Yakuza, Spoiled Carpets and Big Cash — The World of a Gaijin Hostess in Tokyo
“I don’t want to do this job for that long. I don’t want to do it now if I’m honest. Who wants to sit around and talk to disgusting men? Nobody.”
Sophia sat across from me in the corner of a routine train station cafe in Japan’s capital. The icy January air mingled with my breath as she sunk into a worn leather chair, a short black tennis skirt floating mid-thigh. Admittedly, I felt insecure in her presence. She had a warm smile and a nose that stood fine and pointed, a patent mark of her gaijin status.
Her ebony tinged circle lenses gave her a stark elusiveness, like all you could see when you looked into her eyes was your own pedestrian reflection. But she wasn’t cold in nature. In fact, she boasted an attractive sarcasm, one I couldn’t quite work out.
“I got proposed to two days ago,” she gloated. “He was a 75-year-old man. I asked him, ‘Where’s the merit for me?’ He couldn’t come up with anything, so he didn’t talk for the last half-hour he was there.”
I had first met Sophia the night before, next to a glaring disco ball at her hostess bar in Tokyo’s Kabukicho district. She had chosen a blonde wig that night, with a sweeping fringe, Sailor Moon style. In fact, without sounding too cliche, most of her features resembled that of a ’90s Japanese manga heroine. Long legs, sparkling eyes, a waist you could tie a rubber band around. We struck up a short and slightly awkward conversation, dark lighting and velvet couches no remedy for my feelings of unease.
Hostessing in Japan is an idea seldom understood by those outside its ocean-fringed borders. A world where a woman’s mere company equates to that of a striptease across the sea may seem puzzling for men accustomed to blowing a pineapple on three songs at their local strip club. But in Japan, hostessing has been around for centuries. Derived from Geisha customs dating back to the 7th century, Japanese hostesses are considered a kind of one-on-one waitress. Entertaining men with drinks, lighting their cigarettes, providing flirty conversation and offering angelic voices in private karaoke sessions. But for Sophia, who has been in the industry for three years, hostessing is strictly business.
“Sorry, I think I need to get back to work; maybe we can meet for coffee?” Sophia’s eyes darted to her right, where a tall, suited Asian man with Vincent Vega-style hair stood ominously with his back turned to us, calloused hands rapidly flipping through 1000-yen notes.
“It’s dead here tonight and my boss is in a really bad mood… like… foaming at the mouth.”
She would tell me the next day her boss was a former member of Japan’s most powerful (and often misunderstood) criminal organisation, the Yakuza.
“Oh yeah, they’re heavily involved in the night industry,” she said without hesitation, adjusting her posture to take a sparrow-sized bite of her yakisoba pan.
“I’m pretty sure most hostess clubs have some type of connection to the Yakuza, because if they don’t, they can’t stay afloat. Japanese law states you can’t operate hostess clubs past a certain hour, but, of course, they’re all open anyway. So the ones that stay open generally have some type of protection or deal in place.”
I raised my eyebrows, intrigued, but not surprised. The Yakuza’s presence in mizu-shobai, or the night industry, is common knowledge in Japan.
“The night industry corrupts you pretty easily. There are clubs I’ve worked at that still owe me hundreds of thousands of yen. My boss definitely doesn’t have a conscience or maybe even a soul at all. He’s really funny and upbeat and personable and chatty to customers, but he’s terrible. I wouldn’t trust him with anything.”
“The club owners all tax-evade. All of them. Generally, if they get caught with illegal girls working there, they don’t even get slapped with a fine for that; they get fined for tax evasion. But it’s all back-alley stuff. Sometimes we’ll get a customer who’s missing a little finger, but apart from that, you can’t really tell who’s Yakuza and who’s not.”
As for the missing pinkies, Yubitsume, as it is formally known, is a ritual of remorse for offences committed by unruly Yakuza members. Not for the faint-hearted, I know.
“But I don’t think hostessing is really dangerous. I’ve never had anything bad happen,” Sophia juxtaposed my internal monologue, almost clairvoyantly.
“Are most of your customers respectful then?” I asked, naively. If Japanese men were willing to surrender fruitful stacks of yen to young hostesses in exchange for simple conversation, they must understand that a woman’s worth exceeds her anatomy, right?
“Well,” she took a deep breath. You could tell she’d given this spiel to many a doe-eyed foreigner before me.
“The customers really see you as less equal than them. The types of people who come, they aren’t necessarily bad people, but the second you get a man with alcohol in him and a man who is around people who he thinks are below him, the worst of them comes out. You’ve got guys who are having a really bad time at work: maybe their boss is really mean to them for example. So they wanna go somewhere where people are below them so they can be mean to them. Then you’ve got the guys who are literally in love with the girls and will follow them no matter what club they go to. But they get increasingly worse and want more and more from the girls. Then you get really disgusting customers who try to touch you. Where I work, there’s no touching whatsoever. But people love to do things they aren’t allowed to, it gives them a thrill. So we have guys that come in and want to touch the girls inappropriately, and we end up in actual fights.”
The obnoxious sound of a steaming espresso machine heckled at our conversation.
“Would you SHUT UP?” Sophia jokingly piped back.
As her English breakfast brew darkened, my shameless curiosity ensued, and I plucked up the courage to talk money. Are the Yakuza dealings and rude, touchy customers worth the wage?
“It’s a cushy job for the amount of effort I put in and the amount of money I make out of it. Literally, the job is sitting, talking, and drinking, and in four hours I make at least 200 dollars. I only work three days a week too. I could work five days a week if I wanted to, but I don’t need to.”
Sophia smirked as she tightened one of the thin hair elastics on her crown, exposing small strips of wavy chestnut extensions.
“One time a guy spent $70,000 in one night. Another time a guy bought six bottles of champagne and fell asleep. So, the girls just had a little karaoke party instead. But the most I’ve had a customer spend on me personally was eight bottles of champagne. We make a commission on the drinks the customers buy us, so I took home over $1400 that night.”
While being paid to drink champagne may sound like a dream to some, Sophia shook her head defiantly when I asked if it was a perk of the job.
“I’ve never liked alcohol. If there are no bottles bought, I probably don’t even consume two units in a shift. If a customer does buy a bottle, we have to drink it. And by drink it, I mean…”
She cupped her long, surprisingly unmanicured fingers into a c shape, tilting her hand to gesture a drink being tipped out.
“Our club has carpet, and that carpet is definitely rank,” she hints.
“Other clubs will have a pot plant, and the girls will chuck their drinks in the pot plant, and when the customer goes to the bathroom, we literally pour the whole champagne bottle into the ice bucket, because we don’t want to get sick”.
But Sophia did go on to admit that employees don’t always leave work without a case of the head spins.
“Yeah, there are days where you’re going to have to drink more, and there are days where I get my boss to call someone to come and pick me up because I literally can’t walk. That’s like once every couple of months.”
And despite having a job many young girls would mistake for a weekend of fun, Sophia says the allure of a playful career as a club hostess rarely lasts.
“I would say the average time a girl stays is half a year. The burnout rate is wild, because they just get sick of talking to arrogant men. Some people deal with it better than others. But I don’t think you could do it for very long. Especially because you don’t have any transferable skills. Once you aren’t young and attractive anymore, what are you gonna do then?”
Far outlasting the six-month average, I was curious about Sophia’s sentiments towards the future of her hostessing career. When I asked, she paused, her opaque circle lenses finally surrendering to reveal a window of vulnerability.
“Honestly, I want to move back home as soon as I can.” Her confident tone had dissipated into a disenchanting sigh.
“I don’t really like Japan that much anymore. It’s difficult to live here as a foreigner. It’s even more difficult to live here as a foreigner who speaks fluent Japanese because you can hear what everyone is saying about you. There’s a lot of racism and xenophobia. Plus, I don’t want to do this job for that long. I don’t want to do it now if I’m honest. Who wants to sit around and talk to disgusting men? Nobody.”
Cover via Unsplash, inset by the author