Kansai Scene Magazine


The hush-hush world of hostessing

We all know the hostess business is there, and we have all heard lots of things about it, some true, some silly. This month KS hears about the business from the inside out, from a Westerner who supplements her living in this misunderstood business.

Everyone knows that hostessing is as integrated into Japanese culture as tea and biscuits is a part of the Brits'. But why does it hold such negative connotations for Westerners? Spuriously descended from the geisha tradition, hostess bars cater to lonely, workaholic businessmen and retirees (both married and unmarried), and to businessmen wanting to impress their colleagues, customers or friends. Taking a guest to a hostess bar (an expensive thing to do) shows that you are a person of means and class, and that you place a high value on your association with this person. As a bonus, Japanese tax laws allow visits to these bars to be written off as business expenses. Japanese society as a whole prefers a higher level of customer service, and there are literally thousands of hostess bars across the country providing personalised pampering. It is a cutthroat industry, and in trying to get a competitive edge, a few clubs employ foreign women and offer English conversation. So, why are the many foreign women moonlighting as hostesses rarely forthcoming about these jobs? Is it because the concept is completely unfamiliar to Westerners, shrouded in mystery, and therefore gauged by the only reference points we have from our own cultures, which are escort services and brothels? Or maybe it's because hostess bars are sometimes referred to as sunakku, which comes from the English word 'snack' …

Certainly, when my friend offered me a job at a hostess club in Kita Shinchi (Osaka), she wisely didn't mention the 'h' word. "Would you be interested in working in a small karaoke bar where you just get the customers drinks, talk with them and sing if you want? One or two nights a week is okay, it's ¥2,000 per hour, cash in hand. You work from around 7:30-11:30 and the customers buy you drinks!" I was sold instantly - this job ticked all the boxes! I had always loved bar work and now I was going to get paid to talk, drink and sing! I had only been in Japan for two months and was still a little naïve about what such a job description indicated. The yen didn't drop until the night of the 'interview' when I received a text saying "wear a skirt".

My job as a hostess requires me to diligently cater to my customers every need: topping up drinks, replacing their frequently filled ashtrays, restocking their snack bowls, lighting their cigarettes if they are too drunk to manage, applauding their karaoke efforts or popping out to buy them their preferred brand of cigarettes, all the while smiling and providing polite chitchat. And that's it! But I soon realised I was ashamed to admit to my second job with all its sexual associations (although I did quickly rope some other friends in, using the same subterfuge that my mate had on me). I recently overheard a female teacher say, "this old Japanese guy followed me the other night and kept asking me where I was going … Unbelievable! I mean, it's like he thought I was a hostess or something. Ewww!". I felt sullied. I want to clear up the misconceptions about hostessing so that the many hostesses among us can proudly admit to the source of our added cash.

Every hostess bar is run by a Mama-san, who sets the particular and distinctive mood of her establishment. My Mama has created a very relaxed, friendly and comfortable

place that resembles a large living room. It has one long lounge, several small tables, and a bar that seats six people. Years of experience have taught Mama-san exactly how to keep her customers happy and - more importantly - buying drinks. She's a source of endless charming cheery chatter. She's simultaneously nurturing and controlling: keeping her girls happy and safe, but always watching our posture and ensuring the level of inter-hostess communication is kept to a minimum. She moves us from table to table through the night, offering the customers a chance to see a fresh face. Although there are some large hostess establishments, most bars are small and have 3-5 hostesses working on any given night, and my bar is like this. Mama employs girls from Canada, Australia, the US, Russia, Brazil, Poland, the Ukraine, South Africa, England and Ireland, as well as two Japanese girls.

The door opens at 7pm. On an average weeknight, anywhere between five and 15 guests will come in, though on Friday nights and during the lead up to New Year and Obon, 20-30 is common. They usually arrive solo or as a group of work colleagues rolling in after a boozy dinner. On quiet nights, Mama calls the regulars and tells them which girls are working (if they have a favourite) or which countries that night's girls are from in an attempt to lure them and their wallets in. If that fails, she may head downstairs to the local bar looking for fresh meat. When there are no customers, we are free to sit and talk to each other, read or use our keitai.

The sit down fee is ¥7,000 per person, regardless of length of stay. When a customer enters, we jump to attention, calling "Irasshaimase" in union. We fetch oshibori (hot, damp flannels), fill an ice bucket, fill a water decanter, grab glasses, an ashtray, and plates of complimentary snacks and sweets and take our places wherever Mama has directed us to sit. Meanwhile, Mama heads to the bottoru-keepu to locate their bottle. The 'bottle keep' encourages customers to return to the bar. If they want shochu or whisky, they must buy a full bottle at a highly inflated price and it is kept in the liquor cabinet with the customer's nametag on it. Whenever he comes back, the bottle is brought out and the hostess's job is to get him to drink it as soon as possible so he'll consume it all the quicker and buy another bottle. Customers usually buy drinks for the hostesses, the cost of which is added to their bill. We can choose to drink from the customer's bottle, beer, wine, umeshu, oolong tea or juice … no water.

The usual questions and small talk commence: "Where are you from?" "What do you do?", "How long have you been here?" "What Japanese food do you like?" Of course, as the alcohol unlocks our guests' tongues and inhibitions take flight, the conversation may become increasingly bawdy. In this situation, play along, and all innuendo will be met with admiring guffaws, while more serious comment will be politely listened to or ignored at best, and more likely rudely interrupted. The conversation is not always sleazy, however. I have had some very deep and insightful conversations about whaling, Japanese history, languages, current affairs, and travel. I have also learned that Anpan-man would beat Superman in a fight because Superman would eat Anpan-man and Anpan-man would then burn him from the inside. Who knew?

Guests frequently request the microphone and karaoke catalog. These requests are usually met with a rather undignified scramble for the equipment as we seek a three-minute retreat from inane conversation. The Beatles, The Carpenters, The Eagles, Whitney and Celine feature heavily, and in December, every Christmas-related tune is massacred ad nauseam. Customers also often request us to sing big ballad duets with them - hello Linda Ronstadt, Aaron Neville, Peabo Bryson, Diana Ross and Lionel. You don't have to sing if you don't want to but if you love belting out a tune it's a cheap way to get a karaoke fix, and there are guaranteed compliments after the song, even if your voice is more akin to a caterwaul.

We have to wear a skirt or dress. Nothing too fancy, just some- thing feminine, and this goes for shoes, too. Yes, this is done to please the customers, but it is not an invitation. A hostess is never required to have sex with a customer, and the customers know that touching us at all is taboo. On the odd occasions that their hands do attempt to wander, it is up to the hostess to lightly push them away, chiding them with a "Hey! No touching!" Or you can threaten to move seats. Mama will often appear at this point, ever watchful, jokingly inviting them to touch her instead.

Despite there being no 'touchy-touch', we are still a product they are buying and what the customer wants the customer gets. I was born in 1976 - you do the math - but clients much prefer 20-somethings and the younger the better. "How old are you?" is always one of the first and occasionally the opening question from a new customer. Mama seems to materialise out of nowhere when she hears this question asked of the 'older' girls. "She is 27" she says, with a discreet wink. Her own age is a closely guarded secret. As for selling a concept, we are not supposed to mention boyfriends, husbands or children unless we are asked directly. Knowing how to answer the question presents somewhat of a quandary. Say no, and you will have all sorts of offers for dinners and dates and set-ups. Say yes and the conversation could go any which way. The following is a very common conversation:

"Do you have boyfriend?"


"Is he Japanese?"

"No, he's American."

Pause. "But you are in Japan … you should have a Japanese boyfriend."

"That may be the case … but I met my boyfriend before I met a Japanese guy."

"Well, you can have an American boyfriend and a Japanese boyfriend."

"One is enough for me!"

"But having one boyfriend is boring … you should have a Japanese boyfriend too, while you are in Japan. I should be your Japanese boyfriend."

This conversation can continue indefinitely and is usually accompanied by a self-satisfied smile. It does become a little tedious, especially when customers think they are entitled to know my boyfriend's height and other dimensions. Hostessing has really been an eye-opener into the way some Japanese men regard marriage, monogamy and faithfulness.

It is part and parcel of the job that you get used to having features of your appearance pointed out. While customers are usually very complimentary, if you are exceptionally curvaceous, flat-chested, small-faced, small-eared or have any other distinctive feature, expect to hear about it. Sometimes customers will point to and discuss the feature in question without ever telling you directly what is being said. I am often glad that I have only minimal Japanese. If the commentary is inappropriate, you are at liberty to let them know they are being rude. Mama may or may not side with you, depending on the customer and the comment.

Customers usually don't leave until they are quite toasted and the last train looms, then all memory of the night's conversation goes out with the ashtrays. They rarely remember your name or even your face, unless they come in on a weekly or fortnightly basis. You often spend hours talking to a customer one night only to have him come in a month later and say "Is this our first time to meet? I think so." Not wanting to offend, you must agree that, yes, indeed it is, and you will then have pretty much the exact same conversation as last month over again. Expect this to happen several times before that customer remembers you. This naturally goes both ways. I have pet names for customers whose names I never remember: "lovely guy with the big moustache"; "weird guy who doesn't talk but brings cheese"; "Cake-man"; "racist, sleepy riddles-guy" (never remembers that we have done his riddles 1,000 times and thinks we are really smart … for foreigners); "competitive karaoke guy"; "Sinatra" (sings My Way

Text & photos: N. Dixon

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