In Japan’s host bars, suave young studs entertain women with some cash to spend. Considered a modern phenomenon, they actually echo a practice from the Edo era, when wealthy women would sometimes arrange secretive trysts with desirable men, often kabuki actors.
In most respects, they are hostess bars with the genders swapped. Like their female counterparts, the job of a host carries a slightly seedy air, and their chores are the same – looking good, flattery, flirtation, lighting cigarettes, laughing at jokes and topping up expensive drinks. An expensive bottle of wine might start at 100,000 yen, making it easy to spend hundreds of thousands of yen (a month’s salary for some of the customers) in a single night.
Like the hostesses, hosts might occasionally sleep with customers and receive expensive gifts (including cars and apartments) in return. Generally, both host and customer are realistic about the economic nature of their relationship, and genuine romance is rare. Nevertheless, hosts are occasionally recruited to act as surrogate boyfriends when their single clients want a piece of eye-candy on their arm at weddings or other social events.
Hosts with the most
The most successful hosts aren’t necessarily the best looking. The bars’ more discerning customers seem to value a twinkle in the eye and conversational dexterity as much as biceps and Colgate smiles. Good hosts are often the most pragmatic, remembering seemingly insignificant personal details of their numerous clients, and discreetly recording them just in case. Host’s who invest enough effort and flattery into a customer are rewarded by becoming a customer’s “shimeisha”, or designated host, giving him the exclusive right to entertain (and wring money out of) her. This system prevents infighting and unnecessary competition between the hosts, preserving the harmony of the club.
Hierarchy, as in most areas of Japanese society, is paramount. The “Number 1” hosts who bring in the most drinks commissions receive massive bonuses, and some bars post the ranking of their hosts on the street outside. A good host can make more in a month than most salarymen make in a year. On the other hand, greenhorns are usually forced to do the most demeaning jobs, like scrubbing the lavatories or going out into the street to get customers into the club.
Host bars were on the fringe of Japan’s entertainment industry for a long time, catering mostly to desperate singletons and sugar mummies. Gradual shifts in gender politics have allowed them to enter the mainstream, catering to Japan’s new generation of confident, well-paid, savvy young women. In some cases, these women are young, single, and highly desirable, but lack the time or inclination for a serious relationship. While Japan’s women wait for the male domination of their society to erode, host clubs offer an escape from the passive roles many women are still forced into. Now, the industry is worth more than £300 million a year in Tokyo alone.
Late at night, host bars may also provide welcome rest and entertainment to hostesses and other girls who have finished their shift in nearby bars and brothels. Having spent hours pampering others, they are quite happy to pay for the same treatment. In many cases, these girls are, like the hosts themselves, financially comfortable but lonely – their lifestyle making it difficult to form relationships outside the sex industry.
Dangers and Problems
It’s not all glamour. For most hosts, a meagre basic wage is supplemented by a commission of up to 50% on drinks their customers buy (“uriage”). This is a brutal popularity contest, and less successful hosts are weeded out very quickly. As the uriage includes drinks bought for them, hosts are encouraged to drink as much as possible. Many hosts entertain multiple customers in an evening, forcing them to drink a massive amount every night. Not only does this force hosts into frequent trips to throw up in the bathroom, but many hosts are also worried about developing alcohol-related health problems, and might conceal or secretly dispose of drinks rather than imbibe them. Combined with the arduous work hours – many hosts only sleep a couple of hours a day, holidays and weekends are non-existent – these conditions lead to a high rate of staff turnover at most bars.
Celebrity and Public Attention
A few hosts are national celebrities – draped across magazine features, starring on prime time TV talk shows and publishing autobiographies. A host bar was even the setting for a popular TV drama – a pretty good barometer of mainstream acceptance. The industry pinup and “King of Hosts” is Reiji, who owns two successful host bars and has written a number of self-help books for wannabe hosts and pick-up artists. He even sells his unique insights into female psychology to corporate clients who want advice about the women that work for them.
Not all of the public attention has been positive. The newly-acquired glamour of host bars has attracted some desperate types. Police claim that increased competition has encouraged hosts to target vulnerable women, especially starstruck young girls, who are forced into prostitution when faced with massive bills they cannot pay.
- ‘Booming host club industry another indicator of economic recovery’ (MDN WaiWai)
- The New Kings of the Night
“A look at the less known world of hosts and hostesses in Japan”
- ‘Rent Boys’ (TIME Asia)
“They’re smart looking and no longer beyond the pale. Male hosts are Japan’s new craze—but they’re not cheap”
- ‘To Rent: Cute Japanese Boy. One Lady Owner’
“A host is the perfect Tokyo gentleman. He pours your drinks. Lights your cigarettes. Laughs at your jokes. He’s beautiful, flirtatious, and devoted to your every need. He’s also very, very expensive.”
- ‘Tokyo plays host to sexual shift’ (Guardian Unlimited)
“Male escort clubs are big business, satisfying the newfound freedom of Japanese women – at a price”
- ‘Japan’s gigolo bars still going strong’
- ‘Japan host clubs provide ersatz love for a price’ (Reuters)
- ‘Entertaining Women is my Job’ (Hiragana Times)
Profile of a half-Canadian, half-Japanese host
- ‘Japan: Casanovas for hire’ (Asian Sex Gazette)
“Japan’s hosts are ready and waiting to show the (rich) girls a good time”
- ‘Drinking in the delights of men’ (Japan Times)
- ‘Memoirs of a Geisha Guy’ (Forbes.com)
“A “host” named Reiji has turned the art of entertaining women into the science of making money.”