Sake, tea or me?

Inside the strange, sometimes dangerous world of a Tokyo hostess. First in a series.

Published June 13, 2001 7:29PM (EDT)

On the top floor of a skyscraper in Shinjuku, a neon-filled neighborhood in northwest Tokyo, my customer and I dined at a restaurant serving kaiseki, Japan's most extravagant cuisine. Made up of about a dozen exquisitely composed courses that each resemble a doll house more than a meal, a kaiseki dinner takes two or three hours to consume and costs several hundred dollars per person.

Of course, that was nothing to the filthy rich Mr. Murakami, who owned several computer companies in Tokyo. His mind was pretty filthy too, but he could act like a gentleman when required. And he knew that I required it, so he poured my wine and gave me his arm as we passed over the small, carp-filled pond that marked the restaurant's entrance. The kimono-clad waitresses looking on had to know that I was bought company for this 65-year-old man.

Once we had finished eating, we got into his chauffeured car to be driven the three miles to Akasaka, another of Tokyo's major entertainment districts, though slightly more demure than Shinjuku. As we neared my place of work we passed a woman wearing an extravagant kimono, a perfectly ornamented coiffure and the traditional white makeup. She was carrying what looked to be a shamisen, a Japanese string instrument, in a lacquered case. A geisha. I had finally caught a glimpse of one of a dying breed of painstakingly cultured, meticulously attired artist-courtesans.

Meanwhile, I was decidedly less ostentatious in my high heels and black cocktail dress. This woman, I thought to myself, should by all rights be in this limousine in my place. Instead, she was scurrying down the subway entrance. Things have changed in Tokyo in the past decade. When we arrived at my club, Midori, the owner and "mama," ushered us in with effusive bows.

"Cynthia!" Midori whispered to me in Japanese. "I called your cellphone. Mr. Mori has been waiting for you for over an hour."

"What could I do? I was out with Murakami-san." She shrugged; I sighed.

After I had passed an hour drinking and singing karaoke with Murakami, he left the club; luckily, he had an unusually early bedtime. It was now only about 10 p.m., and most other customers were just arriving. At the door, I blew him a kiss and thanked him for dinner, then ran back inside to fall in love all over again.

Despite the fact that I'd spent the last hour hanging on Murakami's every word, when I joined Mori, I immediately started telling him how much I'd missed him, since he hadn't been at the club for over a week. He suspended his disbelief and pretended to believe in my utter devotion. My only acknowledgment of treachery was a recitation of a poem about the fleeting nature of love by Ono no Komachi, 11th century seductress of the Japanese imperial court. Mori smiled, appreciating the joke.

He and I sang karaoke duets for about two hours. After we had run through "Unforgettable" and "Tonight" from "West Side Story," he gave me a lovely if odd present: a gold crucifix. "This is the first time I've ever given a hostess a gift," he told me, clearly -- and rather alarmingly -- smitten. "Isn't it?" he asked Midori.

She agreed, but I knew she would go along with whatever he said.

Once Mori left, around 1 a.m., I hoped I'd be free to go -- I was tired. But Midori signaled for me to come over and sit with a lone customer I didn't recognize. Exhausted, tipsy, I reflected on how this was the most excruciating form of torture: being forced to appear as if you were having a ball when in fact you wanted nothing more than to collapse. As I crossed the room, Tara, a beautiful Russian co-worker, stopped me.

"Are you OK?" she asked.


She squeezed my hand for support, letting her fingers massage mine for a minute, and kissed me on the cheek. We were all a little drunk -- on wine and our form of love -- by the end of the night.

This next customer was half-Japanese, half-Scottish, and an old friend of Midori's but apparently of no one else's, owing to his erratic personality. One minute he was gazing soulfully into my eyes and talking to me about Berkeley, where he had attended business school and I had studied literature; the next, he was insulting my job as an aphrodisiac for hire.

"You're a fool to do this." He was clearly more neurotic than sadistic, but my nerves were on edge when he said this.

"Who's more idiotic -- me for working here, or you for paying to talk to me?" Talking back to a customer was nearly a crime punishable by death, but it was 2 in the morning and, let's face it, we'd all had too much wine, even Midori. After that it's sort of a blur: We danced, and I remember dumping wine down his expensive suit (being sure to make it look like an accident, of course.) And before he left he said to me, "Cynthia, you have a lot of love in you."

I'd better, I thought as I hailed a taxi. It's my job.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

This kind of hostessing is a position unique to Japan, evolving over the past 40 years or so out of the 400-year-old geisha tradition as a concession to changing times. Just as the geisha is a mediator and entertainer more than a sexual figure (that is, the biggest part of her job is to act as an enabler at a banquet or drinking party, assisting the men in having fun -- like an artist/clown at a children's birthday), the hostess gets paid to drink and chat with men and ensure that they have a good time at outrageously priced entertainment clubs.

She also gets paid to develop highly stylized relationships with customers -- extensions of her work at the club. In most cases, she does not sell sex; she sells love or, rather, some blasphemous and beautified variety of it.

Yet the hostess is always, in some form, selling the most alluring of sexual fantasies. She reminds her customers of sex and sensuality, helping them to reassert their masculinity after they've spent the day in a work environment that treats them more like robots than men.

The main difference between a hostess and a geisha is that the former is far cheaper. Sans the $10,000 kimono and the long years of training in the traditional Japanese arts, a hostess's expenses are far fewer, and thus too her time charge. It is a cruel irony that the geisha's very accomplishments are causing her doom in the modern world: Hardly anyone has time to become a geisha anymore, nor the money to provide for a geisha's training. Hostesses have become the more popular and practical solution for drinking companionship.

Hostessing has been making international news recently, in a horrifying way. On Feb. 9, Japanese police found the dismembered body of a foreign hostess in a seaside cave in Miura, a town about 30 miles from Tokyo. Lucie Blackman, a former British Airways flight attendant from Kent who had hostessed for less than two months at a famous Roppongi club called Casablanca, had been missing since July 1, 2000.

On Oct. 12, 2000, police arrested Joji Obara, an independently wealthy, 48-year-old real estate agent who frequented hostess clubs like Casablanca under various assumed names. A call Lucie made to her best friend on the day of her disappearance was traced to Obara's cellphone, but this trace was carried out only after furious outcries by Lucie's family and British consular officials against procrastinating police.

Obara was in fact arrested on a separate charge -- the sexual assault, drugging and resulting death of a 23-year-old Canadian hostess approximately three years ago. Tim Blackman, Lucie's father, had set up a telephone hot line to gather information pertaining to his daughter, and after receiving calls from this woman and several others, he urged the police to investigate Obara. But for some reason, more than two months passed before the arrest was made.

Even more disturbing than the bungling of this case, which is perhaps symptomatic of the hostess's demeaned status in Japanese society, is what detectives found at Obara's apartment in October, several months before Lucie's body was finally uncovered: hundreds of homemade videos depicting the suspect raping more than 400 drugged women, including about 150 Westerners. Police have also located Obara's diaries, which include detailed plans for luring women to his seaside apartment, plying them with sedative-laced drinks and assaulting them while they were unconscious. Which is what he allegedly did to Lucie.

It appears that Lucie's death was an accident, the result of Obara's fatal concoction of sleeping pills and alcohol. Obara has confessed to meeting Lucie at her club and accompanying her to his apartment, but at his April 27 arraignment, he denied any further involvement with her. But he has already been indicted on five counts of sexual assault (on Japanese and foreign women). The most recent woman to come forward claims that Obara drugged, raped and burned her with chemicals.

Obara insists that his sex with all of these women was consensual -- and paid for by him.

It chills me to think that I was working in Tokyo at the same time as Lucie, as an illegal worker in a disreputable job, with little legal recourse to address any crimes against me. Tim Blackman is now calling for regulation of the hostessing industry to protect foreign women, but it is unlikely that this will happen in xenophobic Japan. "Obara epitomizes the problem where girls are vulnerable to people who prey on them because they don't have the normal civil rights as everyone else," he told members of the media.

Although it seemed as if this could never happen at my exclusive club in Akasaka, I recall how harmless Casablanca (renamed "Green Grass" since the much-publicized incident) seemed to be.

Casablanca, one of the most popular foreign-staffed clubs (hostess clubs feature either all Japanese hostesses, all foreign women or a mixture of the two) in the seedy entertainment district of Roppongi, looks like a glitzy suburban living room, with plush couches and coffee tables. On the fourth floor of a building that also houses Seventh Heaven, Tokyo's largest strip club, Casablanca is small for a hostess club, and its karaoke system clutters up one corner of the room.

But like a cozy, well-furnished home in a David Lynch movie, there is a dark underbelly to its fine décor, and certainly enough room in the hostess system's skewed power dynamics to allow for the possibility of kidnapping and worse.

"The difference between Lucie and a lot of the girls who worked in these nightclubs is not only that she looked smarter and her clothes were better, but that she carried herself better," her father said. But poise and a strong character can only protect you so much in the hostessing business, where every young woman is vulnerable -- and disposable -- to a harrowing extent.

Last year, while Lucie's family was still searching for her in desperation, the missing British girl was denigrated in the Japanese media. "A number of editorials were written by people who think she got what she deserved, being a hostess," a 29-year-old Japanese stock trader told me.

I feel an eerie kinship with Lucie, and naive for thinking that the news of her disappearance would be treated any differently by the media. To the Japanese, after all, the image of the hostess is both succulent and polluted.

Although Americans may raise eyebrows, what the men who frequent hostess clubs are paying for, in most cases, is feeling like an emperor for a few hours. They crave someone to talk to after a long day at work and before the lengthy train or taxi ride home. At a hostess club the customers are flattered and coddled; they don't have to lift a finger. Their drinks are poured for them, their cigarettes lit, their karaoke songs prepped. The women are there to praise more than titillate them (though sometimes the two tasks are indistinguishable), complimenting a customer on his singing, his English, even his taste in ties.

And the hostesses' behavior is paramount, because the club's basic fees and entertainment might only mark the beginning of a deeper seduction. Some customers are content simply to go to the club to relax and develop no personal attachments to the hostesses, but many are looking for a favorite girl, and the hostesses, in turn, must look out for those customers -- for that's where the real money is.

A customer who falls for a hostess might end up with a huge financial liability on his hands: having to give her tips, buy her presents, take her on weekend trips, in some cases pay for her apartment or schooling in Japan -- and in most cases getting no sexual satisfaction in return. What he receives is simple attentiveness from his chosen hostess, who is expected to call him every few days to say hello and ask him to join her at the club, send him e-mails (one clear change from the geisha) and occasionally meet him on weekends.

In short, she is supposed to make his days brighter and his nights more exquisite. The girls are expected to dress elegantly and pay careful attention to their hair and makeup. Those I knew at upper-crust clubs dressed in chic, low-cut clothes by lower-end designers. I generally wore high-slit but floor-sweeping evening dresses to accentuate my height and long legs. I would apply my makeup lightly, and pile my long blond hair into a loose chignon. I worried over my appearance, yes, but not obsessively. Light hair, full breasts and a tall figure can never hurt, but a woman's success in the long run hinges on whether her personality is in tune with that of the club where she works. Unlike the geisha, who hide behind a blank white face onto which men can project their private fantasies, the hostess has to rely on her own personality.

Mr. Inoue, a young executive for a top securities company, explained: "You know that the hostesses are lying when they flatter you, but it still feels good. It gives you confidence. The workday takes away from your confidence, and then nights at the hostess club of your choice give you your confidence back."

Above all, the hostess is paid to hawk sincerity in a venue that makes any sincerity impossible. It is also an atmosphere in which the men control what is said and done. Even when taken there by superiors as part of after-hours business, the customers are always in charge.

From a business standpoint, the idea is that if a man entertains clients at these exorbitantly priced establishments, he will be able to buy his clients' faith, trust and goodwill. Until recently, the top corporations in Japan provided generous expense accounts. In the 1980s, companies like Mitsubishi were spending more than 1,000,000 yen (about $10,000) per worker, per year, on recreational expenses. This is no longer the case. Aside from the constraints of the current economic recession, taking government officials to hostess clubs is considered bribery if the guests are entertained, as one Japanese bureaucrat put it, "beyond acceptable social limits."

In 1998, a big scandal centered around several Ministry of Finance bureaucrats who were bribed with frequent trips to Shinjuku's Lo Lan Chinese, a "no-pan" (abridged English for "no panties") "shabu shabu" restaurant where the waitresses serve a kind of hot pot cuisine and slip out of their panties for tips of about $100.

These officials, out for fun with their cohorts, are probably more understandable to Americans than the men who become serious patrons of a hostess bar, visiting not to drink and relax with buddies but to find love with the girls and nurturing with the mama-san.

Although the idea of nurturing in such a sexually charged environment might seem surprising, it becomes less so when you consider the mother-son bond that is abruptly severed when Japanese men go off to college. Until then, they are doted upon by their mothers, who, usually unemployed, devote themselves entirely to their children's care.

This pattern of dependence and servitude often makes it difficult for men who subsequently marry to relate to their spouses as equal partners and lovers. Once their wives have children, sexual relations often cease altogether.

Akiko, a young Japanese woman from a traditional family, put it this way: "My husband no longer relates to me as a woman. To him, I am our 1-year-old's mother, and that's it. I no longer have a sexual identity." Married less than three years, she and her husband are both 27.

In Japan, hierarchy is important, with the men almost always coming out on top. But in certain aspects of marital or amatory relationships the woman has the power. A serious patron treats the hostess as a superior, even though he controls the money. But the man knows that while his money dictates his hostess's actions, it cannot dictate her love -- and were it to do so, this would obviously not be the love he sought.

It's a Catch-22 situation, and both parties know it. Thus, seriously smitten men seldom proposition their favorite hostess for sex; marriage proposals or pressure for a "real" relationship is more common.

This curious power dynamic is parallel to that of the traditional marriage in Japan, wherein the wife controls the husband's salary money. It is tempting to conjecture that Japanese men take revenge on their wives for this control by lavishing money -- not to mention gifts, dinners and time -- on hostesses, young women who give them almost nothing in return.

Thus while a wife is often oppressed by Japan's stifling traditions and societal mores, the hostess has a good deal of control. She also, because she works in the demimonde, has flexibility. In Japan, where corporations still frown on quick career changes, the "mizu-shobai" (literally, the "water trade," the lovelier-than-it-deserves name for Japan's nocturnal sphere of bars, hostess clubs and less respectable entertainment spots) is one of the few places where women can earn money without tying themselves down. Short-term, high-paying employment is a rarity in Japan, whether you are male or female.

Saki, a 25-year-old Japanese friend of mine, quit her promising job at N-TV, one of Japan's two major television networks, and started to support herself by hostessing to secure more time for her photography hobby. She told her former boss about her new job, and after first trying to coax her back into respectable 9-to-5 work, he offered to become one of her customers.

That's the world in which a hostess finds herself: one in which the rules are strict but the air is scented with desire, possibility and absurdity. I came out of it unscathed -- more or less. But other girls, like Lucie Blackman, do not, and few will mourn them.

Part 2: The seedy club where I started my hostess career.

By Cynthia Gralla

Cynthia Gralla is a Ph.D. student in comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley. She spent about six months working as a hostess during visits to Japan in 1999 and 2000.

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