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Calling in the Split Man

Japan's wakaresaseya will - for a price - end an affair, break off an engagement, or help a company fire someone. Their appeal is avoiding conflict in a society that prizes harmony.

By Marjorie CoeymanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 28, 2002


Hiroyuki Yoshida has a lithe and compact build, and wears his hair tucked sleekly behind a diamond ear stud. He often keeps the collar on his black wool designer topcoat turned up to partially conceal his face.

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Mr. Yoshida looks a bit like contemporary Japan's answer to Sam Spade. And in keeping with his hardboiled and somewhat slippery style, this "detective" can't generally allow himself the luxury of feeling sad for his clients or their targets.

But on this day, he does. His client had a good life, he says, with a lovely husband and kids. But she still hired Yoshida to create the circumstances that would allow her to demand a divorce. And like the professional he is, he got the job done.

Except for the momentary wistfulness, it was all in a day's work for the wakaresaseya - a term that translates loosely as "the breaker-upper" or "the separator." Operating as an unusual offshoot of the detective business, he will - for the right price - end an affair, destroy a marriage, or break off an engagement. Parents who don't like the person their child is dating, spouses who tire of marriage, or lovers who want to best a rival are all potential clients.

Corporations, too, have increasingly turned to these shadowy businessmen as a means of firing someone without a face-to-face encounter. Even TV has gotten in on the act, with a sitcom depicting fictional cases of the split men at work.

The business is an ugly one, even if it is legal. But for some Japanese, discomfort over its nasty nature is less than the pain caused by direct confrontation in a society that puts a premium on politeness. The demands of modern life may be reflected in Japanese corporations that need to slim down, or individuals who get a once-unthinkable hankering to end a relationship. But those desires bump up hard against a longstanding emphasis on loyalty, and language that is frequently used to skirt the heart of an issue.

"You wouldn't have this service in America," explains Hiroshi Ito, a dapper young wakaresaseya who works for Tokyo-based Office Shadow, and who sometimes plays the role of lover to lure a woman out of a relationship. "Americans can just say what they want straightforwardly. But Japanese can't do that."

Twenty years ago, there were only about three wakaresaseya firms. Today at least a dozen exist, mostly in Tokyo and Osaka. Fees range, by one estimate, from $12,000 to bust up a relationship to $15,000-plus to drive a wedge in a marriage.

Some observers say the field's expansion testifies to the difficulties that many Japanese, particularly those in urban areas, are experiencing as they cope with social change.

"This kind of firm is taking over what was traditionally done by other groups in society," says Akira Takemoto, assistant professor of Japanese language and literature at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. "In a traditional village, when there was a problem like this, there were friends and respected elders who would give advice."