Casanovas for hire

Japan's hosts are ready and waiting to show the (rich) girls a good time

Text and photographs by ERIC PRIDEAUX

Help wanted: Able-bodied, handsome men required to wine and dine as many women as their schedules permit; some extracurricular cosseting may be called for. Educational requirements: None. Salary: Enough to make a salaryman gag.

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Host superstars Issa Tsurumi and Yuya Mikami (above, left and right) of Kabukicho's Club Gold use their charm, stamina and common sense to earn small fortunes every month. From outside, there's little to suggest what gold mines places like Club Gigolo (below) are, but inside the drinks, and cash, flow freely as hosts like Maru Amami (bottom, in his Club Rêve) encourage their female customers to party the night away.
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News photo

With a job description like that, it's little wonder that confident young blades in cities all over the land are lining up to apply for jobs at "host clubs" -- those characteristically Japanese bars and restaurants where the male staff do whatever it takes to make their female clientele feel very, very welcome. As in, "Darling, where have you been all my life?" welcome. As in, "Backrub with your bubbly, baby?" welcome.

As far back as the 16th century, there were establishments catering to the desires of women wealthy enough to afford the high cost of men for hire. But while for women of earlier ages the price of a bit of philandering could be ostracism, a nunnery, exile or worse if she was found out, her modern descendants can take their pick of host clubs and party with impunity.

Serving this new breed of female big-spenders are some 3,000 hosts working at 100 clubs in Tokyo's renowned Kabukicho entertainment district alone. Hosts now also regularly appear on television variety shows, and some write no-holds-barred books on their working lives. In many ways, they are becoming the closest thing to a celebrity that the average woman could ever lay her hands on.

The entranceways to most host bars are tastefully understated, however what lies within is anything but.

At one Kabukicho rendezvous room, for instance, raucous pop music blares constantly from the speakers -- but not loud enough to drown out a group of hosts yelling a Bronx cheer to urge "Emi" to down her liquor. Across the room, a host lies with his head in a woman's lap -- and she's hooting with laughter as she cleans out his ear with a swizzle stick.

Nearby, at the aptly named Club Gigolo, impeccably clad, coiffed and manicured hosts in designer suits scurry around the throbbing, dimly lit lounge making sure no customer lingers for even a moment unattended.

Huddled in a padded corner booth, one career Casanova whispers to his partner, careful not to spill a drop as he pours her drink. Across the room, another teasingly slaps the shoulder of a woman old enough to be his mother.

What seems like reckless abandon is actually serious business, and pampering is the bottom line: On a recent evening at Gigolo, even one of the top hosts received a talking-to after overlooking a cigarette that dangled, rudely unlit, from a woman's lips.

The whole purpose is to beguile the customer into forgetting what each of them knows deep down inside -- that the charming man they're with is mainly after money. "It's like Disneyland," explains Ryo Hoshikawa, 27, a former host who now promotes several clubs through his Web site FusionClub.net. "We sell dreams."

Ironically, most buyers are in the same business, too. Insiders reckon that about 40 percent of the patrons are hostesses, and another 40 percent work in even more upfront sex trades. The remaining 20 percent are a mix of celebrities, women entrepreneurs, wives of corporate presidents and a smattering of regular workers tough enough to withstand the 1 a.m.-8 a.m. hours most clubs keep.

Women customers commonly explain that after spending long hours in male-dominated environments, a visit to a host club helps restore their mental balance. "It's very stressful keeping men happy," says one guest at Gigolo, a soft-spoken, 22-year-old Ginza hostess who's been dropping by for four years. "It's nice to have men treating me the same way I treat my customers."

As intimate as things may get, though, there are few illusions of customer-host relationships ever developing into love. A middle-aged woman seated before a bottle of Jinro points a thumb at her host of five years and says, "I wouldn't call this guy a close friend, or anything." So what's the attraction? "Compare it," she responds somewhat mysteriously, "to a husband-and-wife relationship."

"You come home to your spouse," she continues, "and you have to talk about one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and 10. What a pain. Here, I just cut straight to 10 and everybody goes gaga over me."

For their pains, top hosts say they make as much in a month as an average Tokyo salaryman would in an entire year. However, starry-eyed beginners immediately run up against a rigid working system that dictates who rises to the top and who fades unceremoniously from the scene. Every host undergoes a probationary period, during which they must tend to menial chores like sweeping the clubs and scrubbing toilets before opening time and sorting out empties after hours. Prima donnas are mercilessly chastised by superiors, and workplace harassment at some clubs has led to reports of fatal beatings.

Every new host also still has to endure "catching" duty, in which they ply the streets for customers, hour after hour, no matter the weather. Rain and sleet may be the least of their worries. One host recalled soliciting a woman who turned out to be the girlfriend of a gangster. Before he could beat a retreat, a posse of thugs had him down on the ground, where they punched him and kicked him before finally dumping a bicycle on him to drive their point home. Despite his working over, he was lucky, he said, to somehow walk away with only minor injuries.

Perhaps worse yet is not getting a word in at all. "Some guys spend years pacing the streets and never go anywhere," said former host Asamitsu Kosugi (also of FusionClub.net) during a stroll through Kabukicho. Nearby, two men -- hands deep in their pockets to stave off the cold -- delivered desperate sales pitches to a pair of party girls who apparently couldn't care less.

The drudgery may be seeming to go on forever. Then, just like that, the host can have a lucky break. A woman collars him on the street. Or perhaps she takes a fancy to his photo on Lady's Club Chocolate Romance, or any of the multitude of other host-business Web sites where a date is only a click away.

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Host-industry promoter Ryo Hoshikawa (above, second left) shares a laugh with the top hosts at Club Gigolo, while hosts at Club Rêve (below) give a customer a good time.
News photo

However she finds her man, when a woman heads down to a host club and appoints him her shimeisha (assigned host), he's won the exclusive right to entertain her there. Then, too, she becomes off-limits because -- in a system designed to stop infighting between hosts -- she has to be with her chosen beau whenever she's at the club.

From the hosts' perspective, the system creates a sense of financial stability. Becoming a shimeisha is a prerequisite for making money, as hosts survive not on their base salary -- typically a daily pittance of about 7,000 yen -- but by taking a cut of the customer's tab at the club. What better way for a cozy, albeit contrived, bond to flourish?

But getting the woman into the club is only the first step. Once she's there her host wants her to drink -- and since nobody likes to drink alone, he must drink with her. And drink, and drink. Brandy, shochu distilled spirits, you name it, every host consumes it in mind-boggling quantities every day. Despite discreet trips to the restroom, where they force themselves to vomit as much booze as possible, many hosts still fret over the state of their livers.

Those trips to the john aren't only for physical relief. A wise host will also pull out his notebook and jot down any details on a customer that he can recall through the fog of his memory, says Issa Tsurumi, 23, a top earner who's been in the business three years. Important details include her work, hobbies and birthday, and in the case of top customers, even their parents' given names.

The most popular hosts work for up to 30 women at a time, so it's not surprising they occasionally forget a woman's profile. In an emergency, it helps to switch the blame, suggests host superstar Yuya Mikami, 26. "You say, 'Girl, you've been away four whole months! How am I supposed to remember your face?' " he explains, adding, "Then you apologize."

Sooner or later in any dedicated host's career, a customer asks for sex. Insiders say she sometimes gets what she asks for. But despite their public image as exemplars of virility, many hosts consider gentle, yet firm, refusal a key to professional survival. "It's a small world and rumors spread like wildfire," says former host Hoshikawa. "Let's say a guy sleeps with Girl A and with Girl B, and as his luck has it, they're friends with each other. Poof! Two perfectly good customers down the drain."

Playing hard-to-get pays off, he says. "If the guy makes himself a boy-toy too easily, the woman will just get her fill and take her business elsewhere."

As for those cases when a host, for whatever reason, does decide to go the extra mile, to stay on the right side of the law he has to go about it privately and keeps his employer out of it, according to a spokesman at the National Police Agency who requested anonymity. Of course, despite the risk of complications, extra services may inspire a woman to lavish her host with gifts, and Cartier watches and luxury cars aren't unheard of -- they also help keep the host from falling foul of the Law Regulating Adult Entertainment Businesses, which forbids offering sex for cash.

With the legalities attended to, though, there's still the practical matter of faking excitement if he's not physically attracted to the woman. "I guess guys with strong libidos can pull it off," says Hoshikawa. "But I never even bothered trying. I knew I'd be found out in a second."

Emotional matters aside, business is business and a host's devotion -- consummated or not -- doesn't come cheap. Mainly, payment goes to the club, which then pays the host a cut of as much as 60 percent. Consider the cash flow at Club Rêve, also in Kabukicho. There, a customer pays 5,000 yen at the door, a 2,000 yen table charge and 3,000 yen to choose a host. That's before an average 25,000 yen for heavily marked-up drinks. Tack on a 30 percent service fee, and you begin to get the idea.

Indeed, alcohol is the cash cow for any host club. At Rêve, a relatively frugal guest may opt for a 10,000 yen bottle of shochu. The more adventurous order 200,000 yen bottles of "Fantasy XO Decanter" brandy, which contain little painted glass figurines of animals from the Chinese zodiac. The wildly indulgent, however, splurge on a 2 million yen bottle of Hine brandy that is delivered in its own hermetically sealed box. Rêve owner and host extraordinaire Maru Amami boasted that admirers celebrating his birthday there in May helped push his personal earnings to 16 million yen that month, mainly by spending on drinks.

But like every business, host clubs also have their costs. There are salaries, there's rent, and then there's protection money of course -- typically 30,000 yen to 150,000 yen a month payable to whichever crime syndicate is top dog in their section of the entertainment district.

Costliest of all, though, is when someone upends a table full of drinks, knocking a bottle to the floor. At Rêve, Maru displayed a Frapin brandy, its Baccarat crystal decanter cracked, its contents in the mop bucket. "That cost me 400,000 yen," he said. But experience has taught him to prepare for at least some contingencies. "See these pictures?" he said, waving a hand at the Art Nouveau posters on the wall. "All fake, with plastic in the frames rather than glass. This protects not just me, but also my customers when they've had a few too many."

While Rêve, with its dreamy, circumflexed name and French salon decor, may exude a certain Westernized air, the notion of wrapping commercialized romance in elaborate pretense is very much based on Japanese precedent. We know that by the 16th century, teahouses were arranging trysts between rich, but lonely, women and male kabuki actors who provided sexual favors as a sideline, according to U.S. author and long-time Japan resident Donald Richie, who has written extensively on Japan's social mores. The teahouses -- like their modern offshoots -- charged a hefty premium, partly to cover the expense of the many middlemen involved in the subterfuge.

But money can't always buy secrecy. "In Edo history, there are many anecdotes of the woman getting caught or the man getting caught, and the awful things that happened to them," says Richie. He cited as an example a 1714 scandal in which a woman known as Ejima, and her kabuki-actor partner, Ikushima Shingoro, were banished into separate exile for conducting an illicit affair.

Nonetheless, similar trysting customs persisted, with varying degrees of stealth, through the years. Then, in the mid-1960s, Night Tokyo -- said to be Japan's first host club -- appeared outside Tokyo Station's Yaesu exit. With a staff of more than a hundred, it serviced a steady flow of hostesses, their mama-san bosses and the occasional wife of a yakuza boss, says Takeshi "King of the Hosts" Aida, 62, who worked at the club in its heyday. Aida broke off and opened his own host club, Ai, in Shinjuku 2-chome, before going on to establish several others in the area. The idea caught on and soon there were copycats everywhere. A modern institution was born.

That from such tentative beginnings such a mightily prosperous host-club industry has grown is, in its way, a good reflection of women's changing role in postwar Japan. For one, the booming revenue in this sector is hard-cash evidence of what sociologists may employ reams of -isms to intuit -- namely, that young Japanese women have begun to feel less shame over sexual activity. It also sends a clear warning to Japanese men who expect women to maintain a secondary, servile role in society. Says Richie: "Host clubs have become respectable because of the growing power of the single woman and the gradual, reluctant acceptance of a real feminism."

That isn't to suggest that the host clubs always play a healthy role. In recent years, there have been numerous reports of female customers falling victim to the shadier aspects of the industry. In some cases this has involved them being forced into prostitution (or, as insiders point out, further into prostitution) to pay off a tremendous tab. Other allegations have included clubs luring under-age girls, presumably to stick them with large bills they can only repay by working for affiliated sex businesses.

Some day soon, though, Hoshikawa hopes the industry will shake off its shady image. "Until now, we were seen as special places, underground places. But now people take a reasonable view of us," he says. The outcome, he believes, will be a higher class of customer -- woman executives, for example, who will demand that their hosts know foreign languages and stay abreast of current events to hold their interest.

After all, times are changing. "As women gain a better place in Japanese society," he says, "the world of hosts will also climb one step higher."

This story originally ran in a Japan Times package on hosts:

The Japan Times: Jan. 12, 2003
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