fbpx The Strangest Handyman You'll Ever Meet
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A Japanese handyman in his office

“The job of a benriya-san?… To fix troubles.”

In a tiny office on the 9th floor of a high-rise in posh Aoyama, Mr. Takano and Mr. Taneoka face each other across a couple of wide desks. Gadgets, cables, batteries and the like are strewn around and underneath their large computer monitors. But in general, the small office has the air of a clean and cozy studio apartment. In any case, the office aesthetic is a moot point—they won’t be meeting any customers here.

The hardworking handymen of Japan

The last decade in Japan has seen the boom of a peculiar trade: the benriya-san. Estimates of the number of benriya-san working in Japan today vary widely, from 5,000 to 10,000 nationwide, depending on your source. In Tokyo alone, the estimate is around 1,000 at work throughout the city.

Who You Gonna Call?

The word benriya-san is generally translated as a “Japanese handyman” or “jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none.” And certainly the first few items in their catalogue of services seem to fit the bill for your standard “handyman.”

At ワンストップ代行センター (“One-stop Daikou Center”) for example, they advertise furniture assembly, electronics installations, and a host of repair services. Taneoka even gave a demonstration of the last one by fixing a faulty tape recorder before the interview began.

Many different supplies can be found around the office

The company’s website features a breakdown of their prices and services, grouped by “rank.” Rank A and Rank B include all of your basic handyman services. B-rank services start at ¥3,300 per hour per one handyman. The slightly more challenging/laborious A-rank services start at ¥4,300 per hour per one handyman.

But after this, the “S-rank services” begin. For ¥5,300 per hour they list the following:

Making phone calls on a customer’s behalf
Attendant/chaperon (for situations that are too anxiety-ridden to do alone)
Proxy attendance
Investigation of suspected extramarital affair

Underneath this, in gray and coming in at ¥10,300 per hour per man are the “SS-rank” services with only two things listed:

Apologies
Special services (discussed on consultation…)

“Basically, a request comes to us and our services expand,” Taneoka summed up.

The indefiniteness of the benriya-san business model means that their work quickly expands into unexpected and very un-handyman-like territory.

Benriya-san take on a variety of jobs

“We’ve gotten some more personal requests,” Taneoka began musingly. “Like, for example…”

“The ring,” his partner supplied, laughing.

“Oh yeah. The ring story.”

The ring story goes like this: A few months ago, a customer came in seeking help in placating his distressed wife. She was upset because her wedding ring, which had been ordered ages ago, had never arrived. The husband wanted a representative from the ring company to come and personally apologize for the mistake to the aggrieved lady.

“But, I mean, in all probability, this guy never ordered a ring,” Taneoka explained.

Having told his wife that the ring was on its way for months and months now, it was too late to back out of the lie and come clean. Instead, he decided to double-down and enlisted the help of a benriya-san.

Junji Takano, CEO of One Stop Daikou Center

Taneoka continued: “The ring in question was supposed to be from a famous ring maker.”

At this point, Takano started digging around the drawers of his desk and pulled out a stack of mismatched business cards, extracting a white one. The embossed simple lettering read, “Harry Winston.”

“The customer made this business card and gave it to us. He said, ‘here, use this,’ and asked us to bring it when we apologized to his wife… We were supposed to tell her that we had come specially from the main office in New York… Well, that was the customer’s idea. Not just from the branch office in Japan. We had come all the way from New York to apologize to her.”

The word benriya-san is generally translated as a “Japanese handyman” or “jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none.”

Takano seemed reflective, hearing the story over again. “I don’t know if ‘helping someone’ is the right term, but that’s how you have to think about it to do the job, to do the apology. If you think about it too much, if you start thinking ‘oh this is a rude ruse to pull on the wife,’ well you’re just not going to be able to do your job.”

Societal Ill or Helpful Professional?

That idea of helping someone in distress seems to be at the heart of the benriya-san business, at least in theory. In a slightly derogatory exposé from 2003, the LA Times described the benriya-san as “part handy-man, part psychologist.”

The few foreign news outlets that have investigated this peculiar Japanese business paint the benriya-san as a grave example of the fraying of Japan’s social fabric. According to the LA Times article, “[the benriya] business is thriving in this society beset by social fears, alienation and an apparent inability – or unwillingness – to perform many of life’s basic tasks.”

Takano and Taneoka, however, are loath to take such a gloomy view of their business. The unreserved and gregarious duo consider themselves experts in handling problems, from small home repairs to life’s greater and more delicate difficulties.

The tools of the trade

Sometimes customers will come in with work problems they don’t know how to solve on their own. The One-Stop Daikou Center agent will meet with the distressed customer at a coffee shop, listen to their story and discuss tactics. Many times they’ve even helped a customer buy a smart-looking suit to give them a better personal impression for a daunting confrontation to come.

Some requests come from women living alone who long to complain about a noisy neighbor, but either fear doing it themselves or figure a male complainant will reap better results.

One of the strangest requests they’ve gotten can only be described as being a hired wingman—literally helping a desperate customer get a date with a woman he fancied.

Perhaps the best description of the benriya-san, then, is not a “handyman” or a “part-time psychologist,” but simply a purveyor of confidence, or, at the very least, a problem solver.

Benriya-san just want to help people with their problems

The agents, at least at One-Stop Daikou Center, don’t deride their customers as “neurotic” or hopelessly lacking in self-sufficiency, though that seems to be the Western media perception. The benriya-san isn’t capitalizing on a decaying social structure.

Perhaps the best description of the benriya-san, then, is not a “handyman” or a “part-time psychologist,” but simply a purveyor of confidence, or, at the very least, a problem solver.

While the more eccentric requests are, at best, unnecessary and, at worst, disturbing, at the end of the day, these businessmen are simply filling in modern life with ever more conveniences—mitigating life’s troubles, both trivial and great, at a reasonable price.

For all its eccentric twists and turns, Takano and Tameoka’s summation of the work sounds like the description of any decent job:

“About 10% of this job is fun, and 90% is a pain… But that 10% makes the whole thing worthwhile.”