TV & Radio
Japan host clubs provide ersatz love for a price
By Linda Sieg | June 29, 2006
TOKYO (Reuters) - Dressed all in white and smiling, Yuka and Manato stand side-by-side before a pyramid of champagne glasses, framed in an arch of white, pink and red balloons.
"I really love Manato," says Yuka, while a score of black-suited young men kneel before them, chanting loudly.
"I'll never forget this day," he replies.
The scene in the dark, smoky night club seems modeled
on a wedding, but no nuptials are under way.
Instead, Yuka is paying around 1 million yen ($8,700) for the champagne the pair pour into the tower of glasses to mark Manato's 25th birthday at Club Raphael, a "host club" where women are pampered by the men of their dreams -- for a price.
Around 150 such host clubs dot the streets of Tokyo's Kabukicho entertainment district, ranging from small ones like Club Raphael to the famed Ladies' Club Ai a few blocks away, where more than 170 gigolos are employed in a glitzy night spot complete with dance floor and band.
"Hosts say things that ordinary guys are too embarrassed to say. They are sweet-talk professionals," says Yuka, 27, fingering the beads adorning her dyed-brown hair.
"This place isn't real," she added. "It's like Neverland."
Host clubs have been around for decades, but in recent years have become the focus of a media blitz that has made them seem more mainstream, if not necessarily respectable.
The TV drama "Yaoh," based on a popular manga comic, was a big hit with viewers before its tale of a host dedicated to "making every woman happy" ended in March.
Internet sites and magazines devoted to the topic provide a plethora of information for would-be hosts and nervous novice clients.
"It used to be that women were afraid of getting caught going to a host club, so they went in the back way. Not anymore," Takashi Aida, 66, who founded Club Ai in 1971 and now owns five night clubs in Kabukicho, told Reuters in an interview.
"Now everyone comes in the front," says Aida, flashing four diamond rings, a diamond-studded watch and a diamond tie clip.
FOR LOVE OF MONEY
For hosts like Manato, who worked a string of low-paid jobs before becoming a gigolo, the attraction of the job is clear.
"I'm not very bright, so this is the only way I can make a lot of money," says Manato, his dyed-brown hair pulled up in a partial top-knot and wearing a subtle smidgen of lipstick.
Popular hosts at Club Raphael can average around $25,000 a month, while stars at Club Ai rake in as much as $45,000 -- almost entirely from commissions on the liquor they persuade their female customers to buy, managers at the clubs said.
"I made as much last month as in three years at my old job," says 25-year-old Kiyomaru, a slender high school dropout who became the top host at Club Ai just 10 months after starting.
Whether hosts provide after-hours services is up to them.
"If customers have money, they can do what they want with the host -- go on dates, go out to dinner, have a physical relationship," Kiyomaru says.
Many hosts drift into the job. Others are looking for a quick fix of funds to start their own business. Some say they enjoy the attention they get, but still don't plan to hang around long.
"I've been on TV. I've been in magazines. People I don't know, know me. I can do what I like. I can be famous," said Kiyomaru. "Now I've reached the top, I need to find a new goal."
Many hosts, though, drop out after the merest taste of a tough apprenticeship that begins with scrubbing toilets and can include trolling the streets to solicit or "catch" customers.
Even successful hosts tend to quit the business after a couple of years, worn out by the heavy drinking and late hours.
The appeal for female customers is more of a mystery, for all the hosts' talk of making the women feel like princesses.
Night club hostesses and sex industry workers looking to turn the tables after an evening of catering to men account for a large percentage of the clientele, those in the business say.
"I come for a change of pace. Maybe there are people here who want to deceive me, but as long as I know what I'm doing I can enjoy myself," said Reika, 56, a long-time Club Ai customer who runs her own night club nearby.
Students and office workers looking for a thrill and middle-aged housewives and businesswomen with money to spend can also be found smoking and drinking with a bevy of hosts.
"It's the mirror image of hostess clubs," said John Clammer, a sociology professor at Tokyo's Sophia University. "You've got a lot of working women, single, getting a bit older and probably not going to get married, and they can afford it."
($1 = 115.08 yen)