Tales of a Tokyo stripper

Tired of teaching English? Try taking your clothes off instead.

Published May 28, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

I first met Alison (not her real name), 24, in my Shakespeare seminar at UC-Santa Cruz. Blonde, gorgeous, warm, funny, she also seemed a bit shy. Every
guy in the class was in love with her. But although she was friendly, she
kept to herself. A Feminist Studies major, she always seemed distracted,
pondering some far-off place, and it turned out that she was: Her
grandparents' graduation gift was a dream trip to Asia.

What followed
graduation was a year of adventures on the expatriate circuit. Alison meditated
with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala; got her nose pierced in Delhi on New
Year's Day; had her eyes read by a Tibetan monk; went rock-climbing
in the mountains of northern Thailand; made a pilgrimage to Hiroshima.
And, for six weeks, she worked as a stripper
in one of Tokyo's Seventh Heaven strip clubs.

I'd heard that more and more foreign women in Asia are turning to this line of work over the traditional expat employment -- teaching English -- but I was intrigued by the image of Alison taking on this seemingly incompatible job, and by the mundane details of the expat stripper's life. I asked Alison if she would let me interview her about her six-week stint, and she agreed. Here's her story.

Why did you decide to work as an erotic dancer?

Before Japan, I had been traveling
in India and I had read Pico Iyer's book, "The Lady and The Monk," which is set
in Kyoto. I decided I really wanted to live in Japan for a while and visit
Kyoto; also I was fascinated with the idea of seeing Hiroshima because that
one day in 1945 changed all our lives. I wanted to work as a private tutor, to teach English, but I couldn't
do that because I didn't have a proper visa. Stripping was the only job I
could get. And I thought it might be fun; the girls get free apartments, and a
major selling point was that the guy who recruited me told me I could make $1,000
a night.

How did you feel the first time you danced in front of an audience?

The first time I danced, I prepared myself by drinking a huge amount, and still I had to be
dragged onto the stage -- and then I just froze. But after a few moments I listened to
the music and began to relax. Nobody believed that I hadn't danced before.

What was your audition like? Who auditioned you?

A guy named Aaron auditioned us. He works at the main Seventh Heaven
club in Tokyo. I auditioned with the girl who was my traveling companion. We
didn't know what the hell we were doing. Neither one of us had ever been
inside a strip club before, or seen a stripper perform. We had a couple
vodka and tonics, then we chose our music and we danced. My song was
"Careless Whisper" by Wham. We did these little routines that we had made up
in our room, which we never, ever did again after this tryout.

Where was the audition? In his office?

No, in the club, but before it opened, so there were no other people
around. We danced just for Aaron. It was funny; he looked pretty bored. I'm
up there dressed like a tart -- well, at first anyway -- and dancing my ass
off and he's just looking at me with no reaction whatsoever. I felt pretty
nervous, but in a giggly way -- it was just funny. I couldn't believe we were
doing it; and it was definitely not sexually exciting. But afterwards, I had
a major adrenaline rush. I couldn't sleep that night, and ended up at an
Internet cafe where I e-mailed my two best friends back in the States and
told them I had auditioned. I asked my old boyfriend if he still
respected me.

What did Aaron say after your audition?

He said he'd call us. A couple of days later he called, told us we were
hired, and told us our arrangement was that we'd work in a Seventh Heaven on
the outskirts of Tokyo and they would provide us with an apartment.

What did he say about money?

We needed to pay the club every night the equivalent of one table dance;
that's $40 -- which seems like a lot now, but over there it didn't seem like
a lot of money. So anyway, it wasn't free to work there. But the rest of the
money we made from table dances we could keep; that would be our income. At
this point, we were really hurting money-wise. We'd just arrived in Tokyo
from Bangkok and time was money. So we were eager to work. We moved into the
apartment; it was in a little building with five or six other girls.

What were your rooms like?

It was a two-bedroom apartment with some Japanese touches. In the living
room there was a table you would sit cross-legged at, and a TV and a VCR. We
each had our own bedroom. And we had balconies. The neighborhood was
industrial, but I always thought it was beautiful in a geometrical way. You
look out onto the street; and it didn't feel smoggy at all even though it
was a city.

What was a typical shift like?

There were two shifts. One-half of the girls would start at 6 p.m. and
the other half would start at 7 p.m. We alternated each day. No matter what
time we started, we all got off at 2 a.m. I'd get to work and go into the
locker room; I'd put on my little dress, my make-up, and get all dolled up.
Then I would walk as well as I could in my really high-heeled pumps out
into the main room. There'd be some shitty
music playing, and all the girls would be sitting in the corner smoking
cigarettes. Japanese girls, American girls, Canadian girls, they'd be
talking and drinking oolong tea. Usually they wouldn't be drinking alcohol
at this point. When a customer came in, the manager would ask if he wanted to sit with a Japanese girl or a foreign girl, and then he'd choose a girl to sit
with him. Once there was a customer in the room, that meant we had to
start dancing. As soon as a customer arrived, there had to be a girl on stage, so the DJ would
call out a name, and the girl would go up there and dance two songs. We
would take turns dancing. It was pretty funny when there was only one
guy in the strip club and we were all dancing for him. By about 8
p.m., there'd be a few more people, and by 9 p.m., it was much
more happening. That's usually when I'd start doing table dances and make
most of my money.

How did you deal with the language barrier?

When you sat down at a table with a guy, most of them knew very
little English, and the dancers knew very little Japanese. I learned my
little lines to say. "Hi, my name is Ophelia." And I'd tell them
I like Japanese boys. I would tell them I had been in Japan for one and a
half months already. I would ask them when their birthday was because I
would try and find out what sign they were, but Japanese don't care about
the zodiac. They care about blood types, so the guy would ask me what my
blood type was -- which I still don't know. And they would be shocked that I
didn't know my blood type.

Were you the one trying to draw them out? Did they ask you questions?

It depended on the client. Most of the time it felt like my responsibility
to draw them out. Sometimes they would ask me questions, sometimes not.

Are you supposed to be making them comfortable so they'll buy drinks, or
so they'll want to buy a table dance? What's your business goal?

Basically, I needed to sell them table dances. I didn't make much from drinks. If
they were sitting there with me, they pretty much had to buy me a drink as
long as I was sitting there. My job was to slurp them down as fast as possible
and then ask the guy if it was OK to get another drink. If they were
really poor or cheap or if they didn't want me to sit with them anymore,
they wouldn't buy me another drink; then after one or two drinks, I'd leave.
The customers weren't always Japanese. Sometimes they were Indians, or from
Bangladesh or China or Hong Kong. A lot of the time, it was married
businessmen out in groups with their co-workers after work. Or a group of
young guys who usually had no money but were much more fun.

Why were they fun?

They were laughing, flirty and trying to be charming -- it was fun for them
instead of just being assholes about it. Some of the older businessmen would
just sit and be stony and quiet; I'd try to make conversation with them and
it was almost like they were mad at me for trying.

What was the ritual when a client wanted to buy a
table dance? Did the money change hands at the beginning of the dance or the

It changed hands at the beginning, because you didn't want to do a dance
and not have them pay. If there was a group of them, sometimes you could go
around the group and they'd give you money, too. So you could get more than
what you'd normally get. Usually, though, I'd just dance for one guy.
A table dance was three minutes. At first you would just be sitting there talking to the customer, wearing your dress. Pretty soon after starting the dance, you would take your dress off, and then you would basically be in your G-string -- and your high heels, of course, those would never come off. We could touch the clients, play with their ties, rub
up against their thighs or whatever, but they weren't allowed to touch us.

On a good night, how many table dances would you do?

If you were Japanese, you'd do about 17. If not, about 7.

Did you do lap dances?

No, just table dances.

Would customers sometimes tip afterwards beyond the $40?

Not usually. On stage they might give you tips, or if there were other guys at
the table, they'd give you tips. But they were already buying you drinks,
which were about $12 each for a little drink -- and which weren't even alcoholic
if you didn't want them to be.

Did you do any escort work?

I had a lot of offers, but no, I didn't.

What's the biggest misconception about strippers?

Before this job, I had never been inside a strip club in my entire
life. And when you see strip clubs in movies, the story is always about some
guy and strip clubs are just this place that men go to have their fun.
Strippers are bimbos. Then the guy leaves and that's the end of that
segment. Well, now that I've been a stripper, I identify with the bimbos.
It's different in real life: Strippers are not bimbos; some of them are
really smart. Several of the girls I worked with spoke four or five
languages. Also, it takes a lot of guts to do what they do. It's really hard
work to sit at a table with a guy.

Why is it hard work?

If you don't sell table dances each night, you'll come out owing money.
You're not getting paid by the hour; you're paying the club money just to be
there. It's a very tricky line to be sitting there with a guy -- at least it
was for me -- because you want them to buy table dances, plus you want to be
nice -- even sweet -- to them, right? Of course, some of them don't like it
when you're nice. Some of them want you to be a bitch, to act nasty to them.
So learning what they want, that's a daunting part of the job. What
astonished me was that some of the guys believed that I really liked them.
They would ask me out. They would think that I would want to spend time with
them outside of work. That was amusing, but in retrospect, I completely
understand why they would think that.

Did you go out with any customers?

Um, let's see. It was against policy. Supposedly you'd get fired if you
went out with any customers or any employees. But the managers were both
dating dancers. It was supposed to be a secret, but everyone knew. I went
out with a couple of customers.

What did you do for dates?

We just had sex. That was after work. But I realized after a while I
didn't want to do that anymore, because either they'd never come back in or if they did come back in, they wouldn't want to pay you for doing a table dance
because they could sleep with you afterwards, or they'd be expecting you to
sleep with them afterwards. You learn very fast why that policy exists.
I had only a few dates at the beginning; after that it was strictly business.

What were the other dancers like?

They ranged in age from 19 to early 30s. I think I was the most naive
girl in the club; most of them had a lot more experience in the
entertainment business than I did. Like I said, stripping is not anything
I'd ever dreamed of doing, but a lot of the other girls had done nude jobs, been
in movies, had done all sorts of crazy sex work stuff and it was their life.
They had their silicone boobs and they were really gorgeous. They'd been in
porn flicks and in Japan they have live sex performances, so some of the
women had sex with their boyfriends on stage every night. They were totally
in the biz, but they said that got really boring. But there was a whole
spectrum of women there. There was also a 19-year-old Japanese girl who was
living at home and her parents didn't know that she was a dancer.

Did you make any good Japanese girlfriends?

Kiku, that 19-year old, became my best friend. She had lived in
the States for three years as an exchange student so her English was really
good. She was cool. We used to go shopping together for dresses and
underwear for work. That's what I spent my money on -- clothes, mostly stuff I
still wear. Or sometimes we'd smoke hash, put on our Walkmans and just ride
the subways. Once we went to a zoo. We rented a lot of movies, too, and
watched them after work. I liked to get stoned after dancing.

Did you get high while you were working?

I never was high while I was at work. I just drank and took speed. I
needed the speed because I would get really tired, and you don't make money
when you're tired. This English girl had a lot of it and it was really
cheap, only 500 yen a pop -- less than $5. I'd take that and I wouldn't feel
the lethargy that otherwise kicks in around 11 p.m. or so. Sometimes it made me more
talkative and outgoing, and sometimes I was content to be quiet, but I was
more awake and alert. It would just make everything a lot better. And
alcohol was a necessity. I tried to do the job sober a few times and I couldn't make it through a whole night. After a while
I'd be like, "OK, bartender, make me a strong drink."

Did you make as much money as they promised you? Did you make $1,000
a night?

Men are such liars, eh? The managers at my club were so lame, but they
sure knew how to manipulate young women. My best night was $500 and I got
really lucky that night. This rich guy bought lots of dances from me. He was
a gentleman; I liked him. I wish I'd had him as a regular. But $500 was not
near average. Average was about $200, and since you'd have to pay the club
almost $50, I wouldn't clear more than $150. But I always had a lot of
money because of not having to pay rent.

Why did you quit?

[laughs] I was really fading. The job was getting harder for me. You're
sitting in this room for eight hours. You've got to be really social. You've
got to be on all the time. I like to recharge my battery a bit more than I
was permitted to. I was really wondering: If I keep doing this, will it make me
stronger or is it just making me feel
shitty? I didn't know which one it was, but I knew that I really wanted to
stop and so I just stopped. Afterward, I was so glad I did.

What did you do after you quit?

I went to Thailand and I spent a month just hanging out on the beach,
reading books and swimming. I finally got bored, but it took me a long time
to get bored and I was happy when I did get bored.

If you had a friend who was going to travel in Asia and was thinking of
working as a dancer in Japan, what would you tell her?

I would tell her that the clubs make you work slave hours. Eight-hour
shifts dancing are too long. And they try and trap you; they'll buy you a
round-trip plane ticket to bring you over but a lot of
girls really have gotten screwed. And I would say to be careful about signing any kind of
contract. Having said all that, this will probably sound funny, but I think every girl should try
it. It's great. I just don't think that anyone should do it for a long
period of time.

Why should every girl try it?

Because you learn to feel better about your body, to feel feminine and
desirable. The men were always telling me how beautiful I am; women like to
hear that. And the feeling of power you have sometimes is intoxicating; when I was doing table dances I could touch the men, but they couldn't touch me. Also, for me, I learned that I'm an exhibitionist.
After a couple weeks, I loved doing table dances. That was the best part of
the job. I like teasing men.

Would you ever do it again?

I don't think so, but I never say "never." Maybe I would, but I wouldn't
actively search it out. I think the things I need to learn, I can learn via
other ways.

By Bob Blanchard

Bob Blanchard is a writer who lives in Santa Cruza. His work has appeared in The Progressive and in the San Jose Mercury-News.

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