With ‘rent a friend,’ traveling is getting very weird

rent a friend
Friends in Nice, France

With Airbnb you can pay to rent out somebody’s couch or spare bedroom. With Uber and Lyft, you can rent a driver and his car. OK, fine. Reasonable. Now, you can rent someone to be your friend.

This came to my attention in Afar, where Chris Colin describes his transactional use of a Japanese woman named Miyabi. “Miyabi isn’t a prostitute, or an escort or an actor or a therapist. Or maybe she’s a little of each. For the past five years she has been a professional rent-a-friend, working for a company called Client Partners.”

Client Partners only exists in Japan. In a region where loneliness is a real problem, rental friends could be someone’s lifeline, so I don’t mean to belittle the importance — and, for some, inaccessibility — of friendship. But for most of us just looking for a traveling companion, the idea of renting a friend strikes me as problematic. Colin thought so, too, at first:

“When I learned that friendship is rentable in Tokyo, it merely seemed like more Japanese wackiness, in a subset I’d come to think of as interest-kitsch. Every day in Japan, it seems, some weird new appetite is identified and gratified. There are cats to rent, after all, used underwear to purchase, owls to pet at owl bars. Cuddle cafés exist for the uncuddled, goat cafés for the un-goated.”

But for me it strikes me a lot deeper. For one, the joys of traveling with a friend can’t be bought. That’s the trite argument. But more to the point, when you “rent a friend” you aren’t really renting a friend: You’re renting a worker. By definition, a friend is somebody who likes you — you might say loves you — for reasons having to do with self-worth, evolution, elective affinities, if you like. To say you’ve rented a friend is a meaningless phrase. What you’ve really done is you’ve hired a personal tour guide.

And yet the idea is catching on. Now you can “Rent a Friend,” “Book a Friend” and “Rent a Local Friend.” At least the latter is a little more honest about what you’re getting, defining its services as “your smart travel assistant.” True, because a friend is somebody you split the cost of the hostel suite with and who might fight with you over the bar tab. And if she loses, she’s going to sneak pay later. The best travel friends are with you all the way, and you never have to wonder if you’re expected to pay for the extra two hours or if the rented friend was actually enjoying your company or just pretending to.

Colin recognizes these limitations. Rent-a-friend is “not a miracle cure, no. But maybe a pressure valve. ‘With us,’ Yumi [another rental friend] says, ‘people can talk about their feelings without worrying what their real friends think.'”