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.

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.

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."

The wakaresaseya often skirt the very edges of legality and sometimes cross the line. But generally, they employ minor variations on a handful of standard dirty tricks. The work generally begins with an investigation. Often a hidden and embarrassing secret from the past can be uncovered - a shoplifting conviction, an indiscreet affair - and the threat of exposure is enough to chase away a lover or to cause an employee to resign.

Sometimes, it's more innocuous. In a case where a young woman wanted her boyfriend back, for example, the wakaresaseya hired another woman to befriend the boyfriend's new girlfriend, discover her taste in men, and then introduce her to prospective new boyfriends - all plants from his agency. Eventually they found the right one to lure her into a new, if phony, love affair. The first woman was reunited with her guy - albeit for the pricetag of $14,000.

Mr. Hoshino, who didn't want his full name or the name of his company used, insists that he represents a kinder, gentler side of the business. He won't take clients that are too young or bent on revenge. But some people deserve a comeuppance for bad behavior, he believes - a spouse who conducts an affair, say - and those cases he is glad to take.

Hoshino is trim and bespectacled, more the accountant in appearance than a relationship buster. He speculates that his brisk business is somewhat related to Western influence. The problem for Japan is, he says, that "we have taken in the idea of the sexual freedom from the West, but we have not developed a way to protect ourselves from the unhappy consequences of that freedom."

Men and women meet easily today, sometimes over the Internet, and conveniences like cellphones make illicit relationships easier to conduct. But technology does not offer any antidote to the jealousy and social strains that may accompany such behavior. The remedy, he says, is being left to the wakaresaseya.

Certainly, male-female relationships outside of marriage are not new to Japanese culture, says Charles Yates, director of the Institute for Education on Japan at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind. But those relationships occurred within limited confines.

"Traditional Japanese culture has lots of ways to handle casual sex," he says. "But only with certain people, in certain places." Today's quickly formed alliances, he says, often "play havoc with class barriers and leave people feeling powerless."

Mr. Ito, who used to work for a securities company, gets pensive when asked how he feels about his profession - especially about the women he lures into love relationships.

His work is "not very virtuous," he says. The women he tricks, however, generally don't develop deep feelings for him. "But if they do," he adds with a sad shrug, "well, it's just a job."

Yoshida, meanwhile, seems to have more complex feelings, his injunction against sympathy for the client notwithstanding. He isn't sure what the success of his profession says about Japan today. But, he says, "I miss the old Japan. This wasn't necessary then. My profession should not really exist."

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