Tokyo — Throughout his 38 years, Shoji Morimoto had become accustomed to being told by family, classmates and co-workers that he was a "do-nothing" — the kind of guy who stood back and let others take the initiative.
So, after college and listlessly shuttling through one dispiriting job after another, he finally decided that if the shoe fit, why not wear it. In 2018, unemployed, on a whim, the self-described slacker opened a Twitter account under the moniker "Do Nothing Rent-a-Man," and began offering his diffident companionship — but not a drop of sweat equity — to the world.
"I lend myself out to do nothing, which means I don't make any special effort," he told CBS News while seated in a local park, between gigs. He schedules up to three appointments almost every day. "I don't initiate conversation. I reply to chitchat, but that's it."
He has turned down requests to help clean houses, "be a friend," do laundry, make scintillating banter, visit a haunted house, and pose nude. But he has stood in the freezing cold to be an audience for a struggling street musician, accompanied the painfully self-conscious on outings to shops and restaurants, and even shared cake with a lonely soul on a birthday.
"People use me in different ways," he said. "Some people are lonesome. Some feel it's a shame to go somewhere (interesting) alone — they want someone to share their impressions with.
"What's amazing is the huge variety of personalities, circumstances and situations," he noted. "That's striking to me almost every day."
On a recent weekday, he met a woman in her 30s, one of his regulars. After perfunctory greetings, they sat down to sip coffee — in silence.
The woman, who requested anonymity, said Mr. Rental offered a safe space with no judgment, no strings and no talking.
"Japanese women tend to worry about what others think, and about not burdening others," she said. "It's exhausting. So being freed of this obsessing is valuable."
The concept of offering to be a plus-one at restaurants or on shopping trips is not unheard-of in Japan. But Morimoto was perhaps the first to entertain a wide range of "assignments" for nothing more than the cost of carfare and, if needed, meals.
Followed online by almost a quarter of a million people, he trudges around town, and often out of it, meeting with a steady stream of clients. "Rent-a-man" has struck a chord in this workaholic and conformist country.
Thousands of curious encounters later, his experiences have earned him a living. He's written four books, including a manga comic, about joining clients for a few hours at a café or on an outing, or even providing moral support while a client filed for divorce.
While his clientele skews overwhelmingly female, some of the often-poignant stories are from men aching for even a total stranger's ear. There was the young man, stuck in a soul-killing office job, who asked Rent-a-Man to meet him on the swings after work, to briefly relive the joy of being alive.
Another unforgettable client was a lonely young man who asked to share a home-cooked meal, and an unbearable secret: His mother had raised him to a life of crime, and he'd been sent to a reformatory for his role in a robbery that left a woman dead. And yet, the man told Mr. Rental, he still pined for the mother who had ruined his life.
Mr. Rental's signature props, a blue cap and backpack, and his inexplicable minor celebrity, inspired a 12-part semi-fictionalized Amazon Prime series last year.
"Critics say, 'Get a job!'," the married father of one told CBS News. "But I don't feel the need to answer to anyone. They're entitled to their opinions."
By evening, Morimoto was on the move again, headed for drinks with a soft-spoken 44-year-old health care worker named Tamami Miyazaki.
"With a friend, you have to worry about whether they would like the bar or not," she said. "But with Rental-san, he just says straight up, 'yes' or 'no.' It's less drama than going out with a friend."
Morimoto has sparked scores of copycats, but he's just getting started. He resents inferences that this is anything like a real job. Nothing's more fun, he says, than doing nothing.
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