Selling love, romance, and companionship for wealthy women seeking an escape.
Tokyo has always had a magical effect on me. I grew up in Hamamatsu, a mid-sized industrial city known for producing Yamaha motorcycles and pianos. In contrast to my ordinary life there as an office assistant in the mid-nineties, I found Tokyo to be extraordinary—with its splendid commercial districts, dense population, and urban sprawl.
Tokyo’s host clubs evoke ambiguous feelings of pleasure, danger, risk, and reward among people seeking temporary escape and entertainment.
After studying in the United States for seven years, I returned to Japan in 2004 as an anthropologist to conduct research on Tokyo’s red-light district and the host clubs where men cater to female consumers for exorbitant sums of money. While living there, I saw firsthand how rapidly Tokyo had changed since my youth in the nineties. For instance, Roppongi Hills, a 54-story mega-complex of apartments, offices, bars and restaurants, designer boutiques, galleries, and a movie theater had just opened. Real estate developers, politicians, and journalists heralded the project as a vivid symbol of Japan’s future. Tourists took advantage of the building’s rooftop observation deck not only for its panoramic views of the city but also the excitement and even optimism that these scenes of urban life often provoke. While visitors enjoyed the view, global investors were privy to a different vision: such urban developments are also sites of intense speculation.
The neighborhood that formerly occupied the site of this upwardly mobile socioeconomic venture—filled with cluttered and aging wooden apartment buildings, family businesses, and general stores—was razed. These traces of “ordinary” life were quickly swept away and forgotten as new waves of people sought extraordinary wealth and luxury. For some, these seductive sights from the top of Roppongi Hills may elicit nostalgia, discomfort, or even fear. As speculative market economies and cityscapes are constantly in flux, fortunes are rapidly made and lost and visitors become estranged from once-familiar sights and senses. This is what fascinates me about Tokyo, and why it is such a thrilling, disorienting, unsettling and magical experience all at once.
Tokyo’s host clubs in the Kabuki-chō red-light district evoke similar sensations—it’s a place where these ambiguous feelings of pleasure, danger, risk, and reward are concentrated among people seeking temporary escape and entertainment. In these lounges, women pay for the romantic gestures and companionship of young handsome men, called hosts. These men pour bottles of expensive champagne and wine, and even hand-feed fruits or other small sweets to their clients. They flirt with seductive flair: asking a woman personal questions and showing romantic interest; holding her gaze and whispering quietly into her ear; complimenting her beauty, personality, and scent; gently touching her leg or lap; and sometimes kissing her on the cheek, forehead, or hand.
The well-heeled women at the club where I conducted my research were happy to spend large sums to gain access to the lavishly decorated spaces, pulsing rhythms, and intoxicating cocktails while mingling with attractive and glamorous people. However, the allure goes far beyond fancy drinks and trendy music. Clients are invited to experience what it is like to be a celebrity through relationships with hosts. Many women profess their love for particular hosts, and indeed a few will forge lasting relationships and even get married. Nonetheless, most realize that monogamous, long-term love is impossible. That’s not really the point anyway. Through the exchange of money for intimacy, women attempt to secure greater confidence over their self-worth, femininity, and youthful beauty.
The experience of enchantment and satisfaction that women seek from host clubs, however, is short-lived. Their desire for sexual attractiveness is only fulfilled if they continue to return to the clubs and spend increasingly lavish sums of money. When they return to their homes and workplaces after a night at the club, they are expected to perform the roles of good wives, respectable mothers, and caring colleagues. The taste of extraordinary romance that the host club provides might linger for a while, but it eventually fades away as women resume their ordinary lives. All that remains is their nostalgia and their longing to revisit the clubs.
I have now conducted fieldwork in Kabuki-chō for over a decade—and though I was once also in thrall to the sublime experience of the host clubs, the more familiar I became with the host club scene, the less I felt its preternatural effect on me. When I saw some of the former clients of these clubs last summer, I learned that they had many of the same feelings as I did. For instance, Sachiko, now in her early fifties, used to patronize a club where she had spent a small fortune. She was an extreme case in this regard, even selling her house and giving half of the profits to help her host, Hikaru, purchase a Ferrari. Looking back on this, Sachiko did not believe he deceived her. Rather, she told me that she did this to deal with the harsh reality of her life at that time: She was unexpectedly widowed and left alone to care for her two small children. Hikaru gave her the moral support she needed.
The interplay between Sachiko’s individual freedom and the act of seduction resonate with what Slavoj Žižek calls the “act of civility”—and helps explain Sachiko’s mixed feelings toward Hikaru. The act of civility is to respect others as free and autonomous agents. This sense of civility is consistent with the art of seduction insofar as the seductive promise, the implied anticipated future, is consonant with the wishes and fantasies of the one being seduced. Promises of a better future fuel desire and are interwoven in economic, symbolic, and affective exchanges. Understood this way, the act of seduction becomes the act of staging interactions that secretly appeal to the desires of the seduced, and through this method, maneuver their sense of indebtedness to one of freedom.
Thus Sachiko found something emancipatory in her relationship with Hikaru, even after it ended. Although she harbored resentment toward Hikaru, who suddenly disappeared after becoming a successful, top-ranked host, Sachiko emphasized that she did not regret her past. And though she distanced herself from the host club scene and found new venues for investing in her wellbeing, she was still curious about what happened to Hikaru and how the business at the club was doing.
I related strongly to Sachiko’s mixed sentiments of nostalgia for her host club visits and her anticipation of a different future. I also came to realize that our overlapping experiences with Tokyo’s red-light district were not unique to us—or to the city. Rather, they were nested within the broader cityscape of Tokyo, the economic machinery of the county, and the imagined futures all over Japan.
Seemingly autonomous workers and consumers throughout the country seek to fulfill their own hopes and dreams by meeting the desires of others. In the context of Japan’s postindustrial consumerism, men and women buy goods and services that will enhance their desirability. In the context of Japanese neoliberalism, national government harnesses the promise of the future in an attempt to persuade (or seduce) financial investors, city developers, business owners, and others, to align their own hopes and dreams with reformist ambitions for economic competitiveness in the new global order. Future-oriented aspiration—whether experienced in the seductive glow of the Kabuki-chō clubs, or in the shadow of the towering Roppongi Hills mega-complex—beckon us toward Tokyo’s promise of exciting, lucrative, and unknown possibilities, an experience that can be exciting for its open-ended potential and intimidating for its unknown risk.