For more than a month the tabloid press has been obsessed with comedian Tomoko Nakajima, who apparently has squandered her career and whatever money it made her on the services of a self-styled fortune teller who effectively commandeered her life. In Japan, fortune tellers, or uranai-shi, do pretty much the same thing that fortune tellers do everywhere else in the world. They use supposedly timeless, spiritual or other non-scientific techniques to predict an individual’s future. Uranai-shi have more of an accepted social position Japan than they do in a lot of other developed countries. A few, in fact, are bona fide stars whose advice is sought by the rich and famous, thus making them rich and famous, too.
You will meet a tall, dark stranger: Fortune teller's sign in Ginza
A recent article in Asahi Shimbun discussed people who, like Nakajima, have become “addicted” to fortune tellers. About 80 percent of the people who patronize uranai-shi are women, the majority in their 30s. One told the newspaper that she first turned to uranai-shi when she needed advice about becoming a freelance writer. A fortune teller told her to get married instead, and she did, but the marriage didn’t work and she divorced.
Despite what turned out to be bad advice she continued seeking counsel from fortune tellers, obsessed with what would happen to her in the future. She paid upward of ¥20,000 per session for two years and eventually amassed a debt of more than ¥3 million. In the end, she kicked her habit by studying the psychology of addiction, and now makes a living counseling fortune telling addicts like herself. Nice work if you can get it. She points out that the act of “regurgitating” emotions to a fortune teller is what makes the process so habit-forming. It’s like a “tranquilizer” to ease the fear of the unknown, but since the fear is never directly dealt with it never goes away, and so the patron has to continue seeking advice.
Money is an integral component of the addiction, since it clarifies the relationship. Traditionally, one finds fortune tellers on the street, sitting in front of little stands, handing out advice in ten-minute blocks of time, and ten minutes is never enough. More successful practitioners work out of offices. But growth in the industry is now in fortune telling over the phone and on the Internet. One entrepreneur told the Asahi that he runs 20 fortune-telling hotlines that charge ¥9,000 for 30 minutes, and candidly admits that his main mission is to listen to people’s problems and “cheer them up.” And though many of his customers are repeat users, he insists that if he or his staff suspect anyone of being an addict, they “reject” them.
Like all consumers, people who use fortune tellers insist on getting their money’s worth. Asahi reported that one site received a lot of complaints, not so much for its exorbitant fee — several thousand yen per minute — but because the advice didn’t work. One has to wonder if the degree of dissatisfaction has a direct correlation to the dearness of the charge, but as fortune telling becomes more of a legitimate commercial enterprise it also becomes more of an issue. The National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan reports that formal claims against fortune tellers have increased over the past decade. In 2001 the center received 871 complaints for the whole year. As of March 2, it’s already received 1,801 since Jan. 1. The complaints are about not fees but rather the product. People demand predictions that work out.
Asahi says that DoCoMo’s goo website survey found that the starting price for fortune tellers is about ¥5,000 for 30 minutes, which is about the same as the consultation fee you’d pay to a psychiatrist or a lawyer. It makes sense. All three specialize in giving advice with no guarantee of results.