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In 2010, Takeshi Kuwabara was sentenced for the murder of his lover, Rie Isohata. What captured the world’s imagination was not the tragedy itself, but the fact that Kuwabara was a wakaresaseya – a professional hired by Isohata’s husband to break up their marriage.
The wakaresaseya agent Kuwabara, who was married with children himself, engineered a meeting with Isohata in a supermarket. He claimed to be a single IT worker, which his nerdy, bespectacled appearance may have helped with. The two began an affair, which eventually led to a genuine relationship. Meanwhile, a colleague of Kuwabara’s photographed them in a love hotel, and Isohata’s husband used these photographs as evidence for a divorce. (Such evidence is needed when a Japanese divorce is contested.)
Once Isohata learned of the deception, she angrily attempted to break off the relationship with Kuwabara. Unwilling to let her go, he strangled her with a piece of string. The following year, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
The wakaresaseya industry took a hit after the killing of Isohata. Along with fraud cases, the tragedy inspired some reform of the industry, including a requirement that private-detective agencies obtain licences. Yusuke Mochizuki, an agent of the “farewell shop” First Group, says that the effects included a clampdown on online advertising of wakaresaseya services, and more suspicion on the part of the public, which made it more challenging for wakaresaseya agents to carry out their work.
Yet a decade on from Rie Isohata’s murder, online ads are back and business appears to be flourishing again, despite the high costs and controversies involved.
The wakaresaseya industry in Japan is widely regarded as seedy, with many of those hired working in the shadows without operating licences (Credit: Alamy)
The appeal of the wakaresaseya
The industry is still serving a niche market. One survey showed around 270 wakaresaseya agencies advertising online. Many are attached to private-detective firms, similar to private investigators in other countries (who can also become entangled in relationship dissolution).
“Wakaresaseya service costs quite a lot of money,” acknowledges Mochizuki, so clients tend to be well-off. Mochizuki, a former musician who has turned his lifelong interest in detective work into a career, says that he might charge 400,000 yen (£2,970) for a relatively straightforward case in which there’s plenty of information about the target’s activities, but more if the target is, for example, a recluse. Fees can go as high as 20 million yen (£145,000) if a client is a politician or a celebrity, requiring the highest level of secrecy. (While Mochizuki says that his firm has a high success rate, a consultancy that provides advice on the industry points out that potential clients should be sceptical of such claims, and prepared for possible failure.)
The continuing existence of the wakaresaseya industry suggests that money and deception may be uncomfortably threaded into relationships more often than people recognise
London-based writer Stephanie Scott loosely based her new novel, What’s Left of Me Is Yours, on the Isohata case. She conducted such extensive research for her book that she was made an associate member of the British Japanese Law Association.
Scott says that hiring a wakaresaseya helps “you avoid confrontation. It’s a way in the short term of resolving a difficult situation without conflict. And your wife is much more likely to agree to a divorce if she’s in love with someone and wants to move on.” Thus, this is especially useful when one spouse won’t agree to a divorce, which complicates proceedings.
But most of Mochizuki’s clients are not married people who want help separating from their spouses, but rather those who want their spouse’s affairs broken up. He explains how a typical case might go.
Let’s say Aya believes her husband, Bungo, is having an affair. She approaches a wakaresaseya agent, Chikahide.
Chikahide starts with research: looking through whatever materials Aya may have given him, shadowing Bungo’s movements, looking through his online profiles and messages, and getting a sense of his friends and routines. He takes photos and determines that cheating is definitely occurring. Bungo is an avid gym-goer from Kagoshima, so Chikahide sends a fellow male agent who has a Kagoshima accent, Daisuke, to make contact.
Daisuke starts showing up at the gym that Bungo frequents, casually making conversation and striking up a friendship. He knows a great deal about Bungo thanks to Chikahide’s research, so it’s easy for Daisuke to bring up topics that will interest Bungo, and make it appear that the two men have a great deal in common. Eventually, he’s able to find out more about Bungo’s girlfriend, Emi.
Daisuke now brings in a female agent, Fumika. Like Daisuke and his gym-buddy Bungo, Fumika cultivates a friendship with Emi and learns a great deal about her, including her relationship preferences and her ideal man. Fumika eventually arranges a group dinner with her target, Emi, and several other agents. One of these is another male agent, Goro.
Goro has been readied with all the information about Emi’s likes and dislikes, and shaped into Emi’s seeming soulmate. Goro seduces Emi (though real-life agent Mochizuki is careful to note that agents don’t sleep with targets, to avoid breaking the law on prostitution). Now in love with another man, Emi breaks up with Bungo. The case is marked as a success (although a client may return if this affair restarts or another one begins). Goro fades away over time, never revealing that he was an agent.
With four agents needed for this and about four months until the affair ends, it’s a laborious operation. “You need to be very familiar with Japanese laws,” says Mochizuki, including those relating to marriage, divorce and the lines that can’t be crossed (such as breaking and entering or making threats). There might be wakaresaseya agents operating without licences and in the shadows, but he suspects that such firms generally just do a single job and then disappear.
The Japanese market for relationship services
Although some features of the wakaresaseya industry are unique to Japan, Scott says that similar services exist around the world. They may be less formalised honeytrap or con-artist arrangements, or they may be part of the private-investigations industry. Scott warns that conventionally “the Western perspective was to sensationalise the industry and almost exoticise it. There’s this false exoticisation of Japan that occurs in the West quite frequently.”
It’s difficult to gain a full understanding of the people affected by the wakaresaseya industry, because according to Scott, “people are very reluctant to be seen as associated with it, let alone a victim of it”. The industry has a seedy reputation.
London-based writer Stephanie Scott has extensively researched the wakaresaseya industry for a novel inspired by real-life events (Credit: Julius Honnor)
As TV and radio producer Mai Nishiyama comments; “There’s a market for everything in Japan.” This includes a variety of relationship-based services like renting faux family members and the additional services offered by wakaresaseya firms, such as assistance with romantic reconciliation, separating a child from an unsuitable girlfriend or boyfriend or preventing revenge porn.
Agents can also be hired to gather evidence that will help a wronged spouse collect consolation money, which is compensation for the dissolution of a relationship. Although the Yamagami International Law Office hasn’t worked with wakaresaseya agents, lawyer Shogo Yamagami notes that some clients do work with private agents more generally to obtain evidence of adultery. The consolation payment system means that hiring wakaresaseya agents can be beneficial not just emotionally, but also in practical monetary terms.
The continuing existence of the wakaresaseya industry suggests that money and deception may be uncomfortably threaded into relationships more often than people recognise. And divorce laws, social norms around adultery and the difficulty of confrontation are unlikely to change radically in the near future, suggesting that the services of agents like Mochizuki will remain valuable.
“It’s a very interesting job,” he reflects. He feels it has given him plenty of insight into how people exaggerate, lie, talk and interpret. “It’s very interesting to see how people are made.”
This article was reported with the invaluable support of Mai Nishiyama and Rie Amano.