KYOTO — There is no agreement on how the term mizu shobai came into use. but it is fairly obvious that the extraordinary number of natural hot springs and the ancient Japanese practice of bathing daily (without sexual discrimination) led to the early association of water and pleasure. Shintoism, the native Japanese religion, advocates both scrupulous cleanliness as well as the lusty celebration of human fertility.
It was probably during the heyday of Japan's last great shogunate dynasty (1603-1868), that the term mizu shobai came into use. This was a period that saw the rise of huge bathhouses in which the pleasures of the flesh were as much of an attraction as the hot water, a great network of roadside inns around the country that featured hot baths and sexual release, and the expansion of geisha districts and courtesan quarters in every city in the country.
While organized prostitution was subject to the control of the shogunate government and the 200-plus daimyo (dime-yoe) provincial lords in their own fiefs, it was a legitimate enterprise that was not under a cloud of moral righteousness. The Japanese did not associate sex with sin or with the love of one person for another, and thus over the eons have been spared the suffering imposed on Christian and Muslim people by their religious leaders.
Perhaps the strongest criticism one might make in regard to the sexual mores of feudal Japan is that it was a man's world, with all of the customs and institutions designed to satisfy the needs and whims on men, and generally to ignore those of women. While this was unfair and deplorable, it nevertheless was responsible for many of the feminine characteristics for which Japanese women are known and admired — and, of course, was primarily responsible for the many aspects of the mizu shobai that foreign male visitors to Japan find so fascinating.
However, in present day Japan, the women are getting their revenge. In many ways, the tables have been turned on men, and it is women who call the sexual tunes. Japanese women in general are willing, eager participants in the ongoing play between the sexes, and there is a growing trend for young girls to take the initiative in their relations with men.
THE ROLE OF ALCOHOL
In Japan, as in most countries, sexual activity and drinking alcoholic beverages are closely related. Drinking for ceremonial as well as pleasurable purposes has been an established custom in Japan since mythological times, with sake (sah-kay), or rice wine, having been sanctified by the gods of Shinto as well as temporal leaders.
The Japanese are now among the champion drinkers of the world, imbibing sake, beer, whiskey, vodka and other drinks with equal enthusiasm. Almost everybody in Japan drinks a little now and then, and the majority drink regularly. But somewhat surprisingly, some Japanese are especially sensitive to alcohol, which causes them to flush a deep red after just one or two swallows, and to become drunk (and often sick) after drinking only a modest amount of alcohol.
Certainly not all Japanese are susceptible to this odd condition, and many pride themselves on their ability to drink in great volume. Among most men, being a strong drinker is considered a traditional macho badge, and heavy drinking plays a significant role in the lives of most Japanese businessmen and many professionals.
Japanese drinking etiquette requires that hosts and other members of drinking parties see that each other's glasses never remain empty or low. This results in a great deal of pressure for people to drink fast and heavily, especially at parties and other celebrations where one of the specific goals is to make sure that everyone gets drunk. (The Japanese have traditionally believed that you could not get to really know a person until the person got drunk and ignored etiquette and role-playing.)
It is difficult for visitors to spend very much time in Japan without getting involved in numerous drinking sessions — or coming up with an acceptable excuse (such as doctor's orders) to refrain. If you do drink but want to control the amount it is a good idea to simulate drunkenness (to whatever degree that is appropriate for the occasion) after only two or three drinks.
Sake has traditionally been the social oil of Japan, and while it has been replaced in overall consumption by beer it remains a standard by which the Japanese measure appreciation of their culture. If you do not drink and enjoy sake, at least on ceremonial occasions, you are not a true Japanese or a true friend of Japan.
THE UBIQUITOUS NOMIYA
The most common feature of Japan's mizu shobai is the nomiya (no-me-yah), which number in the hundreds of thousands. Nomiya means "drinking place." There are several different varieties and classes of drinking establishment. These include what are typically referred to as bars, lounges, nightclubs, and cabarets, along with beer halls, pubs and shops specializing in sake.
There is a great deal of overlapping in the use of these terms but there are basic differences in them, including some that are prescribed by law. One of the most important of these legal differences is that, regardless of what they are called, a nomiya must be licensed as a cabaret to employ hostesses who sit with, dance with, and otherwise personally entertain patrons. Another legal factor is that a place must be licensed as a restaurant to stay open after midnight.
Because they are legally allowed to offer the company of young women, cabarets and so-called night clubs and "hostess bars" have been the crowning glory of Japan's night-time entertainment scene from the early 1950s to the present time.
There are some basic differences in cabarets, night clubs, and hostess bars or lounges. Cabarets and night clubs are usually large, and both may feature live entertainment in addition to their complement of hostesses.
In cabarets, patrons are automatically assigned hostesses as soon as they come in and are seated, and are charged a hostess fee that is more or less based on time as well as on the class and standards of the individual cabaret. If a patron has a favorite hostess, he may request her for an additional fee.
Big spenders may allow more than one hostess per guest to join them at their tables or booths. They may also allow the girls to rotate, giving more girls the opportunity to earn fees. (Some places automatically rotate the hostesses in order to run up the bills of their customers; a ploy that yakuza controlled places routinely use on naive customers, including foreigners.)
Night clubs generally allow patrons to choose whether or not they want the company of hostesses — a concept introduced into the mizu shobai by the founders of the first postwar night clubs in the late 1940s, most of whom were foreigners, including some Americans. These clubs also catered to husbands and wives or girlfriends, while cabarets were (and most still are) exclusively for men.
Other points that have traditionally separated cabarets from all the other forms of nomiya is that they are mostly patronized by middle-aged and other businessmen, and for the most part they bill the companies of their clients for payment rather than collect cash from them on an individual basis. This means that the average cabaret customer must establish his credentials and credit before he can charge his bills.
If the individual represents a known company this is usually easy to do. He introduces himself in advance, sometimes with an introduction from someone who is already a regular customer, presents his name card to the cabaret manager, and is thereafter a customer with a credit rating.
The individual's position in the company (title) and the size of the company are fairly clear indications of how much he is authorized to spend on each visit to the cabaret, and this is understood by the cabaret and generally not abused (prices are often more or less understood rather than being set).
THE IZAKAYA PUBS
One type of drinking establishment that originated during the Edo period (1603-1868), but was modernized in the 1970s, is known as izakaya (ee-zah-kah-yah), which were working men's taverns in the old days but are now popularly referred to as pubs, and cater especially to the young who have modest entertainment budgets.
Today's izakaya mix the traditional Japanese tavern and the fast-food restaurant concept in a combination that attracts the young in droves. There are many izakaya chains, with Yoro no Taki (Yoe-roe no Tah-kee) being the largest (and rapidly spreading to the American West Coast). Yoro no Taki has some 1,800 branches in Japan, most of which are franchises.
The big attraction of the izakaya are the low prices for the basic alcoholic beverages (sake, beer and shochu), good solid food and the fact that they cater to women as well as men. The main food items at Yoro no Taki are sashimi, yakitori, pot dishes, salads, melted cheese on tofu or shrimp, turkey nuggets, and ravioli.
Another of the izakaya chains is Tsuhachi (T'sue-hah-chee), with some 400 outlets), which offers such things as potato pizza, Chinese dishes and desserts of blueberry yogurt and ice cream. Calorie-counts are listed on each item, and ones that are classified as "health foods" are flagged with a pink heart.
Another of the more unusual izakaya is the Murasaki (Muu-rah-sah-kee) chain, which combines the atmosphere of a cafe-bar with a furusato izakaya (fuu-rue-sah-toe ee-zah-kah-yah), or "hometown tavern." With nearly 650 outlets, Murasaki emphasizes food rather than drinks, with such menu choices as whale bacon, salted squid intestines, melted cheese on tofu and Italian salads. Its drinks feature banana, apple and pineapple juices mixed with shochu. Another well-known izakaya chain: Hachitsu.
One of the most popular types of bar in Japan today is the karaoke (kah-rah-oh-kay) bar, or bars that provide microphones, sound equipment and tape-decks for patrons who want to sing to the company of orchestra-like music. Karaoke means "empty orchestra," and refers to the illusion that the singer is performing with a live orchestra.
There are thousands of such bars in Japan, and it is a matter of personal pride that everyone who goes into such a place, try his or her hand at singing in public. Most Japanese practice singing several songs in private (often for years) so they won't be embarrassed when they are called on to perform in public.
Performing in a karaoke bar means more to most Japanese businessmen than just having a good time. Besides relieving stress and providing personal satisfaction, such performances are seen by many as important to one's overall character and personality — as an accomplishment that is similar to such traditional but now rare arts of calligraphy, and composing haiku poetry, which were marks of cultural attainment.
In explaining the importance of the karaoke bars to foreign guests, the Japanese businessman will often say that you must understand karaoke in order to understand the Japanese, and that if you truly want to communicate with them you must learn how to sing along with them as well as perform on your own. There is a great deal of validity to this firmly held and often expressed belief, which obviously accounts for the number and popularity of such bars.
The fact that very few Westerners, particularly Americans, can carry a tune, much less sing decently, is a social handicap when they are in Japan visiting or on business. My advice is to learn at least one song, even if it is as simple as "Old Grey Mare" or "I've Been Working on the Railroad."
Notwithstanding all of the new and different kinds of drinking and carousing establishments Japan, cabarets remain the favorite of middle-aged and older men who can afford the cost because they combine drinking with the attention of very attractive young women who are either available or work very hard to give that impression.
Even though cabaret customers may not end up trysting with their favorite hostesses, they go back time and again for the sexual lift they get— and end up drinking an awful lot of alcohol. For nowhere in the world have the purveyors of male-oriented "recreation" become more skilled at "selling sex in a glass" than the operators of Japan's cabarets and their cadre of hostesses.
Editor's note: Boyé Lafayette De Mente (1928-2017) first came to Japan in 1949 as a member of the occupation forces. He held a degree in economics and Japanese from Tokyo's Sophia University, and a BFT from the American Graduate School of International Management in Glendale, Arizona.
He was best known as the author of a highly successful series of books on social and business customs in Japan, China, Korea and Mexico. As a journalist with the Japan Times, and later on as editor of 'The Importer Magazine,' he witnessed at close hand the rapid growth of Asia's 'tiger' economies. His guidelines to westerners wishing to do business in the new post-war Japan were widely recognized as ground-breaking.
I am indebted to Mr. De Mente for sending the above article to republish here in Japan Perspectives.