Kansai Scene Magazine


Maid in Japan

Cosplay Cafes, or cafés where the staff dress up in too-cute costumes and spoil the customers, are creeping into the mainstream and are no longer reserved for the anime obsessed.

With her lashes lowered, she straightens the hem of her thighlength skirt before asking how much sugar I'd like stirred into my cafe au lait. "One spoon," I reply in a voice that's barely audible, stunned at the service I'm receiving for a mere ¥500. She leaves with a jittery courtesy, and points to a brass-colored bell on the side of the table. In case I need a refill.

I'm spending a Sunday afternoon at Café Doll, tucked behind a row of pulsating electronic shops in the nucleus of Osaka's Den-Den town. The newest kid on Japan's expanding service industry block is the "maid cafe". It's a concept that initially attracted anime addicts and tech nerds (also known as otaku) as their manga-inspired fantasies manifested themselves in the costume-clad waitresses who served them. According to a 2005 report from the Nomura Research Institute, a leading national think-tank, the annual spending power of the country's otaku population is a mind-boggling ¥3.5 billion. They are, undoubtedly, a rampant group of consumers, collecting hordes of DVDs, rare comic books and frequenting maid cafes.

Besides their skimpy, Lolita-esque outfits, "maid-waitresses," are known for their royal brand of service, whether its getting down on their knees to pour milk into a customer's coffee cup or addressing him as "master" when he walks through the door. Its a phenomenon that began approximately six years ago in Geek Central or Akihabara, Tokyo's renowned electronic district, and is now prancing its way into cities across the country, with a clientele that's becoming increasingly diverse.

"Though our regular customers are men in their twenties and thirties, we also have senior citizens and families with children coming in to get a taste of the experience," shares Hiromitsu Inoue, manager of Café Doll. "Our male to female ratio tends to be about seventy to thirty."

During my time there, groups of bespectacled men dominate the café. For a 31-year-old mobile content producer (who wishes to remain anonymous), a self-proclaimed "non-otaku", the expe- rience is more entertaining than erotic. "I was a little nervous the first time, because of the nature of the costumes," he admits. "But my curiosity trumped my fears."

As I sip a milky coffee, taking in the bubble-gum pink walls and erratic J-pop, I can't help but feel a little out of place. I bury my head into the menu, a predictable list of the usual coffee shop fare: curry rice, pasta, omelettes, and tonkatsu, along with a wide a range of alcoholic drinks. Around me, most of the customers are glued to their cell phones, engrossed in text messaging. They look up periodically to ogle at the cluster of young waitresses, who are snapping Polaroids of one another. A laminated card perched on my table tells me that ¥300 will buy me a picture with the waitresses - as long as I don't touch them. Other cafe commandments include rules such as not approaching a waitress outside of the restaurant premises, not using a personal camera, and not discussing "anything sexual" with any of the staff members. One of the more courageous customers, a stocky man in a glittery, black ski-cap makes his way to the center of the cafe, where he participates in a spirited photo session with a maid. He stands directly behind her, creating half a heart with both his hands, as she completes the shape, giggling self-consciously.

The more taciturn patrons have the option to saunter over to the makeshift bookshelf next to the cash register, which houses a collection of pastel notebooks, containing journals of each of Cafe Doll's 19 waitresses. Complete with a short "profile" section, including details like blood type, height and favorite cartoon character, the diaries are more interactive than personal, urging customers to leave messages. I gingerly fish out a book belonging to Rika - not her real name - and skim through. She enjoys McFlurries, shops in her free time and lives for the Evangelion cartoon series. "I'm trying to finish my homework in here," writes a high-schooler, while a Spanish tourist shares that Rika means 'delicious girl' in his mother tongue. Right as I'm debating whether to leave a message of my own, I'm distracted by a delighted shriek - one of the customers has presented Rika with an Evangelion figurine.

Compared to the somber ambiance of a typical street side kisatten, Cafe Doll exudes a livelier vibe, thanks to the giddy waitresses, epitomizing the Japanese ideal of cute or kawaii. "In Japanese, the adjective, 'kawaii' is related to the verb kawaigaru, or to love and take care of something that is dependent on you," explains William Gardener, professor of Japanese Popular Culture and Contemporary Media at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. "To present yourself to the world as 'kawaii' (as these maid- waitresses do, for example) is to try and appeal to this kind of feeling. Perhaps because human relationships in Japan can be difficult to navigate, the feeling of closeness, nurturing and owner- ship has a special appeal."

Gardener may have a point. Japan's obsession with all things Hello Kitty, the sempai-kohai office relationship and the fluorescent cartoon characters, dangling from practically every cell phone antenna are all simply different degrees of cute. Perhaps it is no surprise then, that the latest addition on the kawaii continuum has come in the form of a maid waitress.

Frothy, diluted and exceedingly sweet - the insides of maid cafés tend to resemble their iced coffees. As these establishments continue to peddle the fantasies of the country's burgeoning otaku community, it won't be long before the general public is lured in.


Text: Aarti Jhaveri • Photos: Courtesy Doll Café • Illustration: Jack Lefcourt

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