Sunday, September 20, 2009

Hostesses and Sexuality in Japan

--Originally Posted at Harlot's Parlour--

In the past month there seems to have been a piquing of interest in Japan’s hostess clubs. Having worked as first a hostess and then a stripper in Tokyo between 1998 and 2007, I was curious to see what was being written.

First of all there was the NY Times article about Japanese women “turning” to hostessing in a recession for lack of other options. The article was picked up by many sites, including Gawker who supplied this headline: Downtrodden Japanese Women Turn to Almost-Whoring in Droves and then there was the serialization of (in the Daily Mail of course) and publication of this book: Tokyo Hostess: Inside the Shocking World of Tokyo Nightclub Hostessing by Claire Campbell.

Firstly, I find judgments on the Japanese and the Japanese sex industry and how ”weird” they are tiresome. Going beyond that however I’m not sure exactly what point the NY Times was trying to make with this piece. Hostessing is far from new and it has been a long time since it was quite so ostracized as the article wants to make out. To give an example; Lisa Louis in her 1992 book Butterflies of the Night, quotes one mama-san as saying “There is much less prejudice than there was twenty years ago. Nowadays it’s just another occupation”. However the NY Times did an OK job of showing that hostessing can bring wealth and respect to women, without making it sound like a desperate, dangerous, miserable situation (the approach Gawker preferred to take.)
They then followed up the article with commentary from “experts” – several Japanese scholars, were any of them hostesses? Of course not. Rather they gave us academics worrying that such a profession as hostessing is getting “glamorized” by the media. I am of the opinion that a job “which can easily pay $100,000 a year and as much as $300,000” does a pretty good job of ‘glamorizing’ itself. However sociology lecturer Aya Ezawa sees it as a societal issue, that there is something wrong with a society in which a woman can earn great money by entertaining men.*

“At a time of economic downturn, it is worrisome that the media in Japan and abroad portray hostessing as a glamorous job and a woman's road to success. Instead of focusing on the hostesses, it would make more sense to examine the attitudes of the men who are willing to pay a high price for being entertained, served, and pleased by women with short skirts and heavy makeup.”

Anthropology professor Nobue Suzuki seems to try to equate the hostess business with something that poorer women with fewer opportunities do, again hinting at ‘desperation’ in taking such a job.

“Prior to the current boom of hostessing, for the past 30 years or so numerous immigrant women and men from Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the former Soviet bloc have also taken up this job.”

She fails to mention that for decades Japanese hostess clubs have been filled with Western European, American, Australian and New Zealander women. Less so in the past few years due to an increased focus on illegal immigration, but there are still many there.

The white Western woman in Tokyo is the theme of Campbell’s book. It takes as its focus the 2000 murder of an English woman working in Tokyo as a hostess (Lucie Blackman) and tries to draw conclusions about Japanese ‘perversion’ from it. Anyone who remembers the Blackman case may recall the prevalence of the articles and TV specials that came out around this time like the Australian 60 Minutes special “Predators in Tokyo” discussed here.

“Every year, hundreds and hundred’s of bright eyed young Australian girls head for the bright lights of Tokyo, every one of them is in grave danger.”
— 60 Minutes, 27 February 2005

And this article from Time discussing Blackman’s murderer Joji Obara:

“Susumu Oda, professor of psychiatry at Gakuin University… says Obara is a "peculiar symbol" of men of his generation, "because he was obsessed with Caucasian women." “
-Death of a Hostess, Time Magazine 7 May 2001

Opinion at the time seemed to be that Japan is an inherently dangerous destination for young white women because Japanese men are ‘obsessed’ with them, and sick and perverted of course too. Campbell seems to take this approach as a basis for her book. Here’s some of the blurb from the publishers:

“… she did not know that behind the lights and excitement of Tokyo's nightclub scene lies a terrible darkness. Many beautiful blonde Western girls have found themselves lured into performing sexual acts for money, seeing their job slowly change from nightclub hostess into that of high-class prostitute. …. Clare Campbell lifts the lid on the often horrifyingly sleazy world of Tokyo nightclubs.”

As I was starting to write this, I found Susanna Jones’ review of Campbell’s book in The Guardian Jones rightly notes that writing on the murder of a British teacher in Japan does not fit in to a book called ‘Tokyo Hostess’. Lindsay Ann Hawker was murdered in Ichikawa, far from Roppongi where most foreign hostesses work. Including her murder in this book and somehow attempting to connect it to Blackman’s, because they were both foreign women in Japan, is really perpetuating the racist cliché of ‘Japanese man obsessed with gaijin.’ On Hawker’s death Campbell writes "Was it exquisitely Oriental or just plain barking mad?" Jones counters this by mentioning the murder of a woman in Brighton, UK “Was it exquisitely British or just ‘plain barking mad?’”

Both the NY Times and Clare Campbell are taking something very specific and trying to draw conclusions about an inherent Japanese-ness in them: the “subservient” role of the hostess means women are oppressed in Japan; the murder of white women means the Japanese have a perverse fascination with Western women.

I have to agree with Susanna Jones when she concludes her review by saying that instead of thinking of it as “a place of murderous sexual deviants… we should grow up about Japan, stop wondering whether or not we can comprehend it and just try to get to know it a bit better.”

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Stewardess Fantasy Sex Club

From Pink Box: Inside Japan's Sex Clubs by Joan Sinclair

Tokyo Stories: 2

I didn't last long at Greengrass either, and I truly hated that place. This club had a stiff atmosphere and a skeleton in the closet.
Greengrass, or Casanova as it was called then, was the hostess club where Lucie Blackman had worked. This was where she met the man who killed her. Lucie, a 20 year old former British Airways hostess from Kent, England came to Tokyo in 2000 intrigued, as many girls were, by travelers' descriptions of Tokyo as a goldmine for young Western women. The rumors, and they were true, told that you could make a huge amount of cash by just hanging out in bars with old rich men. Working as a hostess in Japan involved topping up the customer's whiskey glass, lighting his cigarette, singing karaoke, listening to and feigning fascination at his stories, all of which was to be done with elegance and dressed in an evening gown. The hostess was supposed to make the customer like her so much that he would take her out to dinner before coming in to the club together; this arrangement was called a dohan. Securing dohans was the point of all the smiling and feigning in the club, for a hostess would be penalized for not meeting her weekly quota. A customer upon whom you could rely for regular dohans was your customer, Lucie Blackman was murdered by her customer, Joji Obara. The misfit son of Korean immigrants Joji frequented Tokyo's hostess clubs. He was known in many, including Cadeau whose owner Kazuo later appeared in the press with a story about how he had personally rushed one of his hostesses to hospital with suspected poisoning after dinner with Obara. I didn't believe this story as I couldn’t believe that Kazuo would care so much about any of his girls.
It was in Casanova/Greengrass where Joji met Lucie. She disappeared after their dohan and was not seen again until her dismembered body was found buried on a beach. Obara was charged with drugging, raping and murdering Lucie and of the manslaughter of a Canadian hostess in the early 90's. He was acquitted of Lucie's murder, despite a mountain of evidence against him.
In my native Great Britain this story understandably received a lot of attention: pretty young blonde butchered by foreigner so far from home. Perhaps it was insensitive of me to worry that the intensity of coverage; the news reports, TV specials and magazine articles would lead my parents to figure out what it was I had been doing in Tokyo in the summer of 1998 when I said I was just working in an ex-pat bar. Fortunately the subject has never come up, our family does not talk about things that make us uncomfortable.

In a half-hearted attempt to distance itself from the murder, Casanova changed its name to Greengrass. But that is all that it changed, many of the customers and all of the staff were the same in 2005; the same unsmiling Burmese waiter and sour manager. We all knew but we were forbidden from saying it, a whispered "don't mention Lucie" hung heavy in the air. Occasionally at the sushi bar after work a few words could be teased out of a few; "yes, I knew her", "I took her for sushi one night", "I saw her the night before she disappeared".
In truth, I didn't last long enough at Greengrass to pry any further, I was fired on my way to the dressing room at the end of a quiet Monday night, presumably in retaliation for the evening’s poor takings.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Tokyo Stories

Club Cadeau, my hostess club, had a reputation for firing girls, the reason they gave was usually that these girls weren't making enough 'dohans' but who knows, it was possibly just the whim of the cokehead, gambling, yakuza affiliated owner; Kazuo. I got the chop barely one month after starting. I wasn't very good at getting dohans, I didn't have the patience for the tricky negotiations it took to get one; I hated calling my customers and pretending to like them/miss them/ really want to see them tonight; mostly I hated the dohans. After the initial thrill of being treated to dinner in some of Tokyo's best restaurants, and the anticipation of a bonus subsided, I just felt embarrassed being there, in public with these men twice my age.
I wasn't very good at getting dohans so Club Cadeau fired me: "tonight last night" were manager Hatori's exact words. Poor Hatori, the task of getting rid of girls fell to him. He was unsmiling and distant in the club, highly professional; he didn't want to become friendly with girls he would inevitably have to fire at some point.
After Hatori's news I went into the closet which functioned as our dressing room with tears in my eyes and filled with panic. Jasmine, a platinum blonde Australian whom I had partied with a few times, calmly instructed me to immediately go up the street to Greengrass, another hostess club where two previously terminated Cadeau hostesses were now working. I didn't change out of my work clothes, a knee length silky dress now groaning at the seams thanks to my increasing alcohol intake and post work snacking, and hurried over to Greengrass. After some confusion on the 6th floor of the building; the club is opposite a ladyboy club whose door handle is an impressively large brass cock and for some skewed reason the sign saying Greengrass is next to the cock handle, I went in. I filled out an application, lied about my number of regular customers and was told to start on Monday.

Raki Raki The club opposite Greengrass.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Venues I Have Known: Foresters, Southend

I am almost embarrassed to admit having worked there; no wait, I am most definitely embarrassed. This place was a pit, it almost certainly remains so, located in the English seaside resort of Southend. Southend, like most English resorts, has declined considerably over the past few decades, it's a pretty miserable and neglected place, especially during the winter which was when I worked there. The Foresters bar was unchanged since it had opened in the late sixties, everything was a relic from that era; the decor, music, staff and customers. I had to drag myself onto the train every Friday night I went there and I cringed each time I walked down the promenade to the bar, past the games arcades and teenage drunks, but I never missed a booking because the money was unfathomably good, especially for a two and a half hour shift.
While living in London I worked solely through strip-pub agencies, staying away from the big London clubs because my Graduate studies would not allow for their scheduling demands. The agency with whom I got most of my work banned their dancers from working at Foresters which was booked through another agency due to some legal wrangling over who had the contract and why. In my defense I wasn't aware of the ban until after my first shift at the Foresters and then only from second hand knowledge, anyway I continued to take bookings there, keeping them very quiet. Most of the venues booked were outside of London yet still generally easy to get to and from by public transport. Southend, however, was a little further away and the last train back to London left 50 minutes before the bar closed meaning that I had no choice but to hire the services of a driver. Agency dancers are fiercely protective of their drivers and their drivers' numbers so I was left with Smelly Paul, the only available driver. Smelly Paul was always available, even at the last minute for reasons which his nickname explains. The journey home with him was a misery, the window had to be opened wide even in sub-zero temperatures and delusional stories of his affairs with previous strippers had to be tolerated. He even recounted the story, later verified by a friend, of his arrest on suspicion of the murder of a dancer. He was creepy, so much so that he was not allowed in the bars I worked having been banned for allegedly trying to photograph strippers. Worst of all though was the smell. Oh the smell, it was the kind of smell that got trapped in my nostrils and couldn't be shook for long after I slammed his car door shut and ran up to my flat. Kinder strippers had presented him with toiletry sets as gifts hoping he'd get the hint; less kind strippers had just let him know straight up: "You stink Paul!" Neither approach had made a dent in the stink, leaving me with a test of endurance in the hour long journey from a bar I despised.
My shifts at the Foresters came every second Friday which coincided with my MA Borges course, already a cause of anxiety for me, being taught entirely in Spanish, my level of which had deteriorated massively. Every second Friday was a difficult end to the week for me. At the end of the class I had to fly out of the UCL building to Euston underground station to Fenchurch railway station to Southend-on -Sea, skimming my class notes on the way. I walked down the promenade to the sound of the whirring video games and the din of pennies chugging out of the slot machines, past the shuttered ice cream and souvenir shops with the wind off the sea whipping at my face. I never drank when I worked in England so the memories of the bars are clear. Foresters, like all South East England strip pubs operated on a jug collection system; prior to performing a striptease the dancer would walk around the bar with a pint glass in the expectation that each customer would drop at least a
Pound coin in it. Sadly the Foresters did not have a minimum donation policy, it was the only pub I worked in that did not eject patrons who tipped below the Pound minimum or did not tip at all. Foresters did not have an entry fee either, nor functioning bouncers; three elements which combined to create a few exasperating nights; squabbles over the indignity of 'shrapnel' being put in my glass, young chavs insisting that they would not be tipping because they 'didn't have to'--the notion of paying for the entertainment being somewhat lost on them--I mean really, would you go to the cinema and expect to watch the movie for free? Anyway, as I said, the money was good, despite these setbacks.
The London area strip pubs are very different to the stripclubs with which you are likely familiar, they are generally dives--crappy decor, lapdances done on a bench in a corner somewhere, no stage (you dance around of the pub floor) and a lingering smell of stale ale. I don't know whether or not club dancers look down on pub dancers, or if the dancers from the higher tier pubs Browns and White Horse look down on agency dancers with their flighty nature and unwillingness to commit to a schedule, but I was happy working the pub circuit. I almost always preferred a neighbourhood dive bar to the upscale classy gentleman's club experience, that's just where I was comfortable.