Hostess clubs are a common feature in the night-time entertainment industry of Japan as well as other east Asian countries and areas outside Asia with a high east Asian population. They are establishments that employ primarily female staff and cater to males seeking drink and attentive conversation. The more recent host clubs are similar establishments where primarily male staff cater to females. Host and hostess bars are considered part of mizu shōbai or "water trade" in Japan.
In Japan, hostess clubs are called , a portmanteau of and . Hostesses are known as , literally club girl, and are generally hired for their looks and/or personality. Hostesses light cigarettes, pour drinks, offer flirtatious conversation, and sing karaoke in an effort to keep the customers entertained. Hostesses can be seen as the modern counterpart of geishas, providing entertainment to groups of salarymen after work. The clubs are distinguished from strip clubs in that there is no dancing or nudity. A club will often also employ a female bartender, who is usually well-trained in mixology, and may also be the manager or mamasan. While drinks tend to be more expensive than at regular bars and there is generally a substantial cover charge, many places offer (bottomless refills) for certain drinks - usually just shōchū.
Hostesses need to drink with their customers every night, and it is not uncommon that they develop alcohol problems as a result. Most bars run on a commission system in which hostesses receive a percentage of sales called .
Patrons are generally greeted warmly at the door and seated as far away from other customers as possible. In some instances, a customer is able to choose with whom he spends time, while most often that is decided by the house. In either case, the hostess will leave after a certain amount of time or number of drinks, offering the customer a chance to see a fresh face. While most establishments have male touts outside to bring in customers, it may also fall upon a (usually new) hostess to do so.
In addition to their on-site duties, hostesses are generally obliged to engage in paid dates with patrons outside of the bar and regular working hours. This system generates repeat patronage of a particular bar by developing attachments between particular customers and hostesses. Sometimes sex occurs on these paid dates. Hostesses may be deducted pay for not having enough dōhan dates.
There is also a hostess club in Tokyo catering to lesbians.
Hostessing is a popular employment option among young foreign women in Japan. As demand is high but work visas can be difficult to obtain, many choose to work illegally. The clubs sometimes take advantage of the precarious legal situation of the women. The industry and its dangers were highlighted in 1992, when Carita Ridgeway, an Australian hostess, was drugged and killed after a paid date, and in 2000 when Lucie Blackman, an English hostess, was abducted, raped and murdered by a customer. The government promised to crack down on illegal employment of foreigners in hostess bars, but an undercover operation in 2006 found that several hostess bars were willing to employ a foreign woman illegally. In 2007, the Japanese government began to take action against these hostess clubs, causing many clubs to be shut down, and many hostesses to be arrested and deported. Now under strict laws, it is only legal for foreign women to work as hostesses if they are Japanese citizens or have a legal spouse visa.
A "snack bar" (スナックバー sunakku bā), or "snack" for short, refers to a kind of hostess bar, an alcohol-serving bar that employs female staff that are paid to serve and flirt with male customers. Although they don't charge an entry fee (and often have no set prices on their menus), they usually have an arbitrary (and expensive) bill or charge a set hourly fee plus a "bottle charge". Customers purchase a bottle in their own name and it is kept for future visits. Typical snack bars are segregated ethnically, and customers can choose from Filipina, Thai, Russian, Romanian, Chinese, Korean and Japanese entertainers in ascending expense. Dating hostesses is discouraged but not forbidden. It is often possible to pay the bar for dating privileges. Prostitution is illegal and snack bar hostesses are normally not prostitutes.
Hostess bars are also found in other east Asian countries, Hawaii, Guam, and California. In Hawaii approximately half of Oahu's 300 bars are licensed as hostess bars. In Hawaii and Guam the majority of the bars are operated and staffed by persons of Korean origin.
A host club () is similar to a hostess club, except that female customers pay for male company. Some host clubs also specialize in female-to-male transsexual hosts. Host clubs are typically found in more populated areas of Japan, and are famed for being numerous in Tokyo districts such as Kabukichō, and Osaka's Umeda and Namba. Customers are typically wives of rich men or women working as hostesses in hostess clubs.
The first host club was opened in Tokyo in 1966. In 1996, the number of Tokyo host clubs was estimated to be 200, and a night of non-sexual entertainment could cost $500 to $600. A women's studies professor explained the phenomenon by Japanese men's lack of true listening to the problems of women, and by women's desire to take care of a man and be loved back.
Male hosts pour drinks and will often flirt with their clients, more so than their female counterparts. The conversations are generally light-hearted; hosts may have a variety of entertainment skills, be it simple magic tricks or loads of charisma with which to tell a story. Some host clubs have a dedicated stage for a performance, usually a dance, comedy sketch, etc.
Hosts are often an age between 18 and their mid-20s. They will take a 'stage name' (源氏名) usually taken from a favourite manga, film, or historical figure, and will often describe their character. Men who become hosts either cannot find a white-collar job, or are enticed by the prospect of high earnings through commission.
While hostess bars in Tokyo often have men out on the streets getting clients to come into their clubs, hosts often go out onto the streets to find customers (referred to as 'catch' (キャッチ), but these are usually the younger, less-experienced ones. A common look for a host is a dark suit, collared shirt, silver jewellery, a dark tan, and bleached hair. Recently clubs where hosts wear casual clothes have been increasing, but still the norm is the smart suit look. At these clubs there can be a 私服デー (shifukudee) or 'own clothes day' where the hosts can wear their normal clothes.
Pay is usually determined by commission on drink sales, or uriage (売上), with hosts often drinking far past a healthy limit, usually while trying to hide their drunkenness. Because the base hourly wage is usually extremely low, almost any man can become a host regardless of looks or charisma (depending on the bar). However, hosts who cannot increase their sales usually drop out very soon, because of the minimal wage. The environment in a host bar is usually very competitive, with tens of thousands of dollars sometimes offered to the host who can achieve the highest sales.
Many of the clientele who visit host bars are female hostesses who finish work at around 1:00 or 2:00 a.m., causing host bars to often begin business at around midnight and finish in the morning or midday, and hosts to work to the point of exhaustion.(The business time changed in the past years due to police order. The reason was the increased incidence of illegal minor prostitution of host club visitors who could not pay the debts they accumulated by chalking up the host club fee.Nowadays most of these clubs open about 4:00 p.m. and have to be closed between midnight and 2:00 a.m.However even after the order, some clubs are still open all night, or, which is the "new strategy", the out of club business increased.)Drinks usually start at about 1000 yen but can reach around 3 million yen ($US 25,000) for a bottle of champagne.
Buying bottles of champagne usually means a 'champagne call' (シャンパンコール). All the hosts of the club will gather around the table for a song, talk, or a mic performance of some kind. The champagne will be drunk straight from the bottle by the customer, then her named host, and then the other hosts gathered. Often a wet towel will be held under the chin of the customer and hosts while they drink to prevent spills. The performance differs from club to club, and is believed to have originated at club Ryugujo in Kabukicho by the manager Yoritomo.
Also a 'champagne tower' (シャンパンタワー) can usually be done for special events. Champagne glasses are arranged into a pyramid, and champagne is poured onto the top glass until it trickles down the layers of glasses. A champagne tower uses at least 6 bottles, but for a 7 layer tower, 20 bottles can be used. Depending on the champagne used, this can cost between 1,000,000~2,000,000 yen.
On the first visit to a host club, the customers will be presented with a 'boy menu' (男メニュー) and will be allowed to decide on which host they would like to meet first. But the customer will meet most of the hosts in that club that night and will be given their name cards. Once the customer has decided on which host she likes, she will make him her named host (指名), and he will receive a percentage of the future sales to that customer. This will be done by buying a 'keep bottle' (a bottle of liquor that can be saved for next time), saying you are interested in a host, or inviting them to sit by you. Also most clubs operate on an 'eternal nomination' system (永久指名) where once a host has been nominated, you can not change hosts at that club except under special circumstances which will need to be discussed with the club.
Sometimes a host will go with a customer for a meal or karaoke after business; this is called 'after' and is considered bad manners by some people. Staying longer at the host club is considered the 'proper' way to treat your host. However it is even possible to go on day trips or travel with a host, but a host can only go with his own customer. Meeting or communicating with a customer who is not your own customer is usually against the host 'rules' and if discovered he is liable to be fined or fired from the club.
It is possible to buy drinks 'on tab' (掛け売り) if the customer does not have enough money. A copy of their ID will be taken, as well as their telephone number and address, with a promise of paying by their pay day or the end of the month. If the customer doesn't pay the host is liable for it. Going to settle the bill is known as 'kaishu' (回収).
It is bad manners to leave a customer alone, called 'only' (オンリー). Sometimes it cannot be helped (for example in the confusion of a champagne call) and will be apologised for. However if a customer is left alone for longer than 20 minutes, they should make a complaint.
A customer who drinks and behaves badly, shouts abusive remarks, is difficult about paying, or is troublesome to the hosts and other customers is referred to as a 'painful customer' (痛客). They are liable to be banned from the club.
Receiving a kiss in the elevator is known as 'ere chu' (エレチュー).
Usually, hosts try to make the clients feel loved without having sex with them, as it takes up their time and energy. Sometimes, for instance if a female pays a large amount of money and/or if the host likes them in return, the host can have sex with the client. If the same host meets the same client, she has a higher chance of having sex than the host having sex with another client. There are various terms for a host who has a sexual relationship with his customer, e.g. a 'colourful love business' (色恋営業), 'colourful love' (色恋), 'colourful guy' (色彼), 'pillow business' (枕営業) or 'pillow' (枕).
There are other methods of 'business', for example 'mail business' (メール営業) where a host will email his customer regularly to ensure their return. Similarly a host may call their customer, but this is fading in popularity now as opposed to mail business. Hosts will usually carry a business phone (営業電話) and a private phone, sometimes more.
There are several fashion and lifestyle magazines, for example Men's Knuckle, which cater to hostesses or hosts, and sometimes also to their recruiters and fans.
There are many Japanese fictional works, such as TV dramas, novels, video games, manga (and anime based upon them) which revolve around hostesses or host clubs (for example, Club 9, Bloodhound and the more light-hearted Ouran High School Host Club). These are aimed at a general audience, and demonstrate how such clubs have come to be accepted, to some extent, as part of the urban landscape of Japan. This even extends to non-Japanese fiction, for example with the crime novel Tokyo (2000), by British author Mo Hayder, which has as its main character a British hostess starting out in the industry. The episode "Meet Market" of the American TV drama featured a version of a host club in Las Vegas. In Isaac Adamson's novel Dreaming Pachinko, the character Miyuki worked at an exclusive hostess club in Ginza. The adventure video game series Yakuza allows the player to attend hostess clubs. Its sequel has a side-quest that allows the main character to become a host himself or manage a hostess club. Rosa Kato starred in TV Asahi's Japanese drama called "Jotei" in which she played a poor high school drop out who is compelled to succeed in the Hostess business and become the number one hostess in Tokyo after her mother passes away to undiagnosed cancer.
In the 1994 book , anthropologist Anne Allison, informed by her own work in the mid-1980s as a hostess in a Japanese bar, describes hostess bars as providing an atmosphere where masculinity is "collectively realized and ritualized."
Tokyo Girls is a 2000 documentary in which four Canadian women share their experiences working as hostesses in Japan.
is a 2006 documentary about a host club in Osaka.
The memoir by Lea Jacobson, Bar Flower: My Decadently Destructive Days and Nights as a Tokyo Nightclub Hostess was published in 2008.