Need a Life? Rent One

For the millions of people in Japan who spend too much time at work to have pets, a social life, or a partner, help is at hand.

It started with Tokyo's cat cafés, where customers can sit around and sip coffee—and also rent a cat, for 10 bucks an hour. With Japan's economy in deep recession, cuddles are clearly in demand; customers ranging from schoolgirls to engineers are flocking to businesses such as Neko no Mise ("Cat Store"). Clients receive a "menu" of the felines available for petting; balls of wool and plastic mice are complimentary.

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The cat cafés have become so popular that more than 150 businesses have sprung up to offer animals for hire—ferrets, turtles, squirrels, monkeys--on an hourly, weekly, or even monthly basis, if you want to bring the critter home. Dogs are predictably popular, but for those with a smaller apartment and budget, beetles are an option.

One agency has taken the idea of renting whatever makes your life complete a step further. Hagemashi Tai ("I Want to Cheer Up Limited") rents out relatives. Whether it's for a wedding or funeral, you can choose the perfect person to accompany you, rather than go solo. The agency also offers a service to single mothers seeking a male role model for their children. The "father" will attend school events, take the kid to the park, help with homework. Kikue Shimizu, 37, has a weekly arrangement with just such a rent-a-dad. "My two boys are growing up without a father figure in their lives," she says. "I need someone who can talk to them about their education, their futures."

To be sure, the tradition of paying someone to be nice to you has a long history in Japan, dating back to the dawn of the geisha. Consequently, there's no stigma attached to the fact that the so-called cousin at your side is clocking up the yen by the hour.

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