Japan for the Uninvited

Japanese culture from a bemused foreign perspective

Hostess bars

Hostess barsSpuriously descended from geisha tradition, hostess clubs offer a welcome break for the salaryman with time to spare and money to burn. For a price, harassed men can enjoy the company of glamorous young women who are seemingly infatuated with them. The girls pour their drinks, light their cigarettes, flirt outrageously, and laugh uproariously at drunken jokes and tedious anecdotes.

The expression “hostess bar” covers a wide variety of establishments. “Kurabu” are usually exclusive clubs for which a non-member would need an introduction from a member to enter. The less prestigious “kyabakura” are open to everyone, and are generally less expensive than kurabu.

Empty your wallets

The hostess bar experience can be incredibly expensive. This is not only due to the entrance fee, which can be steep, but will be nothing compared to the price of drinks. These range from the mildly pricy (1,000 yen for a glass of beer) to the astronomical (100,000 yen for a bottle of Dom Perignon Champagne). Flashier customers might easily spend 500,000 yen in a night. Because of the cost, many Japanese men only go to hostess bars to entertain clients and for other work events – i.e. when the company foots the bill. However, Japanese companies are much less likely to fund these outings than during the heady excesses of the 1980s.


Hostess bars encourage their girls to be as flirtatious as possible, but most discourage “makura eigyou” (pillow business, or sexual relations with customers). In fact, it’s the unavailability of the hostesses which makes the most successful clubs so popular with clients. Email addresses or phone numbers might be exchanged, occasionally with the Mama-san as an intermediary, but this is generally to maintain occasional contact with the customer and keep them coming back to the club.

Dohan – arranged dates with customers – are a distasteful but necessary part of the job for many hostesses. A regular customer will negotiate with the bar to take their favourite girl to dinner, perhaps chauffeuring her back to the bar to start work. Clubs like their staff to do a lot of these dohan, because they bring customers back to the club and encourage them to spend more money when they get there.

Hostesses have a variety of tactics to discourage would-be gropers, while avoiding offending the customer or disturbing the mood. For some hostesses, a scolding fingerwag (“you naughty boy”) is enough to deter unwanted fondling. Others like to hold the client’s hand tightly, seemingly affectionate act that prevents “busy hands” creeping anywhere unexpected.

The Hostess

A career in hostessing tends to be short and arduous, which is why most girls are under 25. Reasons for entering the industry vary: aspiring actresses waiting to be discovered work alongside girls who are just in it for the money. The high turnover isn’t much of a problem from the bar’s point-of-view. Fresh-faced, inexperienced girls are very popular, and this is often the type that scouts are looking for on crowded city streets as they scour for fresh blood.

Income varies greatly. A successful hostess might earn $5,000 a month, but the rewards can be much greater. At the top end of the scale, “Number One” hostesses – those who make the most money for their clubs – at prestigious Ginza kurabu have been known to earn 100,000,000 yen (around $1 million) a month.


The hostess bar centres on the Mama-san – its manageress, and (in many cases) owner. Hostesses quit or get sacked, customers come and go, but Mama-san remains. More often than not, she’s was a hostess herself, having survived the profession cynical but largely unscathed. Years of experience have taught the Mama-san exactly how to keep their customers happy and – more importantly – buying drinks. She’s simultaneously nurturing and predatory: keeping her girls happy until they stop attracting business, when they’re swiftly shown the door.

Lucie Blackman

In July 2000, a 21-year-old British hostess disappeared after telling friends she was going for a drive with a client. The case received massive press exposure in Japan and Britain, and launched one of Japan’s biggest ever police operations. In June 2001, her dismembered body was found in a shallow grave. The property developer who was charged with her murder was also charged with the rapes of six other hostesses and the murder of one other. Police suspect he may have raped as many as 200 women in 25 years.

The case highlighted the vulnerability of foreign women working in Japan’s sex industry, who are largely unprotected by the law because most are working illegally. According to human rights groups, there are at least 100,000 of these women, and Miss Blackman was not the first to go missing. “The media barely covered this problem until Lucie’s case” said Mizuho Fukushima, Japanese MP and human rights activist, “All of a sudden it was news when a white girl disappeared.”

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6 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. That murder sounds horrible, I hate sickness like that which ruins perfectly good girls who are working towards a future.

  2. graham

    you now play the xbox hostess game! for real! it’s called dream club, i like the blue haired hostess Reika

  3. tomtom

    An advice to visitors: Unless someone else is footing the bill, stay clear of these places. Here’s how they work:

    The lower class (cheaper) bars are staffed by mostly immigrant men, mostly african. They are cheerful and friendly and will offer you a discount on the cover charge that will let you come in for one hour and that also includes drinks.

    Inside, a beautiful girl will come up to you and start flirting outrageously. Pretty hard to resist. After just a few minutes, she’s going to demand a drink. No play = no play and you can leave. Drinks are incredibly expensive.

    You can ask mama-san (or daddy-san in most cases) if the girl can come with you and they’ll say sure. Buy a 30.000 yen bottle of champagne and you’re set. You pony up the money and the girl will help you drink it up and then demand more. You thought you were taking her home, didn’t you? Oh, but after closing time the daddy-san will say and offer you to stay and spend like a maniac until then. When you turn sour, he’ll take your address and promise to send cutie over after she’s done. And she will of course never show up. Stay clear of these places. They are awful.

  4. Baka Gaijin

    You’re not there for sex Tomtom, you’re there for companionship. I’d still recommend staying away from them though. The whole concept is a little sick in the head.

  5. Tina

    If i would like to work as hostess in Japan, could you give mi some advice were i can find good pages with registrations, or castings or somathing like this ?

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