By Marc Tracy
The New Yorker has returned a National Magazine Award for a 2018 article about a Japanese business that rents actors who pretend to be customers’ family members. The decision to give up the award came after an investigation by the magazine found that the story’s three main subjects had deceived the article’s author and the fact-checking department.
The American Society of Magazine Editors, which administers the National Magazine Awards, announced the magazine’s decision on Friday, more than a month after The New Yorker appended an editors’ note to the online version of the article announcing the findings of its investigation.
The magazine association said it “commends The New Yorker for its investigation of the story and its decision to return the award.” A New Yorker spokeswoman confirmed the return of the award and declined to comment further.
The 9,000-word article, “A Theory of Relativity,” was written by Elif Batuman, a novelist and a staff writer at the magazine since 2010. It won the award for best feature writing.
The editors’ note attached to the online version said the findings of the magazine’s investigation “contradict fundamental aspects of these individuals’ stories and broadly undermine the credibility of what they told us.”
Even the article’s opening lines contained falsehoods, the magazine’s investigation found. “Two years ago, Kazushige Nishida, a Tokyo salaryman in his sixties, started renting a part-time wife and daughter,” the story began. “His real wife had recently died.” The magazine found that Mr. Nishida did not provide the magazine with his real full name and that he was married.
The editors’ note added that The New Yorker would leave the story on its website because the phenomenon of “‘rental’ relatives” in Japan is “well documented” and because it provided “an exploration of ideas of family in Japan and more widely.”
The New Yorker said it started examining the article after news organizations in Japan reported in 2019 that an employee of Family Romance, the outfit described in the article, “had falsely posed as a client of the company in a TV documentary.” Ms. Batuman declined to comment.
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