Breakups Are Their Business

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's an industry that thrives because Japan is still a nation that can't say no. For the right price, operatives will dump your girlfriend for you, lose your husband, drive away that mistress or fire that longtime employee.

Wakaresaseya--literally "breaker-uppers"--are specialists in destroying relationships. In a nation that eschews confrontation and shuns public displays of passion, these terminators extricate clients from close encounters of the emotional kind.

While Western psychiatrists, investigators and attorneys abet those in the throes of separation, wakaresaseya take a far more active role, and the result isn't always pretty. The agents, who are unlicensed, do whatever it takes, including entrapment, betrayal or worse, to get the job done.

"If this wasn't my business, I'd consider a lot of what we do immoral," says Hiroshi Ito, a handsome 33-year-old wakaresaseya with Tokyo-based Office Shadow.

There are few statistics on the dodgy field, but Tokyo-based Daiko Research Office estimates that a dozen firms like itself, mainly here and in Osaka, pull in tens of millions of dollars a year handling hundreds of cases. This compares with just two companies a few years ago.

Psychologists and wakaresaseya firms cite several reasons for the industry's recent success--and why the idea probably wouldn't fly overseas. Women in Japan these days are stronger and increasingly likely to initiate separations, yet law and culture still encourage them to make it look as if it's the man's idea.

In addition, many people who once helped others break up, including village dignitaries and matchmakers, are no longer around. "Intermediaries are very important in Japanese culture, but many are being eliminated as society changes," says Shizuo Machizawa, a psychiatrist and professor at Tokyo's Rikkyo University. "So commercial services are springing up to fill the gap."

Some clients are so desperate for emotional closure that they arrive at the first meeting with $5,000 in cash. Complex jobs can run to $150,000.

Each wakaresaseya company has several, even dozens, of operatives skilled at playing roles, from sexy flight attendants and powerful officials to wholesome housewives and movie moguls.

The person a client hopes to banish--the "target," in industry parlance--often is lulled into a trap through a seemingly chance meeting in a bar, at a party, on a flight. A moment of weakness captured by a camera hidden in a cigarette box or behind a lapel is enough to upend his or her life. Though breaking up is hard to do, these firms boast 95% success rates.

The process generally starts with a client's call or e-mail. Most firms prefer not to divide families (but will). And virtually all try to weed out troublesome customers, including stalkers, those with a grudge, the indecisive.

"I purposely wait four or five days to see if they really want it," says Hiroyuki Yoshida, president of Office Shadow. "We need to see how serious they are before we destroy people's normal lives and emotional ties."

After a down payment is received, the wakaresaseya launch an investigation, beginning with the client: Why did your husband take a mistress, what prompted your wife to sleep with her boss, why do you want to dump your boyfriend? Further afield, interviews with neighbors and colleagues, printed records and tailing fill out the details of the target's preferences, lifestyle, favorite golf course or department store, and commute.

With the bead drawn, wakaresaseya devise a "scenario" to entrap the target and ultimately convince or pressure him or her into ending the relationship. Wakaresaseya deny breaking the law and insist that no one in their profession has been arrested in the course of work.

Love Can Fade in Face of Scandal

Stubborn targets can even be lured into fake business deals, saddled with huge financial debts and visited by faux mafia-linked debt collectors. Threats of a career-ending scandal also work wonders to weaken tender ties, often before a sympathetic new "friend" guides the target emotionally into accepting the divorce or breakup.

Finally, there is "after-care"--for an additional fee, of course--to ensure that people stay apart. After driving away a mistress, operatives might plant rumors that a neighbor finds the wife attractive to rekindle a husband's interest in his spouse and keep him from straying again. After-care may also include advising the client to stop complaining incessantly, lose weight, even dress and act more like the girlfriend her husband has just given up.

"It's like a cancer operation," says Kiyoshi Hiwatashi, managing director of Lady's Secret Service. "You remove the tumor but need to make sure it doesn't grow back."

Like a good movie script, the best scenarios have imagination, believability and a healthy dose of human psychology. Many are used repeatedly, making firms reluctant to reveal too much.

Generally they either play off the target's everyday routine--an arranged meeting of a "fellow music fan" at a favorite CD store, for instance--or appeal so much to the target's vanity or ego that suspicion is capped.

Most firms say targets rarely see the fix coming or question why schlumps like themselves are suddenly the darlings of the good-looking operatives.

The companies all agree on who makes the easiest target. "Men can always be seduced if the woman operative is reasonably good-looking," says Hiwatashi. "That's an absolute. Men are basically simpletons."

Japan's decade-long recession and the James Bond allure of the job make recruiting operatives easy. Lady's Secret Service receives more than 20 resumes a day, some from doctors, nurses and lawyers bored with their 9-to-5 lives, others from celebrities looking for a profession that will outlast their public appeal.

Successful candidates are trained in legal boundaries, martial arts and role-playing. Patience and thinking on your feet must come naturally.

Ito became an Office Shadow operative several years ago after tiring of his brokerage job. He nearly blew his first case after flinching when a jealous husband failed to react as scripted, but he says he now can handle anything. His specialties include picking up women and befriending distraught men.

Office Shadow broke up one marriage--the wife wanted out after meeting an old college flame--by luring an otherwise upstanding accountant hubby into contracting an embarrassing disease. The firm then threatened to reveal his hospital records.

Another case was resolved when operatives followed a husband's mistress on her Hawaiian vacation, uncovered a shoplifting arrest and used the U.S. police report to sour the husband's affections.

One of the toughest cases for Daiko Research Office involved a husband who refused to leave his mistress despite repeated efforts at discrediting her. Finally, after two years, the firm lured the pair into a promising business deal using dummy offices, business cards and secretaries. It saddled them with $160,000 in debt and presented him with a choice: Give her up or pay the debt in full.

It was a deal the husband couldn't refuse. "Love is never forever for Japanese men if it starts costing too much," says Yasuyuki Takase, president of Daiko.

In particularly stubborn cases, wakaresaseya seek out the softest target. Although the husband might be in love, the young mistress might be in it for the bucks, so dangling something both wealthy and attractive frequently does the trick.

"Mistresses aren't difficult," Takase adds. "Most Japanese women like rich, tall, handsome guys, so it's easy to seduce them away."

If the handsome stranger trick fails, mistresses can be swayed by a "chance" meeting with an old flame. Alternatively, operatives may find dirt on the mistress and threaten to take it to her parents.

Women tend to be more wary than men of good-looking members of the opposite sex. One solution: A female operative befriends the mistress, figures out her ideal man and then introduces candidates.

Mistresses also tend to succumb to vanity traps. Many young women are secretly convinced that they're model material, so leading them down that road and tripping them up is relatively easy. Even if the women are not attractive, wakaresaseya highlight one feature--"Your teeth are perfect for dental commercials"--and lure them away, then make them feel that the career shift didn't work out because of their shortcomings.

Wives plotting surgical strikes against mistresses are a big part of business, but a client can be the mistress herself, trying to get away from a doting married man, often using his money for the mission. Frequently, wakaresaseya say, the bill is paid with cash the man thinks is going toward designer handbags.

Wakaresaseya clearly inhabit a legal gray zone, as they hint at far more complex cases involving secret photos taken at hot springs, drugged targets, stolen documents and unwitting victims left on bullet trains to awaken hours later across country, alone and humiliated.

Some Clients Enjoy Secret Agent Role

Clients might even be enlisted to play supporting roles. Thus a wife might introduce her husband to an alluring operative "friend" at a party and leave early to let things develop. Some enjoy playing secret agent so much that they later become full-time operatives.

The higher or more socially respected the target is, the easier it is to loosen their heartstrings with a threatened scandal. Wakaresaseya brag about judicial impeachments they've engineered and political careers they've derailed as they sought to break up relationships.

Homosexual clients also offer a promising field. Infiltrating the relatively tightknit community can be challenging, given homosexuality's taboo status in Japan. But the stigma also makes pressuring someone easier.

Though most cases involve a love problem, separations of friends also are common, including cases where a new friendship threatens to disrupt older ties between two people.

Wakaresaseya also have found fertile ground in Japan's changing corporate world, with companies often as squeamish as individuals about saying goodbye. Wakaresaseya comb the resumes and backgrounds of older, higher-paid employees for any excuse to fire them. Alternately, they'll start rumors designed to hound them out of their jobs, saving firms the cost of severance payments.

Higher up the corporate food chain, wakaresaseya break apart longtime corporate marriages by digging up dirt about a partner, president or chairman and going public--or threatening to. With so much hidden debt these days, simply finding the actual amount owed is often damning enough.

The operatives also influence the factional infighting common in Japanese companies, perhaps discrediting a president in the eyes of his board of directors to help a rival ascend.

Wakaresaseya say emotional immaturity and a growing desire to pass off responsibility are fueling their booming business. They blame Japan's education system and family structure, weaker morality in modern times, and new Internet and cell phone technologies that make it easier to get involved with relative strangers but no less difficult to sever ties.

"While most people in foreign countries wouldn't think of hiring someone to arrange a breakup, young Japanese these days seem to think they can pay away their problems," says Daiko Research's Takase. "Relationships are treated like something they're buying from a convenience store."

Doing this work can take its toll on the operatives. Wakaresaseya say they find the car chases, lengthy stakeouts and long hours in smoky bars draining. Even more taxing is the emotional cost of living a lie, acting sympathetic to people you may detest and being a party to so much deception and dirty dealing.

"I don't think I'll ever be able to marry," says operative Ito. "Human ties seem so fragile to me now."

Company president Yoshida, known as "Mr. Shadow" to his colleagues, says he's very comfortable financially but has almost no friends, remains constantly on the move and is increasingly suspicious of human nature. "I've experienced the depths of hell," he says. "It's really too much. You stop trusting people."

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Rie Sasaki in The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

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