“In Japan, old guys get a fair amount of ridicule, basically bad-mouthing. That had been kinda ticking me off, so I was thinking if we could create a bunch of good — not looks-wise, but lifestyle-wise — fun, older guys, then maybe the value of older guys would be seen.”
That seed grew in the mind of Takanobu Nishimoto, a 46-year-old jack of all trades, and blossomed into what is now known as Ossan Rental (“Old Guy Rental”). Thanks to the unusual brand name, the experiment attracted customers early on, and later, the attention of social media and web watchers on sites like NariNari and Kotaku.
So who rents themselves out for ¥1,000 an hour? How did Nishimoto find time between his college and vocational school lectures, fashion consulting, modeling and everything else? As I learned more about him, my curiosity was definitely piqued. And part of me wanted to confirm that he is simply a guy doing something interesting . . . and not a creep, as some people might assume.
I requested an interview and got an enthusiastic “yes.” When I asked him to choose a cafe where we could relax and chat, as if I were renting him, he suggested one on a fifth floor overlooking Shibuya.
His introduction was as casual as his button-down shirt and jeans. “Hello, I’m Ossan Rental,” he says, half laughing, perhaps realizing how goofy that sounded. We order tea and coffee and get right into it.
“Outside of work there’s a distance between older guys and young people. I think it’d be cool if we could connect more. I’m 46. There aren’t many opportunities to talk to people in their 20s in our private lives. I thought it would be neat if I could set up opportunities to make that happen.
“I would go to Tsutaya or some rental shop and think, ‘If older guys were lined up on the shelves, that would be something.’ But how would you order them? Well, putting them in a cart would work. And then you could return them by mail. Well, ‘returning by mail’ would be parting ways at the mailbox, but . . . (laughs).”
This past February he turned his crazy Ossan Rental vision into a reality.
On his website, he plays up the versatile nature of his service: “Hanging out is fine, talking is fine, running errands is fine, making me work is fine, having me give you style tips is fine, too. How about using me to kill some time?”
“People on the web and IT-type people were pretty quick to get it,” he explains. “The branding was interesting [to them]. On this site called Social Zukan, it went way up the web service popularity ranking.”
Indeed, as of this writing he’s ranked #1 in the “Awesome service” category with 3,939 points.
He says he even gets recognized around town. “The other day I was having tea in Ebisu and someone came up and said, ‘Excuse me, you’re the one doing Ossan Rental, right?'”
I ask him if he isn’t undercharging clients. “No, you know I would have been fine doing it for no money, but there’s something fishy about that right?” he says. “Getting paid ¥1,000 to work part-time is one thing, but it’s amazing that I can get ¥1,000 for meeting, talking and having a good time. I did mull over the price a bit. ‘Should it be ¥3,000?’ but ¥1,000 is just fine.
“For ¥1,000 even if it’s not what you were hoping for, you can still say ‘Well, that was interesting.’ It can be something to talk about on your blog, or Facebook, like, ‘I used this service, but it wasn’t fun at all.’
“So yeah, I’m pretty happy with the pricing. At ¥1,000 anyone can afford it.”
“She says it’s interesting! Interesting, or I guess she thinks the ‘old guy’ branding is perfect.”
Was it her idea to advertise the fact that he’s married in his profile?
“Not at all,” he says.
“So you’re just showing off?” I ask on impulse.
“I’m not bragging at all. It’s just an interesting detail. I probably wouldn’t have noted it had she been 42. Marriages with big age splits are in vogue, so the fact that she’s 27 might be interesting to people.”
Maybe they think ‘Well if she’s down with him, maybe I’d like to meet him, too,’ I offer.
“Yeah, I think it adds some peace of mind. 70 percent of my clients are women and I think they might be interested in that . . . ‘So your wife is 27,’ they’ll say . . . (laughs).”
Targeted marketing aside, how does he know when he has a satisfied customer?
“I guess I’d have to say the best is when something clicks and the person smiles. Going skating or something is fun, but . . . everyone is really just lonely. I guess that’s why a third-party works extra well. I’m not a friend. They say things they can’t say to friends. If I ask if their close friends know, they say no, because their friends would tell. I won’t tell.”
In fact, he says the type of job he gets the most often is just to be someone’s confidant.
“There are times when it’s just someone complaining about their husband the whole time; and I just listen the whole time like ‘Oh, I see, yeah, hmmm,’ and they feel better.”
“Going shopping is also fun,” he observes and recounts a time when a single mother asked for his advice about what to get her son for his birthday. “Our kids are the same age, so she wanted to know what I thought would be good.” They ended up buying a soccer ball and she was happy with the result. “Stuff like that, I feel like I’ve done something good, in my own way.” He reflects on how interesting it is to sometimes be treated as a stand-in for someone like that.
He was also once asked to accompany a middle-aged woman to a tai chi class because she felt embarrassed to try it out alone. He says was surprised how much muscular strength it took. “It was hard!”
When I ask him if he is ever worried about getting caught in a dangerous situation, he says, “Not at all. I even make house calls. I went to a old guy’s house in Ogikubo the other day. Six-hour course — rough, right? We talked the whole time and got take-out for lunch.”
Now that he’s getting popular, his phone is ringing more. “‘Are you free on Sunday?’ ‘Sunday? Who’s this?’ ‘Satou?’ ‘Satou who?'” he says, laughing. On his website he notes he’ll do his best to pick up the phone 24/7.
“I have a day job, so I can only really concentrate on this on Saturday and Sunday. Besides that all I have is weekday evenings.”
I think of his 27-year-old wife and his comment about everyone being lonely. What about her?
“I’ve always been busy because I’ve got a proper job. But she thinks this current gig is extremely interesting,” he explains, adding, “I think it’s a pretty warm-hearted service, more than you’d think. In this world, we’re online and using social media, but then we do this in person, it’s really warm.”
There is one other ossan on the website: Mikio Sendo, a baseball commentator and former pro player. I ask how he got involved and it turns out they work for the same school. “And I told him I’m doing this service (I’m telling people all the time) and he said, ‘I wanna do it too!’ ”
Unfortunately, Sendo hasn’t been getting much rental action, possibly because he’s been pigeon-holed in people’s minds as some kind of baseball coach. “Might have been better if it had been soccer,” Nishimoto conjectures.
What are the keys to being a great rental ossan? He credits his ability to relate to young people. “If I couldn’t talk to young people, I couldn’t be an awesome ossan, I don’t think.
“There are old guys who will say, ‘What you’re doing is no good. Work harder! Focus on college. You’re graduating from Waseda and starting a venture company? Who do you think you are?’ I don’t think like that.”
Part of his ability to get along well with students might be due to his day job. “I don’t want to be called a teacher. I’d rather be a senpai (upperclassman, more experienced colleague). Being called a teacher feels too self-important. I’m learning from the students, too. Teachers aren’t only teaching.”
He says he’s not currently looking to expand his operations, nor is he worried about rivals, either. “I’m not trying to build a business, so it’s fine for anybody to copy me.”
Before I knew it, an hour had gone by, a pretty pleasant one — the kind of hour you might not mind paying a friendly, busy guy ¥1,000 for.
At one point I admitted I had been interested in trying the service myself before I thought to interview him. As we head for the elevator, he thanks me and said, “Let’s do a rental sometime!”
I just might.