Hostess clubs have been a Japanese phenomenon since the 1960s, although they follow the tradition of Geisha, going back to the Edo period (1603–1868). While the Geisha spend years training in traditional Japanese arts, hostesses are hired according to physical qualities—looks, height, even breast size. Young hostesses who speak Japanese are selected by the best clubs and get paid the most.
There are about 11,000 hostess clubs registered in Tokyo alone. Some clubs employ Japanese nationals as hostesses, and others employ young foreign women. Foreigners can’t legally work in the night world, where alcohol is involved, but police turn a blind eye.
Drinking On The Job
Drinking is a big part of the job. Hostesses are paid a commission for each drink sold. According to Jennifer, a former hostess, drinking alcohol makes the job easier, taking away inhibitions and awkwardness. A hostess is paid to sit and talk with men, light their cigarettes, laugh with them, drink, and put up with drunken behaviour. The hostess manager or mama-san watches over the girls and makes sure the men remain happy and keep drinking.
To get into this industry, most hostesses go through an agency or travel to Japan and apply at the clubs. Jennifer, from Vancouver, was walking through downtown Tokyo when a scout for a club came up to her and offered her a job.
Wages differ from club to club, depending on the club’s size and location. Wages are the equivalent of $2,000–$2,500 Cdn per month for smaller clubs and $5,000–$8,000 for the most popular hostess clubs in Tokyo, which can employ up to 70 hostesses. This wage does not include tips from customers or drink commissions. Most hostesses average 15–20 drinks per night, earning about $75 extra each shift in drink commissions, plus a minimum of $100 in tips.
Business And Pleasure
In the 2000 documentary Tokyo Girls, Niko, a hostess club customer, explains the role of the clubs in Japan’s business culture. Niko says, “In Japan, business and entertainment are mixed together. Traditionally, entertaining at home is considered very cheap . . . investing in clients is very important.” He explains that by spending one million yen in a night of entertaining clients at a hostess club, he can earn one billion yen in business the next day.
The role of the hostess is to keep conversation flowing. “You say what the men want to hear and you be what they want you to be. Sometimes you have to play psychologist; other times men come in and totally just want to get drunk and party and want a girl to join them,” says Jennifer.
Hostesses are given expensive gifts and paid shopping sprees by their customers—probably not for their karaoke and conversation skills.
Some men claim they visit hostess clubs in order to practice their English. “Most men speak enough [English] to make small talk, but some don’t speak English at all. Those times are uncomfortable,” states Jennifer. The main priority is to make the man look good and be a pretty, young girl by his side, laughing at his jokes and flirting with him—a status symbol. “It’s all about batting your eyelashes and looking a certain way,” Jennifer adds.
Defining The Boundaries
Officially, sex is not involved in the hostess industry, but many young women are given expensive gifts and shopping sprees by customers, and probably not for their karaoke and conversation skills. Although club managers say they will fire a hostess if she becomes physically involved with a customer, at the same time, hostesses are encouraged to go on dohan or paid dates. Clubs advertise the idea of possible sex, with names like “Club Maybe.”
Often customers are involved with the Yakuza (Japanese mafia) and have money to throw around. Jennifer says, “I was always uncomfortable around the really rich ones because I knew they were involved with the mafia. One of the investors of the club had me as his flavour of the week.” He offered her apartments and tipped $800 cash. “I had to sit in the VIP area with him and three other businessmen and listen to them do business. One night I didn’t talk for five hours straight. It was boring as hell,” she says.
Boredom isn’t the only danger for hostesses. Tiffany Fordham, a young Canadian woman working as a hostess in Tokyo, disappeared in September 1997 after being seen in a nightclub elevator with a man believed to be involved in the Yakuza. The Japanese police compared her dental records to human remains found near Tokyo. The body turned out to be that of Lucie Blackman, a young British woman who had also been working as a hostess. At least five other foreign hostesses have gone missing in the past decade, pointing to the dark side of Japan’s hostessing industry.
Despite well-known dangers for women working in Japan’s night world, hostess clubs have no trouble finding young women to accept cash for seemingly easy work. Even Jennifer, who describes hostessing as “degrading, sexist work,” has been back to Japan four times to hostess. Good money is hard to turn down.