Special arrangements

One customer invited me to spend the night in the house he shared with his wife. Fifth in a series.

Published June 27, 2001 7:17PM (EDT)

On Valentine's Day in Japan, it's the women who have to give the men chocolates. Things are righted on White Day, one month later, when men are expected to reciprocate with presents much more expensive than those they received.

I went out on a douhan (a dinner and club date) with Mr. Mori on White Day, and he presented me with a pair of earrings. "What did you give your wife?" I asked him, trying to make conversation.

He seemed genuinely surprised. "Oh, nothing."

This is pretty typical. The vast majority of my customers were married and claimed that their wives didn't mind their visits to Verdor. When I asked why, one explained, perhaps too hopefully: "If we came straight home after work, we'd still have all the tension of the workday with us. This kind of a place allows us to get rid of our bad energy before we go home, so our wives are grateful for that."

Mr. Kobayashi had a more pragmatic take on the situation: "My wife is happy with our relationship: I go out and work, and she stays at home and takes care of the money."

"So she wouldn't mind if you had an affair with a hostess?" I asked him.

"She and I have an agreement. If she ever catches me having an affair, I have to give her 100,000 yen -- about $1,000. I think she prays that I'll get a girlfriend!"

Customers often take time away from their wives to see a hostess. A loyal customer expects to occasionally meet his hostess on the weekend for dinner or an excursion outside of Tokyo. Favorite destinations are the ancient capital of Kyoto and the snow festivals of Hokkaido, Tokyo, Disneyland and even high-end strip clubs (to watch, not participate, as my friend Sandra, who went to a club called Seventh Heaven with one of her more eccentric customers, informed me).

While these outings are nominally fun, there is always an aspect of work to them, because you can never appear to be tired or less than completely enthralled.

Some customers pay for the hostess's time during these outings. Mr. Mori paid me $500 to go with him, dressed in French couture and enthusiastic smiles that made my face ache, to see the plum blossoms at one of Japan's most famous gardens, located an hour outside of Tokyo in his hometown of Mito.

Originally he'd asked me to stay the night in Mito. I had refused, giving a dance class the next morning as my excuse. But he wasn't offering to put me up in a hotel: He was inviting me to spend the night at the house he shared with his wife. "She's very excited to meet you."

I was a little taken aback. "Mrs. Mori doesn't mind?"

"No. I told her how interested you were in Japanese literature. And that you are my English teacher," he joked, citing a common cover job for a hostess in Tokyo.

"So she doesn't know where we met?"

"Oh, she does."

Instead of reassuring me, this conversation just made the situation more alarming. I told him I'd have to take the evening train back for my class. He still gave me the money for accompanying him to view the plum trees. Some men negotiate with hostesses about a weekend "time charge" for their company, but not, in most cases, for any sexual favors.

Not all of the men who frequented clubs were married. Two of my younger customers were still single, and an older one, Mr. Tanaka, a former test pilot, had vowed never to marry after the fiancée of his youth left him, frightened away by his perilous job. He regretted this decision and was lonely. The hostess club truly was his family now, with Midori as the matriarch and her hostesses part daughters, part lovers. He genuinely wanted to help us -- as a financial patron and loving uncle -- but he desired us too. As he said to Midori about both me and Amanda, "They are like daughters, but also like yama no kami" -- using a humorous term for "wife" in Japanese that literally means "goddess of the mountain."

As for my younger single customers, 32-year-old Mr. Suzuki was convinced, despite the fact that he never saw me on my own time, that I would eventually marry him. He had been coming to clubs for 10 years, and although he must have known on some level that paying a woman to spend time with him wasn't the ideal basis for matrimony, he still persisted in his suit. "I am from a samurai family. I'd be a good husband," he assured me.

I initially played along with his delusions, for the benefit of my job. While I never accepted his proposals, neither did I come right out and say that I wouldn't be his wife. Gradually, however, I began to feel guilty, because of his obvious mental instability. When I finally told him flat out that I wouldn't marry him, or even kiss him, he dropped me and disappeared from the club, undoubtedly to continue his search for a wife in another venue.

Of course, such establishments hold little attraction for most young men, married or not. Leftovers from a bygone age when decorum was paramount, Verdor and clubs like it are largely patronized by old men -- very rich old men. Especially in the current Japanese economy, when customers are far less likely than in the past to be on expense accounts, only the wealthiest can afford to drop nearly $1,000 for several hours of (more or less) pristine conversation.

Even if the company isn't paying, men still often come with their co-workers. In Japan, business has often been conducted after hours, in the presence of well-coifed women, who are thought to make businessmen feel more relaxed and generous than they would in a boardroom. But even if they are not conducting business, customers are apt to bring office cronies along. In Japan men spend far more time with co-workers and hostesses than they do with their wives and families.

Mr. Murakami, one of Midori's best customers, inevitably dragged along with him, as his personal sidekick and straight man, Mr. Tawa, the president of one of the several companies he owned. While his right-hand man was made to sing Elvis Presley numbers, this septuagenarian would grab the girl nearest to him, spin her across the dance floor and ask loudly, "You want me? I send you to heaven! Not very big, but very hard. Many girls say so!" By the end of the night Murakami would be collapsed in a drunken stupor. Apparently heaven would have to wait.

The hostesses felt bad for Tawa, whose job was roughly equivalent to ours: He had to fawn over Murakami, laugh at his jokes, agree with his boasts and sing on request. Despite the fact that he was a president himself, the rules of Japanese hierarchy made it such that he was reduced to the role of a near pimp, for it was Tawa who called hostesses on weekends to see if we'd like to join Murakami on his yacht. ("No, thank you.")

Other men use hostesses to try to impress their co-workers. Mr. Kajiwara secretly invited three junior employees to join our douhan. It was technically against the rules, because if he wanted me to entertain his cohorts, Midori would have preferred that it happen at the club, where they would all have to pay. But I didn't mind because I liked Kajiwara as a friend, finding him the smartest, most sarcastic and most realistic of all my customers.

Even he, however, was not beneath a white lie or two. He told his friends that he saw me on the weekends more often than he did. (I had gone to dinner with him twice on a Sunday, but that was it.) For my part, I joked with his co-workers about him and, doing my job, asked them to come back with Kajiwara and me to the club.

"I'd like to," one of them said politely. "But I can't afford it."

Men used to be willing to pay to go to hostess clubs, but fewer and fewer are falling under their spell. Younger men frequently go out carousing with their co-workers at night, but are now more likely to go to regular bars or izakaya -- traditional, cheap drinking establishments.

I like to think that after Kajiwara's friends left us, they went home to their wives -- for once at a reasonable hour.

Part 6: Flirting with danger: Sex and the single hostess.

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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