Slice of Life: Tokyo Host Club
I’ve been prodded to write about going to a host club in Japan. Before we moved to Japan, I watched a really interesting documentary about Host Clubs, called The Great Happiness Space: tales of an Osaka love thief (You can find it on Netflix). The whole time I watched, I couldn’t believe what I saw – I had never heard of them before, and it’s a very normal thing – every Japanese woman I’ve asked about it will admit to having visited one at least once. The short story is that girls go to Host Clubs to hang out with young men who are going to flirt and spend time with them, but they are paying a lot for this time, and the guys are clearly just trying to get them to spend more and more and buy more bottles of expensive champaign, because that’s mainly how they are making their money. And they are making A LOT of money doing this.
If you’ve got some time, here’s the detailed version of the story:
Most non-Japanese people ask me what exactly a host club is.
Well, for one, Host Clubs are clubs for girls to go to. They are not strip clubs or brothels and hosts are not prostitutes. Hosts are more like … entertainers? It’s something you would not find in the US, nor would many people understand why the heck you would pay a lot of money to go there. Joe likens hosts to therapists – someone you pay a lot of money to, who listens to you and maybe gives you advice.
In Japan, it is a cultural thing to be very polite and always be thinking about the feelings of other people, almost to the point of being annoying. In America, we say what we want rather freely – and many times people don’t consider how it will make the other person feel. Well, in Japan if you want to go out and forget about society’s pressures, you can go to a host club – a bar essentially, where all the employees are good looking members of the opposite sex, who talk and flirt with you (but without any pressure of anything other than talking happening) and generally make you feel like you’re surrounded by friends. There is nothing more that flirting happening here, and they know that if something more serious came of it, the client would probably never return, thus cutting into their income which relies on repeat clients!
It is their job to make sure you’re A) having a good time, B) you are buying drinks (for yourself or them), C) you feel like you’re amongst friends, and D) you will return again. In some larger, more famous clubs, when ladies arrive, they can look through a book of the hosts and choose which one they want! They are very careful to make you feel like you are just out amongst friends, and the hosts who are duty for bringing in clients are careful to find the girls walking by who look like they have money, and convince them to come inside.
When I arrived in Tokyo in April and my Japanese friend I had known in Chicago asked what we wanted to eat, I had no idea what to say – I could only describe something we had enjoyed last year in hopes that I could even describe it properly & she would know what the heck I was talking about. Well, once we figured it out, I also mentioned that I really wanted to go to a host club. I wanted a very Japanese experience and that was one I thought I might never have an opportunity to try again. Well, I guess I lucked out because she excitedly told me her best friend was a host at a club just a few blocks from our hotel, and he spoke perfect English, Japanese, and Spanish and he was going to be working that night!
He came to the restaurant to meet us during dinner and take us with him to the club. After dinner, as the sun began to set on Tokyo, off we went, walking a few blocks through the busy and neon-sign lit streets of Shinjuku and feeling not like a tourist but like a local (only 24 hours in and we already feel at home). We arrived at Oasis and took the elevator up to the club a few floors up. The club wasn’t too big, about 1/2 the size of the apartment we had left behind in Chicago, and we were shown to a booth in the corner, passing a large poster of the top-earning host of the month. The tables and walls were almost all mirrored and the music was just loud enough; it was very fast paced remixes of J-pop & Lady GaGa songs and the lighting was not too dark, but not too bright either. We sat down, and on a little card stand on the table was a business card for the host club – on the back, our host wrote our names & what we were drinking (of course, he explained this to me but usually it’s just done without the client really noticing it).
As our host arrived to the table, the first thing I noticed was that he was wearing more jewelry than I ever wear at once, his hair had clearly taken a lot of work, and he was in a dark dress shirt & dark pants and had on shiny shoes. He bowed slightly and presented us each with his business card (which was black with white lettering) and introduced himself. We tried to use the few words we knew to say our names & say it was nice to meet him. This happened about 5 more times and at any given time, we had at least 2 hosts at our table giving us plenty of attention, asking how old we were, where we were from, etc… Of course I have no idea what they were saying but luckily we had 2 translators there to keep the conversation going. As soon as my small glass was almost empty, and before I really even noticed it, one of the hosts was already wiping any condensation off the glass and refilling it with the same thing it contained before, without any pause in conversation.
When I tried to sneak off to the bathroom, they insisted that I wait a moment while they inspected it to make sure it was clean enough! As I was exiting the bathroom, there was a host waiting for me with a fresh warm/damp towel rolled up for me, and he bowed slightly again. It was a little awkward but also made me feel more girly… strange!
After a while there, we finally got the important visit by the top earning host, who presented us with his card – white with black letters and a bit thicker than the others. We recognized him from the poster and said a loud ‘Kampai!’ with him. (Kampai is the Japanese equivalence of saying Cheers.)
Overall, the feeling I had when I left was the same I had when leaving the pub after hanging out with friends after work in Chicago – I felt like I had just been out with my friends, except they actually aren’t my friends. I probably won’t go to another one, but I’m glad I went… I felt like it was a very normal Japanese experience yet I believe that it’s something most foreign people visiting Japan will never do.
I hope this post doesn’t give too much of a positive light on Host Clubs. I won’t lie – I did have fun, but overall it’s really odd how serious some girls can take their time at the clubs – to many it’s too serious – they want to be with their host in real life, and they continue to go back thinking that maybe if they keep going, the host will eventually fall in love with them – this is not the case, and everyone involved knows it, including the girls, but they continue to believe it in the back of their heads and they continue to go. Really sad and really weird if you ask me.
There, now you know about host clubs … it only took me 8 months to get around to explaining it.