One late Saturday night in September 2004, I walked alone into Tokyo’s Kabuki-chō red-light district, the restless heart of the country’s sex and entertainment industry. Among Japanese, Kabuki-chō is commonly referred to as the “sleepless castle” and a “labyrinth of lust.” The district is located in the city’s Shinjuku ward, a major commercial and administrative hub.1
Kabuki-chō is a five-minute walk from Shinjuku eki, the world’s busiest train station. To enter, you walk down a gently sloped grade into a vast arena of adult-entertainment offerings.2 The roughly one-quarter-square-mile area is filled with bars, karaoke boxes, game centers, pachinko parlors, hostess clubs, love hotels, and thousands of other sex-related businesses. It reverberates with the aggressive shouts of club promoters, upbeat techno music from karaoke bars, high-decibel mechanical and digital beeps from game centers, and the occasional sirens of patrol cars.
When I arrived, darkness had descended and provided a splendid backdrop to a colorful array of billboards and neon signs. Beneath these glowing displays, I watched fashionably dressed women cluster in small groups. Their free-and-easy manner with one another and occasional side glances created unguarded moments in which men would flirtatiously approach them. These advances were part of the night’s entertainment.
As I wandered down one of the streets, a young man addressed me from behind, “Hey lady, interested in a host club?” (Onēsan, hosuto kurabu wa ikaga desuka?) Across the district, men in black suits attempt to lure salarymen into hostess clubs and pornographic peep shows. This man was different. He aggressively advertised both himself and his club to passing women. Nervously, I wondered, Why did he approach me?
I did not intend to visit a host club that night. I just wanted to observe the street scene. I need to be cautious around men like him, I thought. But then again, this was a good opportunity to learn more about the hosting business. I should have dressed up to fit in among the host clubs’ glamorous clientele. My outfit—a simple cotton shirt, a pair of khaki pants, and very little makeup—was not appropriate for clubbing. Should I just walk away or ask where he works?
On closer inspection, he looked unlike other hosts who bleached their hair, wore gaudy accessories, and pretended to be playboys. These men vigorously sought to draw women into their respective clubs through their flamboyant performance and casual talk. Their tacky appearance and obsequious approaches amused me, but they were not my type and I shied away from them. This man, however, was clean-cut with short black hair and wore a simple suit. He was very polite. I answered back:
“Well, I . . . I am researching host clubs. I came to Kabuki-chō tonight . . .” I started to say, but he interrupted.
“Why don’t you come over and see my host club? It’s only 5,000 yen [about $50] for the first visit. It’s a good deal, isn’t it?”
“Not bad at all,” I said. “Where do you work?”
“I work for club Orion.”
“I have heard of it. It’s a famous club, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is one of the long-standing clubs [in the district]. Unlike a lot of other unknown ones, our club is known for its fair business practices. You can trust us.”
His congeniality put me at ease, and I decided to follow him to Orion. I learned he was twenty-three and had started working at the club five months earlier. His host name was Shin, his brother’s name, and he was the eldest son of four children. When Shin finished middle school in Ibaraki, a Tokyo suburb, he started working for his father’s construction company. But he soon quit because of the hard labor. Shin then took a job at a clothing store but grew tired of working under someone else’s supervision. He saw an advertisement for “night work” (yoru no shigoto) and decided to become a host. Shin told me that he devoted himself exclusively to the hosting business and had no time for a girlfriend.3
Despite our twelve-year or so age difference, I was taken aback by how open Shin was. I began to tell him about my life. I said I was a graduate student in the United States and had returned to Japan for a year to conduct fieldwork. I grew up in Hamamatsu, 130 miles south of Tokyo, where I was an “office lady” (full-time office worker) at an insurance company until 1997, when I quit my job and left home to go to university. Although I did not mention my marital status, the amount I did share with him surprised me. We both sought alternatives to conventional salaryman/housewife roles in Japan’s rigid corporate and family systems. We also aspired to upward social mobility. As our rapport grew, the Kabuki-chō nightlife scene no longer felt so alien to me.
I asked Shin if I could conduct my research with him that night, and he agreed. I also questioned whether I should talk to his club manager, but he said it was unnecessary. Hosts are self-employed, independent agents who exercise autonomy over their tables. After passing several clubs and bars, I saw a large black sign with white stylish lettering, “Ladies Only Club, Orion.” Located in a plain, concrete building, Orion had no windows or notable architectural decorations. The entrance was unadorned: no velvet ropes, no curtains, no bouncers. There were a couple of hosts outside, smoking cigarettes and casually talking on the phone. They paid little attention to us.
A large, glass showcase stood in the entryway. It featured glossy color headshots of five of Orion’s top-ranking hosts. They were young, handsome men with androgynous features. The photos reminded me of David Bowie in the film Labyrinth or members of Japan’s “visual bands,” known for their flashy outfits, hairstyles, cosmetics, and performances. The hosts’ shaggy, feathered hair with brown highlights framed their pale faces. A few rested their delicate hands against their faces. Others stroked their hair with their long, thin fingers. Some smiled innocently, while others provocatively pursed their rose-colored lips.
Once Shin opened the club’s heavy door, it seemed as if a theater curtain had been lifted, and I was thrust onto a stage in the midst of a lively show. In front of me were four or five female customers whose conversations and laughter kept pace with the music’s upbeat tempo. Their fashionable attire accentuated the venue’s modern decor—a calculated palette of white walls, red leather sofas, and round black tables. Indirect lighting cast shadows of the vibrant scene around the room. These elements lent the club an atmosphere much like that of lounges in trendy hotels.
As I entered, a couple of hosts greeted me with irasshaimase! (welcome) and deep bows. I sat on a sofa, buffered from the other clients by empty tables. Shin swiftly sat down next to me. “So, what do you think of the club?” His two “helper hosts” assembled beside us. They opened a bottle of shōchū wheat liquor and served it in highball glasses with iced water. Another helper host carefully laid a lace napkin on my lap. They commented on how slow business was and how much my presence had “lightened” the club’s mood. I was then given a toast.
“What is your name?” a helper host asked me.
“Akiko,” I replied.
“No wonder you are so pretty! There are statistics showing that women named Akiko tend to be beautiful,” he said.
I doubted there were such statistics, but his remarks reminded me that many Japanese parents, including my own, named their daughters Akiko after the 1959 Miss Universe, Akiko Kojima—the first Asian to ever win the pageant.
“Have you ever been told that you look like a TV announcer?” another helper jumped in and asked.
The term he used was joshiana, a female announcer typically seen on Tokyo-based national broadcasts. The joshiana is a symbol of an ideal Japanese femininity—a rare combination of intelligence, beauty, and popularity.
“Um . . . no, not really,” I said, but I was flattered.
“You know, the kind of announcer at a local station who is lovable . . . but not quite sophisticated!”
Everyone at the table, including myself, burst into laughter. Around the club, men provide attentive service to women, as well as their main hosts, as if they were royalty. Hosts would rest their hands on their clients’ shoulders, arms, or laps to gauge their reactions and ensure they were having a good time. If a helper host saw a woman pulling out a cigarette, he would quickly produce a lighter and wait for her to put the cigarette in her mouth. They did the same for the main host as a show of respect. At the table, these men supported the hosts’ flirtatious gestures, felicitously reacting to their jokes and compliments.
The hosts’ body movements—lighting cigarettes, mixing drinks, flirting, and laughing—were highly stylized and exaggerated. They made every possible effort to please their clientele. Surrounded by this attention, unusual for women in Japan’s male-centered society, I felt like a celebrity. In the club, women were excused from traditional feminine roles and instead experienced what it was like to be cared for by men.
Though I was swept away by all of the attention, I wondered why these hosts asked me such personal questions. Were they actually interested in my research? Or did they simply treat me as they would any client? They asked, among other things, how much I enjoyed drinking alcohol, where I lived, and what my hobbies were. I came to realize that their inquiries were designed to gauge my wealth and whether I might solicit their hosting services again.
While I contemplated the hosts’ intent, I noticed my knee was slightly touching Shin’s. I straightened myself and slid my leg away. As I was drawn back into the conversation, my pant leg once again rubbed against Shin’s. He inched slightly closer and leaned over to me. “Are you having a good time?” he murmured into my ear. I nodded. His whisper was ticklish, and, mildly affected by the alcohol, I became entranced by the sweet fragrance of his cologne. His subtle gestures had transformed the club’s open space into an intimate environment where his proximity, whether accidental or not, seemed deliberate. Shin conveyed nothing substantive to me in his furtive whispers. However, by withholding the content of these exchanges from others, I grew attracted to him. These feelings arose because of—not despite—the existence of others in the open space. Shin created a fantasy, wherein my sensual experience and cognitive interpretation felt all-encompassing.
Orion closed around 1:00 A.M. I paid a total of 5,000 yen, which covered the table charge, a bottle of shōchū, and water. Shin then invited me to a bar for afutā—after-hours activities, in which hosts privately express appreciation to their clients by accompanying them to a restaurant, pub, or karaoke bar.
“I usually don’t drink this much, but I feel so good and special tonight for some reason,” he said as he loosened his tie.
“So, how common is it for a host to go out with women after hours?” I asked him.
“It depends upon the host, but I usually don’t go to the ‘after,’” he replied.
“When do you go then?”
“Only when a client asks me or I feel like inviting a woman to spend more time together. Yeah, I wouldn’t go unless I’m interested in the woman and want to know her better.”
His remarks made me wonder if he really was interested in me. No way, I thought to myself.
“So, what kind of women are you interested in, as clients?” I continued.
“Well, I like a woman who has things that I don’t, like . . . intelligence,” Shin said as he looked straight at me. “I like an intelligent woman,” he repeated, as if to gauge my reaction.
“You were hungry tonight, anyway,” I managed to say jokingly.
“You don’t understand men’s minds, do you?” he said.
Shin looked disappointed and turned his back to me. Changing the subject, I asked Shin about his hosting experience. He told me that he had lost some important clients and was struggling to maintain his sales. The owner recently promoted Shin to kanbu in the club—a position of elevated managerial status. Because of this, he felt too busy to focus personal attention on his clients. “It’s such a critical time for me to keep this position, you know?” he sighed. I was honored that Shin felt comfortable enough to share his vulnerability. But I also understood that by appealing to my omoiyari (sympathies), he expected me to respond sympathetically and contribute to his sales. It was already past three in the morning when he finished telling me about his struggles and motivations, as well as the rewards he sought by hosting. Although I tried to pay the 4,000-yen bill, Shin insisted that it was at his invitation and therefore on him.
Outside the bar, it was drizzling. It had been a long day and I was worn out. Shin said that he would help me find a taxi. As we walked, I kept my eyes on the pavement, trying to avoid puddles. When I looked up, we were on Hoterugai (Hotel Street), lined with love hotels—establishments where couples can book rooms for a few hours up to an entire night. Discomfort crept in when I realized where we were. Shin and I were both tired and intoxicated, and I was unsure of his intentions as we continued together at this late hour. Trying to avoid this awkward silence, I said:
“I’ve read an account about makura eigyō [literally, ‘pillow business,’ meaning to have sex with clients for money],” I said.
“Oh, how did you know about that? What did it say?”
“Well, hosts who do ‘pillow business’ intentionally walk this street to lure their clients into the hotels. Those who don’t avoid walking here to stay away from the business.”
“These are just building boxes and mean nothing to me,” Shin said.
I was impressed by his response. Indeed, in Kabuki-chō, I had often thought about how physical spaces were merely screens upon which people’s desires were inscribed.
“Why are we walking here?” I asked, still seeking his real intentions.
“It’s a slight shortcut to the main road. No special reason,” he said.
At this point, I stopped asking questions. By saying what I knew about his business, I revealed more about my own state of mind than I learned about his. Shin hailed a taxi and I entered the back seat. “Here is my card,” Shin said, reaching into his breast pocket. “Please call me anytime. I will assist you in any possible way.” He then pulled out my card, which I had given him earlier, from his side pocket and looked at it carefully. He leaned toward me, lowering his back. “I will give you a call,” he said. “Thank you and goodbye.” I nodded back.
The automatic taxi door shut quietly, muting the street noise of Kabuki-chō. The dazzling neon lights faded into the blackness of the night as the car slowly drove away. I felt a wave of late-night fatigue as if a long, thrilling movie had ended and I was left alone in the dark theater. But it was merely the end of the first act. Shin’s words, “I will give you a call,” echoed pleasantly in my mind and hinted of something more to happen. He told me earlier that he did not like phone calls and would never offer to call clients. I could not help looking forward to hearing from him again.
Shin did not follow through on his promise, but he did send me a text message the following day: “How is your research progressing?” I replied and asked to set up an official interview. He wanted me to visit him at Orion again. I sought something more neutral and suggested a coffee shop. My research and Shin’s business interests were evidently at odds.
Unsurprisingly, Shin’s texts then took on an indifferent tone. Unlike previous ones, which addressed me by name and involved some back and forth, they became shorter, more general, and less frequent. My anticipation of our friendship and memories of my thrilling night gradually dimmed. A few weeks later, Shin stopped contacting me after I told him that I had received permission to do research at a different host club.
Though I ostensibly hung out with Shin for research, I was unsure how to characterize the nature of our relationship. Was it researcher-informant? Client-host? Friend-friend? My confusion was compounded by the ambiguous meanings of his suggestive acts: spending time with me, showing his vulnerability, paying the bill, and caring about my work. Did he genuinely want to be my friend? Or was this a business investment aimed at luring me back to his club? A future visit could cost a minimum of 20,000 yen ($200).
As I later learned, this rumination is a common experience among host club clients. Women I interviewed had also engaged in extended interior dialogues about their feelings, hosts’ intentions, and anticipated romance. In this sense, my exchange with Shin was not unlike the performance of romance between all of the hosts and their customers. I tasted the experience of what it is like to buy this “staged” seduction. At the same time, I futilely attempted to resolve my feelings of confusion, hope, and despair, which persisted well beyond my immediate encounter with Shin.
Just as the host cannot ascertain the full worth of his client in their early meetings—what we might call the initial staging of seduction—the client also does not fully realize the value of the seduction at the moment of their first exchange. The latent value of it comes from the “eclipse”—the not-yet fully realized meanings of these early transactions, which allow us to imagine the horizons of our relationship trajectories. They set a mood for a future, marked by questions of whether it will be prosperous or purposeless. In this respect, the future collapses into the present.
At the same time that women fantasize over their futures, the past is inevitably invoked in their visions. Their corporeal experiences of arousal and reverie from their host encounters, for example, are shaped by recollections of former exchanges with these men. They may be remembered as thrilling, rewarding, and pleasurable, or painful, disappointing, and even devastating. This collapsing and stretching of the temporal dimension of value—contouring our orientation toward future experiences and nostalgia over past relationships—is neither determined beforehand nor fixed. It is contingent on how long the process of seduction itself remains in play and what kinds of meanings are attached to the process.
Staged Seduction is an ethnographic account of host club participants’ human dramas. Their performances take place in elaborate club spaces and affective cityscapes, against a backdrop of politico-economic rhetoric of structural reforms and enterprising individualism. These accounts unveil how people’s temporal sense of future, present, and past, as well as spatial orientations of here and there, fold into restless feelings of both hope and despair. Japan’s expanding service economy evokes and capitalizes on these feelings. As I demonstrate throughout this book, these feelings heighten individuals’ perceptions of freedom, fuel business profit, and reinforce state-sponsored incentives for a prosperous future of the nation.
1. Shinjuku’s population as of the 2015 census is 334,363. Population density is now 18,351 people per km2 based on an area of 18.22 km2 (“Population, Area Size, and Population Density by Wards and Cities,” http://uub.jp/rnk/k_j.html [accessed August 25, 2015]). Shinjuku eki, the world’s busiest train station, averages almost 750,000 passengers per day (748,157 according to Japan Railways; see http://www.jreast.co.jp/passenger/index.html [accessed August 25, 2015]).
2. Kabuki-chō contains mainly heterosexual-oriented businesses. Shinjuku Nichōme, known as a gay district where bars, restaurants, cafés, and video stores are concentrated, is located a couple blocks away from Kabuki-chō.
3. His attitude toward flexible work and future dreams seemed to align with that of younger Japanese who were exposed to the so-called yutori kyōiku (a more relaxed education policy), an attempt by Japan’s Ministry of Education in the 1980s to reduce students’ stress and excessive discipline in order to unleash their creativity.