Casanovas for hire
are ready and waiting to show the (rich) girls a
photographs by ERIC PRIDEAUX
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.
|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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
|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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
times are changing. "As women gain a better
place in Japanese society," he says,
"the world of hosts will also climb one step
story originally ran in a Japan Times package on
The Japan Times: Jan. 12, 2003
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