C. Ogawa visits a hostess club
Of all of the “mysteries” of the East and Japan, perhaps none is so puzzling as the institution the hostess bar. In any city in Japan, hundreds if not thousands of hostess bars are open for business every night of the week, all year round. They are usually concentrated in nightlife areas such as Ginza and Shinjuku (Tokyo), Umeda and Namba (Osaka), Kiyamachi and Gion (Kyoto), and so on – but they are literally everywhere.
Like the experience to be had with the more exotic Geisha, the frisson is implied but almost never offered at a hostess bar. Another similarity is the scripted feel of the experience. From the time one enters until the time one leaves, all the players know exactly what will happen, which role s/he will play, down to the topics of conversation. And, unless you are in a pink salon masquerading as a hostess club, you will not be offered anything extra-curricular. Ever.
If you go with a regular, the proprietress (“Mama-san”) will be awaiting your arrival since you called ahead. Two young women in low-cut dresses, high heels, and dyed beehive hairstyles will greet you; Mama herself will put on a big display of gratitude and warmth as you enter.
You will next be seated on a leather sofa in front of low tables in a smoky room with one other male present: the barman. From out of the ether, a woman named “Akemi” or “Megumi” or “Mana” will slide in next to you. Her thigh will just slightly brush yours as she smiles at you. She will proffer her business card – with AKEMI written in lacy print and her cell number and email printed below that – and utter the magic words: Yoroshiku onegai shimasu (welcome, nice to meet you, I am beholden to you).
Drink orders are taken by a lower ranking hostess, and then the fun starts.
Now it is time for 90 minutes of “chatting” and drinking. You will be given a warm towel to wipe your hands and face clean. Akemi will light and relight your cigarettes, she will fill and refill your glass. During the hour and a half, she will rotate between customers within your group. If you are dull or dour, Akemi will rotate away from you often. If she likes you or you are “interesting” or “funny,” she will stay longer, and perhaps ask you for your cell number or email address.
The topics of conversation are scripted as well: Job, age (guessed at playfully), hobby, how much and often you drink, and sexual innuendo (how hairy you are, how hairy she is, how may partners you have had, etc.). If you are foreign, you are guaranteed to be queried about Japanese women and food. “Do you like Japanese girls?” “How are we different?” “Which do you like better?” “Can you eat raw fish?” “Could you eat sashimi off of my behind?!” (Gales of laughter when you reply that, as long as there is wasabi, you would most certainly like to give it a try.)
There is an informal ranking system to the bars. Bars with Japanese staff are at the top of the pecking order, though a blond Westerner adds cachet, especially if she can speak some Japanese. Bars in Ginza or Gion are automatically higher than bars in less chic areas.
Next down are bars with Korean and Chinese women, the latter popular but scorned as “being interested in only one thing” (money). Filipina bars are also popular as the women are thought to be akarui (bright, cheerful). Recently, bars with Mongolian women have sprouted up. Japanese-speaking Russian and Ukrainian hostesses are now not uncommon, though they are less popular than less fluent American or English or Australian women.
After our ninety minutes are up, we are presented a bill for 12,000 yen ($100) each, and then leave the smoke-filled room as Akemi et al bow to us. As soon as we part, the women are back preparing for the next round of customers.
Most Japanese men do not expect anything more from the experience than the watered-down drinks, fleeting companionship, and somewhat ribald conversation. (That is why you will often see businessmen out with clients in hostess bars.) Those who do though are made to pay, in many ways.
If you do want to “date” a hostess, you will need to impress with either jokes and/or money. The following morning, you will find text messages in your cell phone inviting you to “events” at the bar. After a certain period of regular visits, and perhaps gifts, you may begin to meet outside of the bar. At this point, things become very expensive. Dresses, shoes, trips are all part of the cost for her time and affections.
And even then nothing is guaranteed, except that it will cost you; there is no mystery whatsoever to this aspect of the bars.