fully separate fact from fiction. (To read Batuman’s account of her meeting Reiko and Yuichi with the new knowledge that they are performing a high-wire subterfuge is so disorienting that it almost makes one queasy.) What we know is that the New Yorker article and others like it spurred immense interest in the alleged family-rental craze. NHK produced its documentary. Werner Herzog made a movie about Yuichi Ishii that premiered at Cannes and featured Ishii playing a fake father to a girl. Conan O’Brien did a painful, Borat-like bit where he showed up at Ishii’s office and requested a fake family.

“I have two children who show me very little respect,” O’Brien quips, “and I have a wife who is tired of my jokes.”

“I understand,” Ishii says, nodding politely.

If Japan’s family rental phenomenon is “well documented,” as The New Yorker claims, it is not well documented in the article itself. Despite describing a “wave” of rental families beginning in the 1980s, and noting their prevalence in literature and movies, there is no concrete sense of how many people have actually used these services. Other recent articles about the phenomenon almost invariably cite Family Romance, which appears to have been thoroughly discredited. As Hiroko Tabuchi of The New York Times noted, “[W]hile it’s unclear it provides ‘family rental’ services on any significant scale, it did run a wildly effective media campaign, feeding false anecdotes to outlets looking for a wacky story.”

Some will say Batuman, a gifted writer, got the story wrong because she had little professional or personal familiarity with Japan. But I think that only makes the Japanese seem even more mysterious, as if these strange creatures can only be understood through lengthy anthropological immersion. Anyway, Japanese journalists fell for the story, too. (No one is more fascinated by Japan’s weirdness than the Japanese themselves.) And everyone is susceptible to cultural blind spots. As I wrote earlier this year, I long viewed the Japanese fondness for sanitary masks as evidence of some deep-seated cultural defect. Now that I wear a mask myself every day, it’s amazing to me that I could not see the obvious, banal reason people use masks: to protect their health.

It is this urge to spin a bigger story that is the fatal flaw of Batuman’s article—the “good faith” effort to find some overarching meaning in this esoteric tale about rental families. The ultimate point of Batuman’s story is not that the Japanese are weird, even if much of the article is unfortunately devoted to establishing precisely that premise, but that we are all weird—that we all have strange, complicated notions of family and deal with them in convoluted and sometimes absurd ways.

This debacle shows us that what we actually share in common is not so uplifting. In his book People Who Eat Darkness, the Tokyo-based correspondent Richard Lloyd Parry notes the temptation of foreign journalists to draw some broader cultural insight about Japan from spectacular stories. In his case, it was the 2000 murder of Lucie Blackman, a young British hostess who went home with a mysterious man and turned up dead. The case was front-page news in both Britain and Japan for years, and at the end of his chronicle, Parry was faced with the question of what it all meant. What’s the story? He concluded that the alleged killer, Joji Obara, may not say much about Japanese culture, but that Lucie’s death reveals something about how the West perceives Japan. Lucie likely would not have gone home with a stranger in Britain but felt perfectly safe doing so in Japan, where the people to her “appeared ‘sweet,’ ‘shy,’ often ‘boring.’”

When I think of a Western reporter talking to Yuichi Ishii and transcribing any number of tall tales that should have raised red flags—all those fake weddings and fake relationships—I see the same misplaced trust. Watch the video of Conan O’Brien and Ishii, and you would hardly suspect that a grifter could come in such a demure disguise. But the Japanese really are like us, often in ways that are hiding in plain sight.