Mount Fuji

Mama-san's babies 


The hostess, I learned, was the modern equivalent of the geisha, a centuries-old and highly venerated profession that attracts Japanese girls like a vocation. Geishas are the embodiment of that enduring Japanese icon: feminine perfection. They exist to serve men and preserve the traditional arts such as singing, dancing and playing classical instruments like the shamisen.

Her modern counterpart, the bar hostess, has exchanged silk kimonos for cocktail dresses, and the shamisen for a karaoke box. She is considerably less expensive than her predecessor yet she shares the same values: to be the feminine ideal, to entertain, to listen, to be serious, to dazzle with her wit and charm. It is not considered a demeaning job. Certainly no sexual favours are expected — just mild flirtation, perhaps a glimmering eroticism. Many Japanese girls claim to be proud to serve men in this way and be recognized for their "skills". The pursuit of this feminine ideal is revered in Japan like an art form.

Hostess bars, I learned, abound in their thousands in Japan. Each bar has a manageress, always called "Mama-san", who will set the particular, and distinctive character of her establishment. Western girls, particularly of the blonde-haired, blue-eyed variety, are considered a special treat and a myriad bars boast them like a range of exotic fruit. I was enchanted. This would be much more fun than writs and wills and I set out for Tokyo in search of a dissolute life.

As soon as I arrived I found myself a room in a cheap hostel known as a "Gaijin House". These are always full of foreigners working as hostesses or English teachers who usually have good job hunting tips to offer. "Just walk into bars on spec and ask for work", they told me. So that same night I staggered out in a haze of jet lag, to the hostess Mecca: "the Ginza". It was impossible to decipher what was and was not a bar, so I took pot luck. My enthusiastic smile and carefully articulated "hostess" was met each time with a horrified hiss of "gaijin", arms arranged into a cross in front of the face and a closed door. Clearly crossbones meant "no" and "gaijin", I realized, was Japanese for foreigner. Literally, it means "outside person". It was the first Japanese word I learned.

Perhaps I kept walking into private parties that night or perhaps I was just damned ugly. I didn't understand and I didn't find work. I crawled away from the Ginza and headed back to the "outside person's" house. By Monday morning I was freshly resolved. I scoured the ex-pats' newspaper, The Japan Times, and found several bars advertising for Western girls to work as hostesses. I made some calls, had an interview and got a job at a bar called San Michel in Akasaka-Mitsuke. Not quite the Ginza but nevertheless a thriving business district.

All dolled up in a silk dress I'd had run up cheaply in Bangkok, I tottered off on high heels to my new life. On entering the bar I was immediately faced with a full-length portrait of Mama-san reclining in a cocktail dress that she had thrown on. Mama was a middle-aged lady, petite, shrew-like and a bit tawdry. She had been born in Japan but was third-generation Korean and so still considered gaijin. Starting life herself as a bar hostess she had saved enough money by whatever means and started her own enterprise. She spoke no English and used "Boy" as her interpreter. Boy was a girl — or at least that was the consensus of opinion — and her job was to greet customers, bring drinks to the table, and fire hostesses.

Mama called me her baby, plucked a hair out of my chin and barked at me to sit. A posse of women gathered round, all sporting that ubiquitous silk dress. There was Danielle, a skinny American with flaming red hair. She had just graduated and was hostessing to repay college loans. Anna and Femka, two marvellously tall Dutch girls saving for another season of going gaga in Goa. Sophia, a sexy Swede, with an unrealized dream to be a model and legs that undulated from beneath her skirts, and Domarra, an Italian linguist perfecting her Japanese. Completing the group was a loud fat woman from Manchester, whom I got the distinct impression I had been chosen to replace. All these gorgeous girls and then us two.

Our guests arrived. A group of Japanese salarymen, that is businessmen, on a corporate razzle. Prohibitively expensive for the individual, hostess bars are mostly frequented by salarymen on the obligatory evening out with the boss. The company foots the bill and all the salaryman has to do is drink himself into oblivion and remain there until his boss says he can leave.

We jumped to attention and in concert squealed: "Irasshaimase", meaning welcome. High heels scurrying, we fetched whisky and water, glasses and ice, bowls of sweets and hot wet flannels . . .

The flannels, "oshibori", were for the guests to wipe their hands with, a Japanese ritual unfailingly observed before eating or drinking. Mama pointed to where each of us should sit and the party began.

Assiduously we catered to their every need; we topped up drinks and clinked ice cubes in glasses, we lit their cigarettes, and intermittently, unwrapped a sweet to delicately pop into a guest's mouth.

The usual questions and small talk commenced. You know, the subjects that always surface when people don't know each others' language very well. Then gradually as the whisky unlocked our guests' tongues and inhibitions took flight the conversation became increasingly bawdy. Each hostess's innuendo was met with admiring guffaws from the guests while more serious comment was politely listened to and ignored.

We were perfect young ladies. Never so inelegant as to cross our legs, lean back in our seats, bite our nails or play with our hair. Never so rude as to divert our attention for a second, our admiring gaze for an instant from these latter day Samurai who, weary from another day fighting for Japan's economic miracle, would look to us adoring gaijin girlies to ease away their tensions. Departures from this strictly observed code of etiquette were met with a public shriek from Mama and a whispered interpretation from Boy.

Domarra felt that hostessing was the perfect opportunity to practise the Japanese language and exchange cultures. I found there was a limit to how much you could discuss with a middle-aged Japanese man who has worked for Mitsubishi all his life, cannot speak a word of English and is four sheets to the wind. The salarymen I met were more interested in exchanging saliva. Like little boys they would giggle and tell me their hobby was "girl-hunting". Tentatively they would try to touch our legs but the gentlest of reproaches, such as a clucking no, a surprised giggle and a firm push or a wiggle of the hips and a motherly slap, was enough to bring an immediate retraction and a resumption of that blank expression, as if nothing had ever happened. Femka believed in preventative measures and employed the beguiling tactic of "lovingly" clinging onto her guest's hands so that she knew exactly where they were. Mama was approving. This was a "decent" bar. We were all her babies. The only thing we were to massage was ego.

The art of hostessing we learned was mere coquetry. Never yes, never no, but a tantalizing maybe. To our guests it was the stuff of dreams. It kept them coming for months.

For me the evening's climax was certainly before the guests' arrival. We would sit around swapping travellers' tales and talking about our lives back home and what we planned to do next. There was a strong sense of togetherness and we rallied each other along. I don't think any of us could quite capture the reality of the job we were doing. Our bizarre placement seemed more and more hysterical.

Our guests frequently asked us to sing karaoke. These requests were met each time with some moments of feigned modesty, as was required by Mama-san, and then a rather undignified scramble for the microphone as we each sought a three-minute retreat from wandering palms and inane conversation. Microphone firmly in hand I yelled out "Sonny" and everyone danced. The guests were at their wooden best and the girls were not much better. No one had their heart in it, no one had the beat and a domino of glances passed through us. I remember it like a framed picture.

San Michel closed at a quarter to midnight. Depending on the caprice of their boss, the salarymen would either stagger hiccuping to another bar or to their homes for a few hours' sleep before doing it all again the next day. After bowing to our guests the other girls and I would leave the bar. Once around the corner we threw off our heels, and like a fleet of Cinderellas ran in stockinged feet through the streets of Tokyo for our last trains home.

I suppose what really got to me about hostessing was that I had put a price on my freedom. Ordinarily, when faced with a slobbering old man with a red face and a preoccupation with asking "How big is your boyfriend's dick?" one might shout some abuse, turn away, and leave. In this situation, however, I had relinquished such rights; I had sold them to Mama-san. It was mental prostitution.

So I decided to "empower" myself. Throwing away such girlish things as make-up, high heels and Bic razors I claimed back my sanity and decided to be myself. Openly flouting the rules of decorum, I recklessly crossed my legs, deliberately leaned back in my seat; heedless, I unwrapped those sweets and popped them, horror of horrors, into my own mouth. Most offensive of all I offered opinions, disagreed, argued, behaved just like the owner of a pair of Doc Marten boots should. I played the raconteur and clowned around, but in my own way and not in the freeze-dried, vacuum-packed fashion they expected. Curiously they responded with laughter and fascination. Perhaps they were bemused to see this in a woman.

Something would just not let me quit. I suppose I was curious to see how long I could last being me: two weeks basically, and Boy was sent to fire me. She gave me a big hug and my wages up to date; £50 for each night I turned up and an inexplicable £15 deduction for the use of toilet paper!

A lot more money than this can be earned! The sleazier the bar, the more Japanese you speak, the longer you've been around and, of course, the longer your legs, the higher the rates. You can double, triple this basic with tips earned for anything from being wined, dined or complimented to singing a soulful ballad or performing an exotic belly dance. The job can be as risqué as you want it to be and consequently you can earn as much money as you like. A woman able to handle the masquerade and approach the whole affair as some peculiar brand of performance art can make a killing. I got my fifty quid for just turning up!

With the hostessing mystique shattered, I found myself a job as an English teacher, which is an option open to anybody with a degree and English as their native language. Within weeks I was wearing a suit again, even carrying a briefcase. I had been sucked back into respectability despite myself.

I later met up with Anna, one of the Dutch girls and she told me that she had been fired a few days after me. It seemed Mama thought she smelt. Anna didn't care. She shrugged and told me, "Nobody care zat I smell in India. Oh well, tonight I go for job as bunny girl." Mama-sans do hire and fire indiscriminately, but there is always another hostess job just around the corner. Femka, meanwhile, was doing famously holding court to a string of admirers. Somehow she was able to slip on the mask more comfortably than I, the deodorant more successfully than Anna. Danielle like me took a teaching job and no doubt Domarra is there to this day, exchanging cultures.

The loud fat one from Manchester left a few days after I arrived. Hostess with the Mostest, she had been at San Michel the longest. Six months of hostessing had made her enough money to do an overland trip to Israel. On her last night she gave a sonorous rendition of My Way on the karaoke and then gave me all her old clothes in exchange for a packet of condoms.

About ten months later, when I was living in a different part of Japan, I was waiting for a train and spotted Sophia pasted up on a billboard — all legs, she was modelling shoes. She had realized her dream.

The women I met who hostessed throughout their stay developed a jaundiced view of the country. I could see how this could happen; working at night and sleeping in the day meant that it was easy to miss some of the fragments that make up Japan. As a teacher and through living with a Japanese family I saw women treated in a different way. Marriages, which are often arranged, are an economic necessity. The family is like a small business, producing the next generation of mothers and salarymen. In the most sinister privatization of all, the chemistry in human relationships seems to have been disentangled, set apart and sold as a service. Instead of relaxing at home with their families, Japanese salarymen go out in droves to relax with strangers. When I was teaching, my students bowed and called me "sensei" [Editor: revered or learned one; teacher] in hushed tones. This was refreshing after the hostess bar, but eventually the rigid formality seemed almost ridiculous — it had a sterility about it. Accustomed to living in a melting pot of emotions and responses it was difficult to find my role.

I'm glad I had a short stint at hostessing. It gave me first-hand experience of an aspect of Japan that is often missed by travellers. I was surprised to see how deeply rooted and unshakeable were my principles. My need to be appreciated for everything I am as a woman, rather than just one feminine façade, was more intense than I had ever really known. Hostessing helped me to work out what I don't want with my life.