Staged Seduction
Selling Dreams in a Tokyo Host Club
Akiko Takeyama

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Introduction

Promise of the Future

“So do you fall in love with your clients?” A mildly intoxicated young woman poses this question to a man in a shadowy corner of an Osaka host club. Dim light refracts through the club’s opulent fixtures, turning her white cocktail dress deep sepia. It shines on the host’s flaxen hair and reflects off his glittering gold pendant. As they sit together on a red sofa, the host attempts to dodge his client’s penetrating eyes. He appears a bit nervous and chooses his words carefully: “I guess I do [fall in love with my clients]. . . . This is the only place I meet girls.” A melancholy love song playing in the background carries his voice and dramatizes the scene. The woman asks him to repeat what he just said. “This is the only place I can fall in love, right? All my ex-girlfriends were customers.”

The host awkwardly shifts his eyes from her face to the floor below. He fidgets with a sparkling gold bracelet that peeks out from his casual black suit. The woman’s gaze follows his hands as he proceeds to stroke his slender neck and then comb his tousled hair with his delicate fingers. He feigns tiredness. For clients unfamiliar with these gestures, they might be read as a spontaneous display of sensitivity or even shyness. They belie hosts’ actual intentions, which involve calculated efforts to arouse women’s sensual fantasies. These deft motions are the result of habit—a careful array of movement and body language, repeated again and again with each new client.

“How does a relationship develop?” the woman presses him. “I don’t know,” the host answers. “Just a feeling. But you have to be a long-term customer. That’s my experience.” The woman then abandons her solemn look. She nods deeply, pleased with his answer. He looks directly at her and adds: “So you’re in a pretty good spot . . . at least in my eyes.” The woman’s interrogative posture gives way to a warm, inviting, playful stare. She flips her head back and giggles. Then she purposefully touches her forehead against his and places her hand on top of his hand. The host responds by closing his eyes and rolling his head back against the sofa, with a slight smile. He knows he said the right thing and is clearly pleased with her reaction.

This typical host club scene, depicted in the award-winning documentary film The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief, is frozen on the screen, allowing the documentary’s viewers to contemplate their euphoric and triumphant expressions.1 The still image of happiness is juxtaposed with voice-over narration by the host: “We have to keep [women] dreaming, so if we have to lie, we lie.” Shot in the Osaka host club Rakkyo, the documentary follows Issei, a twenty-two-year-old host and club owner, and depicts the heartbreaking human dramas surrounding Japan’s underground “love business.” In these clubs, young Japanese men, like Issei, sell love, romance, companionship, and sometimes sex to their female clients. Issei put the business best: “To make it sound cool, we can call it Neverland. Peter Pan took people to a world that doesn’t exist. We take the girls to a dream world. That’s the best way to describe it. Girls spend their money to buy a product, ‘Dream.’2

For this fantasy, women pay inflated prices for drinks and entertainment offered at host clubs. These sexualized services include flirtatious banter, sweet conversations, and the promise of romantic love from an attractive man. “Sometimes,” the other woman in the film says, “girls really fall in love with their hosts and end up financially ‘worshipping’ them.” Even if the retail price of a bottle of liquor is only a few hundred dollars, hosts can sell it for tens of thousands of dollars as long as women consider it a worthy expense in the pursuit of their desires. And many women do. For them, the host club’s menu of dreams is priceless.

The melodrama presented in The Great Happiness Space is typical of popular representations of host-client interactions in Japanese television series, feature films, and other depictions in blogs and online novels. My key informants, however, stressed that if I focused exclusively on host club venues as confined sites, where for a few short late-night hours women could purchase intimate experiences with handsome young men, I would miss the point. The fantasy, excitement, and magical experience that women, as well as men, desire go well beyond these fixed times and formal spaces.

Staged Seduction is an ethnographic study about men and women who produce and consume love in Japan’s host clubs. The commodified product negotiated between hosts and clients is not ready made. It is coproduced through flirtatious exchanges, as men and women engage in discreet conversations, stimulating touches, tender gazes, and after-hours exploits. Its value is based on a promised future wherein host and client build a dream world together and set one another’s fantasies into motion. For hosts, the promise is an invitation to make a substantial amount of money out of the relationship; for women, it is a hopeful moment to experience feelings of true pleasure and desirability. Both parties thus fetishize relationships that performatively produce the fantasies they seek.

Aside from fantasy, the host club provides a unique window into the commercialization of feelings, emotions, and aspirational efforts in Japan’s structural reforms aimed at deregulating and expanding service sectors. Broadly, this ethnography traces the cultural imaginary and political economy that enables people to buy and sell such fetishized objects as love, dreams, and a hopeful future, as they center on particular notions of time, space, and the self in contemporary Japanese society. These products, which entail imagined time and space, whether it is emerging or vanishing in the minds of social actors, engender restless feelings of hope and anxiety, presence and absence, and ephemerality and eternity. These feelings feed back into how these actors contemplate questions of what they could and should do in the time to come.

I argue that the future, as envisioned today, is a political arena in which individuals are equally foregrounded as autonomous and self-responsible citizens—they may either freely succeed or fail to realize their dreams—regardless of social inequality in a given condition of uncertainty. A social consequence of this kind of politics surrounding future success then creates new stratifications—the winner’s group and the loser’s group—based on the state of hopeful mind between those who buy into aspirations of rose-colored prospects and those who don’t. Hope is thus at the center of and at stake in Japan’s so-called hope disparity society (kibōkakusa shakai) in the new millennium.3

To understand why and how certain men and women are compelled to pursue their hopes and dreams, often at great personal and financial cost, I demonstrate the meanings, values, and magical potency that the promise of future and freedom provides in gender-, class-, and age-specific ways. I not only illustrate the actors, scripts, and dramas being performed but also shed light on the ways that the theater itself is constructed for actors to experience what it is like to be a successful citizen.4 I also demonstrate how the pursuit of a future is capitalized on in Japan’s sophisticated service-centered economy. Host clubs, I contend, are one of the most outstanding theatrical manifestations of marketing and profiting from emotions, aspirations, and a particular kind of freedom in that economy.

Staged Seduction thus offers an entry point to explore broader questions about future-oriented temporality, perceptions of individual freedom, and moral questions about truthfulness in the highly personalized service and entertainment industries. To inquire about these anthropological and philosophical questions, I use an analytical lens I call “staged seduction.” By this I mean the commercially staged force that seduces people into acting on their desires for self-satisfaction, as well as for meeting others’ ends: increasing business profits and fulfilling their roles as citizens, who participate in political efforts to promote the country’s prosperous future. The book guides the reader on a journey that uncovers the ways that individual consent is crafted to satisfy multiple goals simultaneously, while structural inequalities are relegated to the background. In so doing, it shows the often-invisible affective dimensions of gender politics and class struggle embodying vulnerability, insecurity, and risky endeavors at the heart of sex commerce and neoliberal dreams.

The Rise of Neoliberalism and Host Clubs

Not long ago, host clubs were practically unheard of in Japan, unlike hostess clubs or geisha entertainment establishments.5 I first learned about them in the summer of 2001 when I returned from the United States to my hometown of Hamamatsu, located halfway between Tokyo and Osaka. At the time I needed a part-time job and found one working as a secretary at a used-car lot. There I met a Mr. Suzuki, a nineteen-year-old who was new to the company. Unlike the other salesmen, most of whom were older and unremarkable in appearance, Mr. Suzuki had a well-cut shag hairstyle with outward-feathered bangs, a thin body, very smooth skin, and polished nails. He wore a tight-fitting, Italian-made suit to work every day.

When the company president ordered Mr. Suzuki to cut his hair to look like a “respectable” salesman, he refused and said he would quit the job before doing so. As I soon learned, Mr. Suzuki prioritized his self-image over employment security. He told me that work was just a financial means to pursue his dream of becoming a renowned racecar driver. Despite his lack of experience racing cars, he was confident about his future success. His conviction, he told me, stemmed from his experience working as a host in Tokyo with his best friend after high school. He watched his friend become a top-ranking host, earning more than 5 million yen, about $50,000, per month. Hosting, however, was not Mr. Suzuki’s passion, and he reoriented his ambitions. Although he did not say exactly why he quit, he implied that he had been unable to handle the escalation of his clients’ desire for seduction into demands for sex. In his uncompromising individualism, grandiose future dreams, and the precariousness of his present condition—as well as in his troubled relation to sex work—Mr. Suzuki offered a good introduction to the hosting business.

Today, it would be difficult to find anyone in Japan unfamiliar with hosting. But for many years, the host club business was relegated to the shadows of Japanese culture. It was perceived as sleazy and immoral by a patriarchal society in which the pursuit of commercialized extramarital sex was an exclusively male domain.6 This perception can be traced to the very first host club, Naito Tokyo (Night Tokyo), which opened in the mid-1960s during Japan’s “leisure boom.”

The club began as a dance hall serving mostly upper-class matrons and wealthy widows. They would stop by on their way home from shopping while their husbands worked or engaged in other nightlife activities. Self-employed male dancers were given the name “hosts” (hosuto), referring to their role as entertainers, but their occupation was not considered a profession. Although hosts charmed women with sophisticated conversation, songs, and dance performances, outside the club they were commonly called otoko mekake (male mistresses or lovers) and often labeled as gigolos and pimps.7 Women visited the club in secret to avoid the stigma of socializing with these hosts.8 Early on there were only five host clubs in Tokyo. But the number gradually increased to about twenty in the 1970s and to fifty by the 1980s and into the early 1990s. Nearly all the clubs were located in Kabuki-chō.9

During the 1980s, the negative image of host clubs began to change as the business took off at the height of the “bubble economy.”10 The success of host clubs piqued people’s curiosity about the new business that catered to women’s erotic desires. By the 1990s and into the 2000s, the business grew exponentially and quickly shed its reputation as an obscure sexual subculture. The public came to regard it as a successful business model and an antidote to the recessionary “lost decade.” The business has barely slowed down since.

Intense media attention has followed the rise in popularity of host clubs, to the extent that some hosts have enjoyed household name recognition and a few have become genuine celebrities. One of the best known is Reiji, a former host and now club owner in Roppongi, Tokyo’s upscale neighborhood. Reiji has been profiled in Forbes magazine as Japan’s “geisha guy” and praised as an entrepreneur. (Like Madonna and Prince, he is known only by his first name.) In the mid-2000s, he appeared regularly on television variety shows as a professional womanizer and sex therapist. He also started a consulting company, providing businesses with marketing advice, interior design, and female consumer psychology.

Shirosaki Jin is another example. Jin distinguished himself as a rarefied densetsu no hosuto (legendary host) who maintained number-one status in Club Ai, the most prestigious host club in Japan, for five years in a row and earned about 100 million yen ($1 million) per year—more than twice the salary of Japan’s prime minister. Japanese television and radio broadcasting, as well as popular news media and women’s lifestyle magazines, featured his lavish living and business endeavors frequently. After solidifying his legacy as a charismatic number-one host in Japan, Jin quit hosting to pursue a career as a media personality and multitalented artist: actor, musician, dancer, and womanizer. In the public eye, Reiji and Jin epitomize the neoliberal promise of a better and more affluent future in the social field of Japan’s entertainment industry: that is, the opportunity and luck, coupled with one’s talent and effort, to become singularly successful, regardless of background.

Along with the media production of celebrity life and public interest in the host club phenomenon, Japan’s thriving hosting business has further expanded the country’s sex-related entertainment industry. The estimated annual revenue of Japan’s sex industry accounts for 2.37 trillion yen (roughly $23.7 billion) and is equal to about half the country’s defense budget.11 Put in perspective, Americans spend slightly less than half that of Japan on commercial sex, at an estimated $13.3 billion.12 Japan’s hosting business alone generates estimated annual revenues of about $1.5 billion.13 Mostly found in the big cities, there are today an estimated seven hundred clubs and bars and twelve thousand hosts nationwide.14 Within Tokyo’s Kabuki-chō district alone, more than three hundred establishments and more than five thousand hosts ply an increasingly lucrative trade.15

The emergence of the hosting industry runs parallel to the development of Japanese postindustrial consumer capitalism and neoliberal reforms. It is also a reaction and an adaptation to these changes. Beginning in the 1970s, the national economy shifted from a manufacturing-centered industrial one to a consumer-oriented postindustrial one following the oil shocks, a crisis that pushed Japan to restructure and diversify. As originally envisioned, Japan’s new economy hinged on the development of information technology, finance, real estate, and service and entertainment sectors. In an attempt to first expand domestic consumer markets in the 1980s and then pull the nation out of the recession that took hold soon afterward, the Japanese government began to enact neoliberal reforms to deregulate the national economy, privatize social support networks, and encourage corporations and individuals to participate in the economic reconstruction process.

The government started to dismantle the vaunted Japanese-style management system, represented by lifetime employment and seniority benefits, in order to create labor conditions that flexibly adjust to fluctuating demand in the service economy and economic externalities amid globalization. Corporations also adopted a more results-oriented salary system and replaced many lifetime employees with contract workers to cut costs. This transformation was carried out in the name of enhancing individual freedom of choice. In this context, hosts, especially successful ones, symbolically manifested neoliberal ideals and female clients embodied liberated consumer-citizens in the postindustrial culture.

Though the host club in general is more accepted today as a business in Japanese society, participants typically do not reveal their association outside the club to avoid prejudice against male sex work and female promiscuity. This ambivalence reflects the new possibilities and constraints they face. Their hopes and concerns thus shed light on the tensions surrounding pervasive gender, sexual, and class norms despite the rapidly changing socioeconomic structure marked by neoliberal reforms and postindustrial consumerism.

Hopes and Dreams

Beginning in the 1980s, young Japanese women joined the flexible labor force and progressively gained disposable income in new service industries. At the height of the bubble economy of the late 1980s, they were celebrated as consumer citizens who pursued “a life of [their] own” (jibun no jinsei) and reveled in their new consumer power.16 Japan’s postindustrial capitalism continued to encourage women to buy more even during the prolonged economic recession that followed the bubble’s collapse in the early 1990s. In marked contrast to the stagnated national economy, women’s wanton spending in the host club became a media spectacle in the postrecession era.

Soon after women began to reshape the labor force landscape, a form of labor called furītā (an amalgam of the English loanword “free” and the German word arbeiter, or “worker”), emerged in the late 1980s initially as an alternative lifestyle choice.17 The kind of flexible work epitomized by the furītā aligned with neoliberal values that stressed individual freedom of choice, self-promotion, and independence rather than inflexible positions in rigidly hierarchical corporate structure. Such flexible work grew rapidly in popularity among young women and men, and especially among Japanese companies.18

But while flexible labor and the entrepreneurial self-discipline that it necessitates might initially have begun as a lifestyle choice, today furītā has become an unavoidable economic reality for many.19 One out of every 2.5 workers in Japan is a non-regular worker—more than 20 million who make up 38.2 percent of the workforce, the largest in the country’s labor history.20 The number is ever increasing, especially in service sectors, where low-paid non-regular workers have little chance of securing a regular full-time job. They typically move from one low-paying job to another. Under these conditions, social mobility is nearly impossible. In this milieu, the image of the hosting business as a successful alternative has become attractive to young men who seek upward mobility in career paths that nurture their creativity and help them get ahead in a given professional field.

The Koizumi administration (2001–2006) propelled these changes in consumption and labor by carrying out a comprehensive package of regulatory reforms that effectively shrunk the welfare state, cut corporate taxes, and deregulated the labor market.21 Koizumi Jun’ichiro used popular media and catchy slogans such as “Structural Reforms without Sanctuary,” “No Reform, No Growth,” and “A Japan Where Youth Can Embrace Hopes and Dreams” to promote his economic policies.22 Much like the symbiotic relationship between venture capitalists and start-up entrepreneurs, Koizumi sought to seed incentives for Japanese citizens to cultivate their potential and adapt to new market exigencies. As before, what was striking about these campaigns was the strategic use of promise for a better future to leverage consumer and labor action. The government’s insistence on change, however, has fallen mostly on the shoulders of Japanese youth and the growing ranks of those without secure, full-time jobs.

Even so, neoliberal discourses have rearticulated aspiration and speculation as an opportunity for young people to break free from the status quo and bet on their life to “win” a better future. And while there are a handful of successful cases in information technology, financial investment, and professional sports, as well as “legendary hosts,” for many, the adjustment has been accompanied by anxiety and despair. Those who are hopeful about their futures and those who are not have come to terms with this reality, creating the aforementioned “hope disparity society.”23

Notes

1. Clennell 2006.

2. See Kageyama 1996.

3. Yamada 2004.

4. Foucault and Watanabe (1978) 2007.

5. Allison 1994.

6. Aida 2004.

7. Ibid.

8. While there are a few establishments where cross-dressed female hosts entertain, I focus exclusively on the recent development of josei senyō hosuto kurabu (host clubs for women only) since the number of such clubs is rapidly increasing and receiving sensational treatment in the media.

9. Yamagishi 2009: 141.

10. In 1984 Japan’s sex-related amusement business law was deregulated to allow a variety of growing sex-related amusement businesses to run as long as they obtain state permission.

11. Japan’s gross domestic product (GDP) is about 500 trillion yen, and the unofficial estimate of Japan’s sex industry is 2.37 trillion yen (Hoffman 2007; Kadokura 2002; McNeill 2003). Japan’s defense budget is set at 1 percent of GDP.

12. Ronald Weitzer states that in 2006 alone Americans spent “$13.3 billion on X-rated magazines, videos and DVDs, live sex shows, strip clubs, adult cable shows, computer pornography, and commercial telephone sex” (2009: 1). The US economy accounts for an estimated 2010 GDP of $14.96 trillion (World Bank 2015a).

13. Fulford 2004.

14. Ibid.

15. Accurate official numbers are not available. Unofficial estimates suggest that the number of host clubs in Kabuki-chō is two hundred to three hundred, employing five thousand hosts; figures based on Nakatani (2001: 98), Yamagishi (2009: 130), and information obtained via interviews. According to Yamagishi, there were five host clubs in the 1960s, twenty in the 1970s, thirty to fifty in the 1980s through the early 1990s, and three hundred in the mid-1990s through mid-2000s (2009: 134, 141, 142, 130).

16. Kelsky 2001; Ogura 2003; Sakai 2003; Ueno and Nobuta 2004.

17. Allison 2009: 98; Takahara 2007: 67; Yamada 2004: 116.

18. Smith 2006.

19. While public discourses surrounding furītā tend to politicize it as a “social problem” or celebrate it as a lifestyle choice, Mark Driscoll argues that the form of labor is a result of a structural shift in the “modes of exploitation of wage laborers” through neoliberal reforms (2007: 173–176). Also see Genda and Hoff 2005; Kosugi 2002.

20. “Hiseikishain Hiritsu 38.2%, Danjotomo Kakosaikō ni” (2013).

21. Stockwin 2007; Yoda and Harootunian 2006.

22. The phrase “Structural Reforms without Sanctuary” was chosen as the 2001 buzzword-of-the-year.

23. Yamada 2004.