New Yorker returns award for Japan ‘rental family’ story

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The New Yorker has decided to return a National Magazine Award it won for a story on Japan’s “rental family” industry, marking the first time in the 55-year history that American Society of Magazine Editors has seen an award returned.

The New Yorker revealed in mid-December that the writer Elif Batuman in her article “A Theory of Relativity” had been deceived about the identity of the main sources in the article, which appeared in the Conde Nast-owned weekly in April 2018.

The offer to return the prestigious award for feature writing came only days before the ASME board was going to meet on Jan. 28 to consider rescinding it.

An editor’s note now affixed to the top of online story acknowledges problems with three major sources, including Yuichi Ishii, owner of Family Romance. He was apparently married to one of the subjects in the story who falsely claimed that she was a single mom who rented a father figure for her daughter.

Elsewhere, a man claimed he was a widower who was estranged from his real-life daughter and rented a wife and daughter to watch TV and share dinners with him. In the now-discredited piece, the rented daughter was said to have worked for a reunion with his real-life daughter. But the “widower” appears to have been an actor paid to hoodwink Batuman.

An editors’ note now attached to the story online describes The New Yorker’s investigation of the story, whose mistakes apparently came to light in 2018 when stories in the Japanese press began questioning Family Romance, the company at the center of the story. New Yorker editor in chief David Remnick then started his own internal investigation.

The article won the feature writing award handed out in 2019. Now, the board will instead consider whether to give the feature writing award to one of the finalists that The New Yorker had originally beaten out for the honor, considered one of the most coveted prizes in the magazine world.

“The Board of Directors of the American Society of Magazine Editors, which sponsors the National Magazine Awards in association with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has accepted the return of the award,” ASME CEO Sid Holt said. “ASME commends The New Yorker for its investigation of the story and its decision to return the award.”

The New Yorker declined to comment on its decision to return the award.

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