The publication of the magazine Koakuma Ageha in 2005 sent a shock-wave through Japanese society: when did cabaret-club hostesses become socially accepted to the degree that they have their own widely-available fashion magazine? And when did “kyabakura girl” become a glamorous and enviable occupation for young women? The answers to these questions were not apparent. And since the Japanese media is not allowed to talk about trends in terms of socioeconomic class or subculture, Koakuma Ageha‘s popularity gave the impression that all young women, no matter the family background, have suddenly clamored to work nights in Kabukicho.
Enter market researcher Miura Atsushi, who started looking at the why’s of the phenomenon. Back in the 1990s, Miura worked for shopping building PARCO‘s think-tank Across, where his job was to pontificate on the latest consumer trends and social movements to keep corporate clients in touch with the “leading-edge.” Now with the sharp decline of art-infused, cutting-edge consumer culture, Miura has turned his eye to heavier and less optimistic social issues. The popularity of his 2005 book Karyū Shakai (『下流社会』, “Downwardly-Mobile Society”) provided the media sphere with an easy way to bring up the slightly-taboo topic of Japan’s growing income divide. The credibility of Miura’s claims relies on his simple methodology: his conclusions mostly come straight from data analysis, based on his company Cultural Studies‘s large-scale youth surveys. Unlike the other pop cultural theoreticians, Miura is just “reporting the survey results” — an inductive antidote to the wilder and generally-unprovable “latent desire” pontificating of formal sociologists like Miyadai Shinji.
Miura’s latest book is Onna ha naze kyabakurajō ni naritai no ka? 『女はなぜキャバクラ嬢になりたいのか?』 — “Why Do Women Want to Become Kyabajō?” He took interest in the topic after conducting a mobile phone survey in 2007 for the advertising firm Standard Tsushinsha on the topic of “Generation Z” — Japanese aged 15 to 22. The survey asked young women, “What profession do you want to do/which job would you like to try doing?” (「なりたい職業、してみたい仕事」). He was shocked to find that “kyabajō (cabaret club girl) / hostess” ranked at #9 with 22.3%. Thinking this must be some statistical fluke, Miura chartered another survey of the same demographic in 2008, but he got nearly the same result: the kyabajō / hostess category came in at #12 with 20.5%. In short, one-fifth of young Japanese women aged 15 to 22 apparently hoped to work in the mizu shōbai industry. When he took a similar survey of women in “Generation Y” (age 25 to 32) for comparison, he found that only 9.1% had either wanted or still want to try out the hostess profession. Miura came to the conclusion that there has been a recent social shift toward wanting to work in this sector and started on specific research towards the topic.
The premise of the book — that young women have increased desire to become hostesses and kyabajō — is obviously controversial, and there has been some backlash against Miura’s statistical methods, best outlined in the Amazon review section for the book. Most criticism focuses on the fact that women in the survey could freely check as many occupations as they pleased, thus not proving they “want” to become hostesses as much are “would be fine with it.” To Miura’s credit, however, he fleshes out the hard data by interviewing 32 actual kyabajō and kyabajōs-in-training, and nothing about their stories seems to contradict his general conclusions on the phenomenon.
Even taking the possible survey biases into account, Miura’s results do match up with multiple clues in the broader pop culture that the hostess profession has become more socially-acceptable in the last decade. Prime time television dramas like Jotei follow the exploits of hostesses without any moral judgment on their line of work. Popular manga in mass market weekly magazines take up the challenge of young hosts and hostesses aiming to become “#1” with the same narrative tone as if they were in an amateur band aiming for the top of the pops. Coffee advertisements offer quotes from hosts to convince consumers about the product’s value. The aforementioned popular magazine Koakuma Ageha has transformed real-life kyabajō into elegant fashion leaders and lifestyle models for the gyaru community.
Of course, the actual situation is much more complicated than “all Japanese girls want to become hostesses.” Miura is able to build a very specific demographic and psychographic profile of young kyabajō and kyabajō-wannabes, illustrating exactly which subset of Japanese society is most contributing to this growing labor sector. He found that kyabajō are most likely to have the following characteristics:
- low socioeconomic background
- low level of education
- moved to Tokyo from small villages in outlying prefectures (in the case of Tokyo, most hostesses are from the Tohoku region)
- high rate of parental divorce (double the rate of the total survey sample)
- hate being in their school, their own house, their own room, or their own living room (especially compared to those who want to become government workers)
- are confident about their looks
- strongly dependent on men
- comfortable with traditional gender roles
- hate their moms, like their dads
- read magazines Egg and Koakuma Ageha
- love the music of Hamasaki Ayumi
This list almost perfectly illustrates the profile of a single Japanese socioeconomic class-bound taste culture: namely, the “yankii” taste culture situated in lower-middle and working-class communities outside of Tokyo. Many of the above factors — divorce rate and socioeconomic background, for example — are well-known to be correlated. The embrace of “traditional” values such as gender role division and dependence on males could also be posited to be more associated with a certain social environment and education level. And when Miura asked women in the survey whether they wanted to “break the rules,” the hostess set generally answered in the negative. (Those who want to work in the sex industry, in comparison, were affirmative on the question.) The data’s “typical” kyabajō does not see the profession as a “rebellion” against community mores, but as a logical extension of her teenage lifestyle and limited career opportunities.
To explain why this specific group of women has embraced the kyabajō profession as a legitimate career, Miura mainly focuses upon structural economic factors. First and foremost, women are no longer able to secure a middle-class existence for themselves solely by marrying a man with a full-time job. During the Lost Decade, writes Miura, the steady dismantling of the corporate safety net meant men could no longer provide economic stability for their wives and girlfriends. Furthermore, even if women want to work themselves, they have had a particularly hard time becoming sei-shain “regular employees” in the recessionary environment. These conditions have created more pressure for women to establish financial independence, but for women with low levels of education and low social capital (both the result of non-urban working-class backgrounds), kyabajō is one of the few jobs that can provide high incomes and independence at a young age.
The women’s economic necessity for hostessing is reflected in their fiduciary behavior. Contrary to popular dismissals of kyabajō as soullessly selling their sexual dignity to buy foreign luxury goods, the kyabajō interviewed by Miura for the book claim they are mostly saving the money for the future. (The average salary seems to be around ¥6,000,000 a year, which is very good for a 20-something but not extravagant.) Most acknowledge that they only have a limited time in this particular industry and are trying to create a nest-egg for the future. Some even send money home to their parents. Although this parallel is a bit loaded, the idea of sending money back to parents almost perfectly echoes the pre-war system of prostitution where poor farmers’ daughters would be sold off to brothels to help their parents pay-off debts. Surely cabaret clubs are not as extreme in terms of labor duties as brothels, but children earning money for the household has been taboo amongst the middle-class for at least the last 100 years.
Miura’s profile of hostesses also clearly delineates the cultural tastes of the profession’s leading demographic group. We receive the rich detail that hostess-wannabes read the magazine Egg — a glimpse into pre-kyabajō cultural affiliation. Egg is the quintessential “deep gyaru” magazine — for the ganguro yankii wing of the fashion movement rather than the part that touches upon middle-class mass style (like Popteen). Egg readers are disproportionally based in places other than Tokyo, so the profile of the kyabajō seems to almost perfectly match that of the female yankii — women with a particular set of cultural and sexual values who mostly live in non-urban prefectures. Girls who read softer fashion magazines like non•no or arty high-fashion magazines like Spur are apparently not hostess material, which makes logical sense. The values of the gyaru subculture — in terms of sexuality, future hopes, and gender dynamics — are much more conducive to mizu shobai than any others.
Miura describes the cabaret club itself quite pithily as “theme park of traditional gender roles.” In an age where men have to actually make an effort in personal presentation and manners to win over possible girlfriends and can no longer sexually harass secretaries in the workplace, the kyabakura provides men with a chance to return to a much simpler time, before women became educated, independent, judgmental, aggressive, and demanding. Kyabakura and hostess clubs offer men increasingly-rare female adulation for a simple payment. They can be drunk, loud, obnoxious, and speak with toxic tobacco-scarred breath, but the hostesses are required to treat them like kings — just like an idealized recreation of the good ol’ days.
Many women, however, consider the hostess job no harder than desk work, and in particular, enjoy the fact that their job allows them to dress up in a glamorous way and find constant “acknowledgment” from the opposite sex. Miura suggests that kyabakura provides these women, who never succeeded at school and had a rough home life, the self-confirmation that they are good at something for the first time. They feel respected by customers and can work towards finding a wealthy spouse in the customer base.
Most hostesses — perhaps in a reflection of classic yankii values — want to marry at a relatively young age, and the pages of Koakuma Ageha are filled with perky confessionals from divorced 20-something mothers with multiple young children who work at kyabakura to support their families. For the hostess looking for a husband at work, however, things are not always so easy. Miura claims that one of the reasons so many mizu shobai girls spend their hard-earned money on host clubs is that hosts are the only men in their lives who will promise to marry them. Of course, promising matrimony is a core duty of the host job, but the hostesses can walk away sated that night at least.
Miura sees this rise in the number of hostesses as part of a broader trend for society: youth’s desire to continue their cultural lifestyle into adulthood. In his survey comparison between Generation Z and Generation Y, he found that the latest crop of young men and women are desperate to become singers, actors, and models. Generation Y was much more realistic and seemed content on more “serious” jobs. In the past, Japanese society’s high toleration of youth culture stemmed directly from the social contract that youth would abandon all cultural activities at employment (usually aged 23 for white collar, earlier for blue collar). Now that companies cannot offer youth the previous level of benefits for “going straight,” most youth without long-term career prospects are choosing to bring their youth style into adulthood. The gyaru pioneered this social change, and now one of the few growth fashion markets is gyaru brand clothing made for mothers and their young children. Oddly, the gyaru still believe in early marriage and early childbirth, but they have abandoned the lack of fun and glamour formerly associated with adult responsibility.
So there is a “kyabajō segment” of young women, mostly corresponding to the gyaru/yankii subculture. Young college students and daughters from “good families” are well-known to work part-time or occasionally at cabaret clubs, but the “career girls” most definitely fit a specific subcultural affiliation. That understood, does this really mean something for society? Haven’t the working and lower classes been historically been the suppliers for the sex industry and the mizu shobai? If we believe the Miura evidence and analysis, economic conditions have deteriorated to the degree that a certain segment of women are electing to work a relatively-degrading job in order to maintain a middle-class level of income. But as the book suggests, the profession itself is not as dire or exploitative as say, the pre-war brothel system. Girls make the choice to join and can essentially quit whenever they want. Prostitution is less ambivalently bad; hostessing can be dangerous and demeaning, but in theory, there are protections in place to keep it from being sexual slavery.
That being said, the high salary for hostessing — in light of low education and no skills — should be our first clue that employers are compensating for something negative in the work duties. First and foremost, the job leads to no long-term career nor builds any portable skills. So while a clerking position pays little in its 20s, women can move up the ladder to a certain degree in their 30s and 40s to make a better salary. Hostesses have at most, a decade at the job and then cannot use that experience for anything else (other than being a “mama” perhaps). And exceptions aside, the hostess work generally degrades the labor and social value of the woman. The stigma has been reduced in recent years, but in most cases, hostessing can be a “scandalous” past background in a way that “secretary” never could. The kyabajō job also does not build strong social capital: working in Kabukicho means running around with yakuza, touts, and pimps, who are low on valuable social capital themselves. (There is also the issue that being a “kept woman” rather than a wife, which we can assume is a common path for many hostesses and kyabajō, means no legal rights to property from their partner.)
These facts tends to discount the “economic empowerment” argument, that the hostess business is a nice welfare system that transfers money from corporations (through entertainment budgets) and middle-class men to working-class women. And even in this model, those with power and capital are abusing their position to win special conditions from the recipients. Women can only receive these funds if they are young and willing to act out a form of sexually-charged subservience. In a more “fair” economic system, there would be high-paying jobs for women not conditional on indulging men. Yes, any job in the hierarchical white collar Japanese corporate system means hiding personal feelings to please the whims of the boss, but in an office atmosphere, this is not predicated on sexual gratification nor strict sexual division (women pleasing men).
But could the popularity of kyabakura amongst men be a good sign? The fact that men must pay high fees in order to receive unconditional treatment from kyabajō means that women are not willing to act accordingly in “real life.” The better solution, of course, would be a mass move away from the kind of childish misogyny that fuels the hostess industry, but Japanese men have shown long-term resistance to the new gender values (or at least tolerance) that have come to be strongly rooted in the rest of the post-industrial world. The word “feminist” in Japan does not even mean “one who believes in gender equality”: it means “one who is nice to women.” It appears that kindness to the second sex is still a radical idea.
Miura’s research has been and will continued to be challenged. Some times for legitimate reasons, but there will always be serious resistance from men to a re-conception of the hostess/kyabakura industry as a site of class exploitation. Flirting is more fun when you don’t think the girls are sending the money back home to support their poor family in some tiny Hokkaido fishing village. The “greedy girls who want Louis Vuitton bags” myth created a comfortable equality of sin: men would go to hostess clubs out of lust, women would work there out of avarice. But nothing about Miura’s research should be surprising or controversial. Japan has a long history of hostess-like institutions — from geisha to the cafe waitresses of the 1920s — and the lower classes have always been the main supply of labor. But now thanks to magazines like Koakuma Ageha, these girls are no longer invisible. They have their own world, own style, and own values. The only thing new is that they are succeeding in making this lifestyle seem appealing for those not predestined to end up there.