Imagine following a dapper young man with intensely styled hair off the crowded streets and up a flight of stairs, the walls papered with images of handsome men in various poses. As you ascend the stairs, the faint sound of thumping music and laughter grows louder. The images are placed in order according to the rank of the individual (No. 10, No. 9 …) all the way to the top of the stairs, where you are greeted with an enormous picture of Number One with a half-smile on his lips. The stairs open up into a stylishly designed space, full of people like yourself drinking and laughing alongside their charming hosts. You are swiftly escorted to a table and and so the dream begins.
In a previous post, I broadly covered some aspects the unique love industry born out of Japan’s disillusioned attitude towards romantic relationships. One of the things left out despite its prevalence in Tokyo were the host and hostess clubs. These clubs have had a long history in Japan, their predecessors being the establishments found in Yoshiwara back in the 17th century, Edo-era Japan’s red-light district. At that time, female companionship could be bought for varying prices depending on the woman’s rank. Was she merely a prostitute, to be displayed in the front windows of a brothel, or was she a high-ranking courtesan, performing her arts of entertainment for high prices behind closed curtains?
Of course, things are vastly different now than they were in the Edo Japan – prostitution is definitely illegal, for one thing – but the idea of paid companionship persists. As mentioned in the previous post, Japan’s dating, marriage, and birth rates are currently stuck at an all-time low. Many young people aren’t seeing the point in getting involved in any sort of romantic relationship, often because it can interfere with their success at work or school. But a lack of desire to engage in an official relationship doesn’t necessarily mean that people don’t want some sort of companionship.
Enter the host and hostess clubs of Japan. At these clubs, your average men and women suspend their daily lives for a night to pay for glamour and illusion. There are some differences between host and hostess clubs but in both these establishments, the workers essentially provide a boyfriend/girlfriend experience without the so-called complications of an actual relationship. They will flirt with and listen to their customers, pouring alcohol and serving snacks and generally creating a comfortable atmosphere of fun. That is, until it’s time for the bill to be paid and for the club to close. In this video by VICE that follows the life of a popular host, we can see that there are strict rules for closing and paying after all the fun is had.
The customers who enter these clubs are more than aware of what they’re getting into and most of the time they don’t expect anything beyond the evening of fantasy. They certainly know that the hosts and hostesses entertaining them aren’t exactly being genuine but this doesn’t stop the customers from trying to win their favor with money or expensive gifts. Hosts/hostesses rely on repeat business so it mostly falls on them – not the club – to establish a memorable relationship with their customers, which might mean accepting customer’s advances to build a better client base. So while the clubs’ services technically don’t extend beyond good conversation and entertainment, it’s not unheard of for a host/hostess to create such an enchanting persona that the customer tries and further the relationship beyond the club and into the bedroom.
This practice of taking a host-customer relationship to the next level is gradually growing more accepted, especially among hostesses who vie for ways to supplement their relatively high wages, as described in this The New York Times article. It’s not quite prostitution, which is prohibited, but nor is it entirely aboveground. These kinds of relationships toe the line between the open and the illicit. With increasing frequency, people in Japan are turning to these forms of companionship as opposed to actually pursuing lasting bonds, as evinced by the plummeting rates of marriage.
Another short video by VICE gives a glimpse into the commodification of the Japanese love industry, revealing that for many these developments are a positive thing. Serious relationships would simply be a bother to them at this time. When they go to a host or hostess, they’re sure that someone will be there to listen to their woes after a tough workday without interruption. After all, that’s what they’re paying for.