Japan's women flirting for cash

The recession has ladies competing for once-taboo work -- does that mean social mores are changing?

By Tracy Clark-Flory
Published July 29, 2009 10:01AM (EDT)

While the recession is driving some women in the U.S. into the sex industry, it's pushing Japan's young ladies into the less extreme but nevertheless historically taboo work of hostessing. We aren't talking about simply standing at the front of a restaurant and politely seating customers; the country's hostesses are professional flirts often paid big bucks to party, chat up customers and look pretty in gentlemen's clubs. (And, depending on who you ask, they are sometimes pressured into sex for money.)

Paying anywhere from $100,000 to $300,00o a year, they are "among the most lucrative jobs available to women" in Japan, according to a trend piece in the New York Times.  Things weren't so great for women before the economic collapse -- nearly 70 percent in their early 20s held precarious positions with scant benefits -- and now they're in dire straits: "More women from a diversity of backgrounds are looking for hostess work," Kentaro Miura, a club manager in Tokyo, told the Times. The upshot: These gigs are becoming wildly competitive.

No surprise there. What's puzzling, though, is that reporter Hiroko Tabuchi also ties the recession to the fact that hostesses are "gaining respectability and even acclaim." She summarizes the situation dramatically: "Japan’s worst recession since World War II is changing mores." Certainly the recession is pushing some to consider work they wouldn't have otherwise, but it's seems a stretch to link that desperation to hostesses' rising cultural stock. Take this quote from 27-year-old Eri Momoka, a hostess who worked her way to the top and now has a TV show and her own clothing and accessories line: "I often get fan mail from young girls in elementary school who say they want to be like me. To a little girl, a hostess is like a modern-day princess." I have two responses to that: 1.) Oww, it hurts, make the princesses go away, and 2.) That doesn't sound anything like a new phenomenon. Add to that the fact that a recent survey of high school girls -- who have yet to encounter first-hand the dismal job market -- revealed that hostessing was the twelfth most popular profession.

But, OK, even assuming the recession is changing Japanese sexual mores, anyone want to make a bet as to whether that change will stick around after the global economy recovers?

Tracy Clark-Flory

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