The interior is European, neo-classical. Sofas and loveseats are arranged loosely in sections around low tables. The bar is tucked into a corner.
The atmosphere is unhurried and muted, and yet Club Sachi (not its real name), a hostess club with a long tradition in the Ginza district of Tokyo, is bustling with activity. Every customer is in a suit, sipping drinks; champagne and whiskey are the preferred beverages. Beside each man or group sit women dressed elegantly, if a little formally, some in eveningwear and others in kimonos. Wait staff, all young men, dash to and fro, discreetly and briskly bearing trays of drinks.
In the back corner sits Mayumi (not her real name), dressed in an understated kimono, who alternates between chatting with me and with issuing orders to the various waiters. “Tell Aya to get over to table seven,” she snaps. “Mr. Matsumaru at twelve has been waiting for Keiko for over fifteen minutes. Did you tell her?”
“Well, then what’s taking her so long? Get her over there as soon as possible.”
“I’ll get right on it.”
The waiter hurries off. Mayumi slides back in her seat and surveys the scene, a look of concentration on her face as if performing a dozen minute calculations every moment. Her bearing is elegant, poised. Her hair is drawn back tightly against her skull. Her skin is smooth and her face small, with a delicately tapered chin. Her eyelashes curl out dramatically, bringing out her small, fiercely intelligent eyes.
Mayumi is a friend of mine going back ten years. We met in the Tokyo indie pop scene, back when she was a musician in a number of eclectic bands, touring Japan, and even visiting the U.S. to open for an Athens band semi-famous among hipsters. I remember her as the freest of spirits, generous, full of life, always introducing friends to each other, comfortable talking with anybody.
Since then, Mayumi’s transformed herself into the number-one hostess at Sachi (hostesses are typically ranked by revenue). A few days before our talk, as we sat drinking beers at a Yakult Swallows baseball game, I expressed interest in interviewing her about the rarified world of the Ginza hostess clubs. We’d chatted plenty about her experiences over the years, and based on what she and other friends who had worked in hostess clubs and cabarets had told me, I eventually set a short story in a hostess club. But the truth was I’d never actually been to one. In my research for that story, I’d found that while there are a number of accounts by Western women about working in clubs featuring Western women, there was virtually nothing available about the world of the Ginza.
“Come see the club,” she said. “It’ll be an experience. I’ll get a customer to share his bottle with you, and you can chat with some of the girls and take in the atmosphere.”
Hostesses are a longstanding element of Japanese culture, one that traces its lineage to both geisha culture and to the Yoshiwara pleasure district in Edo-period Tokyo. In a country whose gender equality ranking, according to the 2012 World Economic Forum, is a dismal 101st out of a 135 and last in the G8, hostessing as a profession has seen a resurgence. Hiroko Tabuchi also examined this phenomenon in The New York Times a couple of years ago.
The clubs in the Ginza district are unique, as ritualized and exclusive as the geisha teahouses are in Kyoto’s Gion district. On a Wednesday night, Mayumi meets me in front of a nearby hotel and walks me to the club. The Ginza district itself is stately, tasteful, and decidedly upscale. We pass numerous boutiques and department stores. With its proximity to the business districts nearby, it’s also home to some of Tokyo’s finest restaurants. She leads me into a building with a lobby displaying a stable of luxury sports cars.
We take an elevator up to a top floor. I count three other similar establishments off the hallway. She opens the door to Sachi, and we walk by an elegant marble counter. She nods to the host and greeter.
“I’ve reserved a spot in the corner for you, where it’ll be easier for you to observe,” she says.
I sit down. We drink beers, chat a bit, and she asks me who I’d like to talk to. She waves over Kei, who is quickly joined by Mika. They pour me drinks and then engage me in a conversation that ranges from the political situation in America, to baseball, to movies. Kei is clearly the more popular of the two. She regularly excuses herself to go visit another table, and each time she returns she apologizes and slides right into conversation without skipping a beat. Mika has come over to my table unbidden, a hostess in search of a customer, chatting away eagerly—a bit too eagerly, perhaps.
“She’s having trouble finding customers,” Mayumi tells me a few days later, as she answers my questions over beer and baseball at a Yakult Swallows game (procuring our tickets by calling up a customer twenty minutes before the first pitch), and then afterward over Korean barbecue.
The Rumpus: What are the origins of the Ginza club?
Mayumi: The higher-class Ginza clubs have been around for forty to fifty years, from about the time of the war. In the old days, they were called “cabarets.” There was a huge dance floor with about a hundred girls. There was a live band, and the only alcohol available was beer; the only payment, cash. From there, they became the members-only clubs that exist today, without dance floors or live bands, or even karaoke.
Club Sachi, where I work, has been around forty years, in the same place. The mama-san (owner) is now eighty-seven years old! We have a customer who’s eighty-six years old, who’s been a customer since the place opened.
Rumpus: What’s your typical clientele?
Mayumi: There are men from every conceivable field: politicians, athletes, celebrities. CEOs of every stripe. Basically, the richest men in Japan. These are people you wouldn’t normally come across in regular life, all gathered in one place. The Japanese presidents of [names about three major US software companies] are all customers of our club. Kabuki actors. Baseball players. Artists and writers every so often, though that’s rare because of how expensive it is.
Rumpus: Step us through what happens when a customer visits the club.
Mayumi: First of all, no one gets in without an introduction. Someone shows up and flashes the equivalent of $25,000 in bills, and he still wouldn’t be able to get in.
If you have an introduction, it’s similar to what your experience was the other day. There’s a hostess in charge of you, called a kakari. The customer sits with her, chats a bit, and then asks to talk with one or more of the hostesses. The hostess in charge calls over the girls. They pour his drinks and chat with him. They’re trying to establish a relationship with him, so they may offer to get a drink with him afterward or try to set up a dinner date before he arrives at the club the next time.
Still, it’s the hostess in charge who makes all the money from that customer. So, say a customer comes in and buys a bottle to drink from, and spends ¥150,000 (about $2000)—that money is all attributed to the hostess in charge, who makes a percentage. Many of the girls you actually talk to—the hostesses who come over to chat—they’re called herupu (“the help”). They don’t make a single yen from what you spend.
Rumpus: But they’re the ones doing all the work! How can “the help” make money?
Mayumi: They don’t, not while they’re at that club. They only make money when they move to a different club and bring along their customers with them. So they work hard, calling up customers, e-mailing them, chatting with them, in order to build up a relationship so that they can take them along to a new place and be kakari for that customer. Along the way, they might get free meals and drinks as the men take them out before or after the club, of course.
This makes a Ginza club different than a typical hostess club or modern-day cabaret club, where the men pay extra to speak to specific girls and then the girls get a cut of what that man spends during his visit. The goal is not to get the customer to spend as much as possible on any given day. The goal is to establish a long-term relationship, which is better business in the long run.
The only other places using this system are the geisha teahouses in the Gion District in Kyoto.
Rumpus: What makes a good Ginza hostess?
Mayumi: Diligence. Keeping up with e-mails, texts, phone calls. There’s a lot you have to do to maintain a relationship with a customer. Valentine’s cards. End-of-year and mid-year gifts. Monthly letters. This is by far the most crucial part of the job.
Conversely, physical beauty is of much less importance in the Ginza. And though Japan is really focused on youth, Ginza hostesses are a little older than in other places, where clubs regularly hire underage hostesses or where girls lie about their age. Average age in the Ginza is about thirty; the youngest girls are about twenty-two or -three. Because what’s a company president in his sixties or seventies going to talk about with an eighteen-year-old girl?
There’s a famous saying in our line of work: “To be successful, you need to be able to do one of three things: be a strong drinker, be a great conversationalist, or sleep with the customer.” Drinking is important because alcohol is the basic currency in our system. A customer purchases a bottle when he becomes a customer, and that bottle serves both them and their hostesses until it’s empty and he orders a new one. If you can’t hold your liquor, your customer isn’t going to order as many bottles. Still, there are girls in this system who can’t hold their liquor well. So what are they going to do? Well, if they’re skilled conversationalists, they’re able to build a strong relationship with the customer that way. Many, if not most Ginza hostesses have college degrees. Intelligence and curiosity are indispensible in this regard.
Now, if a girl can’t drink and isn’t a skilled conversationalist, then what? What’s left is to sleep with him. This isn’t something that we would ever suggest or tell the girls to do, mind you. But in reality, it’s what actually goes on.
Rumpus: Are there girls who are able to be successful Ginza hostesses this way? I think a lot of Westerners who aren’t familiar with the hostess system equate the word “hostess” with “prostitute.”
Mayumi: Well, but there are hostesses who sell their bodies, so that label isn’t always a hundred percent false. But here’s the thing: a customer who sleeps with a hostess will invariably tire of her quickly. Furthermore, if one of the girls under my charge goes to a hotel and sleeps with one of my clients, she might make a $1500 from that. But when the man does tire of her and quits, that’s my loss, and we’re going to have a problem. Ultimately, her job is not to make money off of the customer one time, but to foster a more lucrative, long-term relationship.
There is a level of physical contact that’s a regular part of any hostess’s job, though; kissing, for example, is pretty standard. We don’t particularly enjoy kissing a seventy-year-old guy, but that’s just part of the job description.
We’ve also got to indulge the occasional fetish. The other night I had [names a famous actor] here, and he spent the whole night licking my hand. That wasn’t exactly pleasant, but he’s a customer. There have been men who want to chat while having my fingers in their mouth, or who want to smell my feet.
Rumpus: What about the other side of the spectrum? With your best customers, do you ever end up considering them to be good friends?
Mayumi: I can, but even then I don’t know how any given customer really regards me. I mean, they’re spending millions of yen in order to establish a relationship with me. That clouds the issue. Even if I think of them as a real friend, I have to keep in mind all the money they’ve spent.
Rumpus: For Westerners, the ambiguity of this system can be a point of confusion. The whole system can seem like an elaborate scam.
Mayumi: Yeah…something that might seem funny about all of this is that the customers themselves think of it as a scam of sorts. That is, they’re aware that there’s a game being played. In a way, that’s what they want. Them spending money is telling you to do your job well, to play that game well.
Rumpus: So the reason they come to the Ginza is that the women here play the game better than anyone else.
Mayumi: That’s right. In fact, it’s often something you hear, often phrased as a lament: “Ginza hostesses aren’t as good at what they do as they used to be. I spent a hundred million yen on this girl once…” They like to be able to tell stories like this after-the-fact, to entertain, to boast. “If I hadn’t fallen in love with that one woman, I could’ve bought an extra house. I could’ve bought three cars with that money.” Men of a certain stature and personality like to talk like that.
Rumpus: How much are these men spending, on average?
Mayumi: The simplest way to think of it is that each visit costs about ¥50,000 ($650). Thirty minutes, ¥50,000. Three hours, ¥50,000. It’s dependent on how much you drink and what you drink, of course, but that’s basically it.
In the old days, it used to be a symbol of stature for a man to drop by for only thirty minutes. The object for some men was to visit six clubs a night. Clubs are only open from eight to midnight, so in order to be able to visit six clubs, thirty minutes was about all a man had at each place.
Rumpus: At ¥50,000 apiece.
Mayumi: That’s right. And if they opened a bottle of champagne at one of the places, that was about ¥150,000 ($1900). On average, I think probably they spent about ¥300,000 a night.
Of course, many customers don’t want to do the rounds, but they still can spend that much, or even more, at one club. I had a customer spend ¥750,000 (about $10,000) the other night, for instance, taking three other guys out.
The most I’ve personality seen a customer spend in one night was ¥6.6 million (about $84,000). That night included two bottles of the most expensive champagne we carry, at two million yen apiece.
Rumpus: Do you ever try to stop a customer from spending too much?
Mayumi: Sure. You have a good general idea of what a customer makes, and then you try to make sure he doesn’t overspend. The goal, again, is not to get them to spend as much as they can in one sitting, but to develop a long-term relationship with the customer. You don’t want to make them regret coming.
Rumpus: How does a woman typically become a Ginza hostess?
Mayumi: By far the most common way is by being “scouted.” You’re walking along and someone asks you if you want to join. That’s how I started.
For some of the more famous clubs, women come from all over Japan to the Ginza to try to get work there. Some girls come to the Ginza and walk around, hoping to get scouted by one of the nicer clubs. Another common method is for a customer to introduce a woman to the mama-san. Every so often, a club might put out an advertisement. But that’s rare. The vast majority are scouted.
Rumpus: How did you get your start?
Mayumi: After I finished college, I worked a bunch of temp jobs in corporate offices, and I really didn’t like it. Japanese women are often limited to being OLs, or Office Ladies—pouring tea, making copies and so forth—so I didn’t find that work satisfying. So I thought I would try the Water Trade. The money is many, many times greater than what you would make working in an office. My father was dead-set against it at first.
Rumpus: You told your family?
Mayumi: I grew up smack in the middle of Tokyo. I figured my father would find out anyway, so I told him. But he was dead-set against it. He’d paid for my college education, so why was I going to work as a hostess?
Finally, he said, “Okay, if you’re going to work in the Water Trade, you should work in the Ginza. The Ginza will offer the most money, the customers would be the most trustworthy. It’ll be safer and more interesting.”
When I hit around thirty, I had to make a decision. I’d been working for about seven years as a hostess. I’d also been doing music on the side, had toured with my band around the States when I was younger, working the hostessing job so that I could play music. But as much as I enjoy music, it wasn’t paying the bills and I couldn’t do both. So I dropped the music and threw myself into the club world full time.
Rumpus: How does Japanese society view hostesses, and Ginza hostesses specifically?
Mayumi: Hostesses are looked down on, certainly. However, when people find out you work in the Ginza, well… “Ginza” itself is a kind of brand. All the exclusive fashion brands, the restaurants, the history. So there’s admiration, to a degree. There’s a general understanding that you have to be smart and resourceful to be successful in the Ginza.
Rumpus: Any times you thought you felt particularly judged?
Mayumi: Sure. For instance, there was a time a customer brought in women from his company with him. This woman was a successful career woman. She was harsh with us from the beginning. She was about forty, and I was twenty-five. She said to me, “I don’t want to be in the same room with a woman like you.”
Her meaning was clear: “Unlike you, I’ve made myself successful without selling sex.” I don’t think she really was aware of what we did. Even some Japanese have a misconception that we are prostitutes.
Since she was a customer, there was nothing I could do except bow my head deeply and say, “My apologies.”
Rumpus: What is the most challenging part of being a hostess?
Mayumi: The biggest challenge is that when you get down to it, the relationship between a hostess and her customer is fundamentally a relationship between a man and a woman. No matter how long you’ve known each other, it inevitably comes down to a moment of truth: will you become a couple? Will you become his wife or his mistress? Will you sleep together? As a hostess, you’re constantly trying to delay that moment of truth. It’s a kind of dance, and it can be exhausting.
And then a customer that you’ve had for seven years could suddenly disappear. And that can be disappointing, even depressing at times.
Rumpus: What part is the most rewarding?
Mayumi: What makes me really happy is that this—Japan and the business world here—is still very much a man’s world. In almost any other capacity, I wouldn’t have a chance to get to know the chairman, the CEO, the president of a company, or have access to the best seats at baseball games, kabuki theater, and sumo wrestling events.
But what’s even cooler is, a CEO of a company will ask me, “Hey, can you introduce me to the president of Company X?” So then I’ll organize a dinner so the two can meet. When that results in a deal being made or a good connection, for me there’s a real meaning that comes to my work that goes beyond just flirtation or fake romance.
Just the other day, a customer called me up and said, “I’m looking for an old classmate of mine who works at such-and-such company. Can you help me find him?” And I did. I called up the company, found him, and explained what my customer wanted. Then the two met at my club and opened a bottle of champagne.
Of course, there are times when I’ve tried to help out and it’s backfired. One of my girls caused problems once and as a result an important deal worth tens of billions of yen fell through. I had to go to the customer’s office and formally apologize.
In the Japanese business world, building relationships is of paramount importance. The most common way to build these relationships is by going out for drinks and entertainment. Having pretty women around is simply part of the traditional business equation. If the men are simply there by themselves, they might find that there are awkward silences or have trouble communicating. Hostesses can facilitate conversation, so we serve an important role.
Roppongi, Shinjuku—the girls who hostess there don’t enjoy that kind of involvement in their customers’ business lives, at least at this level. That’s really the provenance of the Ginza, and for this reason it’s a special place to work.
Rumpus: How long can you keep working, do you think?
Mayumi: If I keep at it, I’d say I’ve got about three years left, working five days a week (Saturdays and Sundays the club is closed). They say there are three paths that are the most common for life after hostessing: get married, open a own bar or club, or start your own business. We’ll see what I end up doing.
Original Rumpus photography © 2012 by Fred Verhoeven.