Japan’s Maid Cafes and the Water Trade

French Maid @ Akihabara[1]

Japanese culture can seem unusual to westerners, even weird at times. This time, let’s talk about something rarely seen outside Japan, but quite popular inside it, maid cafes, host/hostess clubs, soaplands, etc… All are locations where a person pays for the attention of attractive people in Japan but they differ in purpose. Only in some cases does this actually mean directly paying for sex and even then, not technically. In most cases, these businesses sell the attention of pretty young women to men but in a few notable businesses, the reverse is quite true.

Maid Cafés are cafes in Japan in which cute young girls serve their “masters” (customers) food and drinks while dressed up as frilly French maids. The business model evolved from male otaku (basically the western equivalent to nerds) desire to simulate fantasy relationships. However, these establishments didn’t rise out of nowhere, Japan has a history of theme and cosplay (costume-play) restaurants.  However, the maid café holds a special importance for this blog as it shows the interaction between people through sex and gender. Speaking of gender, to explain the variety of these maid cafes, perhaps it is worth mentioning that one such café employed exclusively cross-dressing men. These types of cafes are aimed at “Fujoshi”, essentially female geeks with a tendency for a love of homosexual men. Fujoshi hold a surprising amount of numbers within Japan, getting anime, manga, and shows dedicated to their tastes. Another café employ’s western men for the entertainment of Japanese women. The cafés are typically innocent enough with physical touching or the asking of personal information usually off limits. However, it shows, men and women will pay simply for impersonal interaction between opposite sexes and genders.

So now we come to the water trade (rumored to have been called so due to the rise in bathhouses at the time), the night-time entertainment of Japan. For the more innocent side, there are host and hostess clubs. The idea behind the establishment is a male or female pays for the company of the opposite sex, typically drinking and talking with them, sex can occur but it is not guaranteed and unlikely. Detrimental health effects from excessive alcohol consumption can be common because the host/hostess is generally paid on commission. That commission comes from a percentage of what the client spends. Documentaries such as “The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief” show how the life of a host can be both profitable and dangerous to one’s health.  The documentary takes an unusual look at how male hosts are objectified and commoditized by women and spend time and money styling themselves to the women’s tastes.[2]

Let Tommy Lee Jones show you in the video below

All and all, rather a harmless industry, but in some cases, foreign women are often tricked into sex slavery via promised host jobs. Once the women come for the hostess job, they are told that they owe the business a lot of money for visas (which are often only tourist visas) and transportation so that they must pay the company back. They are then told they will be doing sex work and that if they go to the cops the girls will be the ones in trouble (usually for having only a tourist visa and not a work one). This leads to the final discussion, which is the Japanese sex industry.

Japan has a long history of brothels, but with the allied occupation of Japan, the supreme allied command forced Japan to end the practice. Which they did, technically, perhaps as Clinton would have said, it depends on what the meaning of “is” is. You see the legal sex businesses don’t allow coital sex but it would seem that they offer everything else from oral to sumata. Such businesses tend to have innocuous names such as soaplands, image clubs, fashion clubs, and pink salons. Each offers a different spin but the concepts are the same. Outside the industry, there is “Enjo kōsai” or compensated dating which isn’t exactly prostitution because the patrons are paying for a date not necessarily sex, but one way or another; it tends to lead to sex. This has become a social issue as the girls tend to be young, like 12-16 young; which they can usually get away with because the age of consent in Japan is 13-16 depending upon region.[3]

So, each example mentioned here to a varying degree shows the interaction between women and men (and sometimes transgendered persons). People it would seem are willing to pay for the time of others, a lot of times, even if that doesn’t mean sex. Perhaps this phenomenon happens in Japan (maid cafes and hostess club tend to be unsuccessful outside of Asian cultures) because of declining marriages and birthrates. Perhaps the sex industry is more socially acceptable in Japan than many Western cultures because of the absence of a large Christian influence in Japan which would view sex as more taboo. Gender relations are hard to pin down but perhaps maid cafes and the water trade hold a key to understanding Japan’s.


[1] Johnia!. French Maid @ Akihabara. 2007. N/A, Akihabara, Japan. Flicker. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.

[2] The Great Happiness Space . Dir. Jake Clennell. Perf. N/A. Mongrel Media , 2006. Film.

[3] Maggio, Sasha. “Compensated Dating in Japan.” Examiner.com. N.p., 1 Apr. 2011. Web. 13 Nov. 2012. <http://www.examiner.com/article/compensated-dating-japan&gt;.

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4 Responses to Japan’s Maid Cafes and the Water Trade

  1. Becky Martin says:

    So interesting… your blog and my blog (on geishas) tie together so well! I learned so much from this; thank you! Can I ask, how did you locate this information? I have never heard of maid cafes or the water trade until now. To me, the host/hostess clubs somewhat resemble the geisha parties in Japan – they both are supposed to be revolved around paying for the company of the opposite sex without (usually) leading to sex. Do you know how common these clubs are in Japan? Are they a common source of entertainment, or fairly rare like the geisha?

    • leylinesproject says:

      I really enjoyed your article as well, I would agree, that the modern equivalent to the geisha is the hostess. As for how I located them information, I always had an interest in Japanese culture because as I see it, it is very different than our own. Jake Adelstein’s book, “Tokyo Vice” was an interesting book which wrote extensively about the subject, both by talking to male hosts and about foreign women who were tricked into prostitution over false hostess jobs. The book discusses much more than just hostesses and prostitution but it has some good information on the subject. As I understand, they are fairly common night entertainment in big cities, but they can be especially expensive so it might be difficult for an individual to go constantly.

  2. It’s my understanding that they’re quite common in Tokyo at least, where they are no more unusual than, say, Hooters. The idea is the same: you spend money to drink alcohol in an establishment where the girls are provocatively dressed and flirtatious. It’s totally different idea than a brothel or strip club, you’re getting a social or ego-based fantasy.

    • leylinesproject says:

      Hooter’s is a pretty good equivalent, however, I would say hooter’s is more like a maid cafe than a hostess. Hooter’s dress and attitude might be flirtatious, but it’s impersonal like a maid cafe. Hostess’s on the other hand are much more personal, after a relationship is established, some email and texting may be exchanged. Host/hostess patrons often give their host/hostess gifts as well.

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