Wednesday, May 16, 2012


Treading the "Water Trade"

I was awkwardly dancing with a middle-aged man to rockabilly in a subterranean Tokyo club called Oldies (located in one of the red-light districts) when I asked myself: “What am I doing here?”

The rockabilly band, all sharp suits and pomaded coifs, launched into a slow jam, which my partner, Tomo, took as an opportunity to wrap an arm around my waist and dip me backward. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirrored wall and cringed: a twenty-something gaijin slow-dancing with a man old enough to be her father.

It’s so obvious I’m a hostess, I thought to myself.

Tomo was wheezing from his efforts on the dance floor, so he led me to a small table where we sat for an hour in silence. Tomo spoke no English and rebuffed my attempts at Japanese. He smiled to himself and stared ahead, silently nodding to the band on stage.

Tomo and I were at Oldies on a dohan, or dinner date. I was working in Tokyo as a hostess and Tomo was my customer. A hostess is a paid companion for those who have the money and the inclination to pay someone to pour their drinks, light their cigarettes, laugh at their jokes, and applaud their karaoke efforts. If a customer takes a particular interest in a hostess, he may invite her on a dohan — as Tomo had that night. The customer pays the club a fee, takes her out for dinner with the agreement that they will return there afterward — and spend more money — and the hostess gets a bonus.

In the years after Japan’s famous bubble had popped (I worked there in the mid-to-late 2000s) when expense accounts were shrinking and financial meltdown was looming, it was becoming more difficult to secure a dohan. I wasn’t very good at it in the first place, and was becoming tired of trying. This effort took the same form every afternoon, soon after I had shaken off the inevitable drinking-on-commission-induced hangover that was a staple of my life in Tokyo. I would go through my stack of business cards, then call the hostess club customers I had spent the entire previous night boring and being bored by in return, to tell them I really missed them and wouldn’t it be nice to go out for dinner tonight? And, oh! You could take me back to the hostess club after.

I was terrible at it. This date with Tomo was my only dohan that week. I was a failure as a hostess.

Still, I thought, at least I could count on my bonus this week. While we sat in silence I calculated the night’s earnings in my head. This dinner date would earn me the equivalent of a $50 bonus, plus my hourly club rate of $30. And then there was the $15-30 I would earn for every drink Tomo bought me — and surely I could convince him to buy me a few.

We left Oldies and made our way to my club, stepping out of ‘50s-era "America" and into what, by comparison, seemed like the future. Tokyo wrapped itself around us: the neon, the giant television screens, and the clashing sound of advertisements competing against one another. Here, in the Roppongi district, properties unique to the red light areas were added to the mix. Hustlers grabbed the arms of every male passerby, making their pitch: “my club has most beautiful girls in Tokyo,” while groups of women clustered outside clubs, comparing business.

My irritation subsided and I smiled at the scene I had made my home; for all its frustrations and humiliations, the mizu shobai was, for me, irresistible. I just loved Tokyo after dark. I was like a vampire, but I fed off neon rather than blood.

Mizu shobai, or “water trade,” is a euphemism for the nighttime entertainment business in Japan, including hostess bars. There are several explanations for the term's origin — the industry's impermanence and the association of water with pleasure being just two. The watery allusion suited my experience; I only meant to get my feet wet, but the deeper I got the more it felt like drowning.

I traveled through the water trade as if it in itself were another country. For me, the Tokyo night was something to be explored and mapped, like its own world. I struggled with its euphemisms as much as the language, wrangling with the strange, coded business names — like Soapland, Delivery Health, and Image Club. I was sure, though, that no one visited Snack Bars for the food.

Roppongi, I thought, was a microcosm. A multitude of different businesses occupied the same planet, but each had its own particular set of customs and culture. A Hostess club and a Fashion Health club could face each other across a narrow hallway in a skinny building, but the customs of one wouldn't necessarily translate well in the other.

As we entered the club’s elevator and pushed the button for sixth floor, Manager slipped between the doors and nudged up against Tomo, his thick leather briefcase, and me.

Known by apparently no other name, Manager was in charge of the club. A former boy-band member who, hostess club gossip had it, displayed a floor-to-ceiling portrait of himself in his living room, Manager had the orangey glow of a tanning-salon regular, and had bleached blonde hair and remarkably white teeth. His moods varied wildly and were dependent upon that night’s drug intake — and he was almost impossible to impress. He sized me up, as well as the profit standing alongside me, and gave a rare smile. I was off the hook; tonight I was a good hostess.

"Irrashaimasse!" Mama-san screamed in welcome as we entered the club, hustling us toward a table. As she buzzed around us, setting down Tomo’s soda and snacks, I stole a glance around the club. I noticed Jasmine, a platinum blonde Australian, with her regular, Yuki, and stifled a groan as the Filipina waitress wheeled over the karaoke machine.

True to form, septuagenarian Yuki shuffled to his feet and launched into "Theme from Ghostbusters." His signature, which the rules of business dictated we must find hilarious each and every time.

“Ghostbusters,” he cried, pausing for dramatic effect. “Ghostbusters!!!” he screamed even louder, looking around to be sure he had our attention.

I called one of my friends over to sit with Tomo and me. This act was known in hostess club vernacular as a request. Tomo had to pay an extra $30 for requesting my friend Carla to sit beside him and drink whatever he would buy her. Technically, however, it was me who asked him to invite Carla; she hadn’t had a dohan this week and I hoped that the $30 request bonus and drink commission would help her out. My friends and I helped one another like this: by inviting one another to sit with our customers and even, if we could convince the customers to pay double, to come out on dohans together.

Even with Carla at the table, Tomo kept silent, so we talked between ourselves, with Tomo occasionally giving a nod of thanks as we topped up his glass.

Our night inched on, but, being paid for every drink he bought us, we drank glass after glass, gradually disengaging Tomo and then ignoring him until he left.

Around 2 a.m. Carla and I stumbled out of the elevator, drunk. Usually at this point we would head out into the streets to do drink back.

Drink back was the name of a system that supplemented our club earnings by earning us commissions for drinks bought by any customer we could drag off the street and into one of the ‘normal’ bars along Roppongi’s main strip. If you could convince, say, an employee of one of the international investment banks whose offices were nearby to buy you a bottle of vintage Dom Perignon, you could make an extra $200 – 500. Just for one bottle. More, for viticultural reasons I never grasped, if it was rosé.

But I wasn’t interested that night. I only wanted sleep, so we hugged goodbye and went our separate ways.

Alone, I stepped into a hard, bright Roppongi. For most of the hustlers on the street, the night was only beginning, but I was so tired that Roppongi's bright neon seemed to have dimmed a little. When I look back at my time there, I point to this night as the moment I made an unconscious decision to leave.

By the time I finally left, I had been working in the mizu shobai for more than a year. I had been doing the work because it paid extraordinarily well and I wanted to save up money. But I kept blowing my savings on the long vacations I had to take every three months to detox. The drinking and partying, which used to been a fun perk of the job, had revealed themselves to be, in fact, its core. I felt constantly drained from the effort it took to push through daily hangovers and to play the part of fun party girl every night.

I pushed through the crowds and left the mizu shobai behind me.

Soon I would leave Tokyo on another trip to Thailand. But that time I didn’t return.

Karen Gardiner Dion is a Scottish writer who lives in the U.S. and still misses Japan. She blogs at The Six Tree.

68 Comments / Post A Comment


Man that sounds like a sweet job as long as they're not trying to bang you.


@iceberg read a book about this for an anthropology class once ... can't deny it sounds like a great way to pay off student loans.

although i'm sure they are constantly trying to bang you.


@redheaded&crazie I watched a documentary on it for class once. My understanding is that explicitly they are not, implicitly they are (just like geisha). It's a very grey area.


@iceberg The endless drinking and socializing with people I don't care for actually sounds like my idea of hell, but maybe that's just me!

Though the siren song of that hourly rate... no. Still no. But more power to you!


@SarahDances Hah, I had exactly the same thought from the beginning. There is NO WAY I could handle that job for more than about 20 minutes.

Toby Jug

What books and/or movies should I be consuming to learn about this?!?!?!

I really need to get a good book on Japan, too. That country fucking fascinates me. I want to learn about ALL OF THE CULTURE.*

*(not in in "ooh look at the odd Orientals way, just in a "ooh look at the all of the island culture lets put it on the shelf next to England and Jamaica" way)


@Toby Jug Well, history-wise, Donald Keene is THE authority on Japanese culture.


@Toby Jug I would suggest "The Great Happiness Space", it's a super fascinating / bleak documentary that follows a group of young men who serve as hosts. I don't want to give too much away, but anyone who is interested in this subject should definitely check it out.


@klaus I second this recommendation. Very interesting film--it stuck with me for quite a while after watching it.


@klaus YES. It is so, so sad though, and made me a bit angry for a while.


@Toby Jug (& all): My understanding of it comes primarily from the one documentary everyone watches on Netflix ("The Great Happiness Space"). The moral of that documentary seems to be that, like those who have bad experiences with other forms of prostitution, it is pretty soul-crushing work. Not because of the sex-having, but because of the mask-wearing. You have to pretend to be someone else's fantasy -and not a real human being- for most of your waking life, which also involves very little time spent with sunlight.


@ThatWench Ahhh, knew I should have refreshed first.

Karen Louise@twitter

@Toby Jug Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein is great. Also, People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry -- it is about a British hostess who was murdered by her customer (true story). From a more academic point of view: Nightwork by Anne Allison and Illicit Flirtations by Rhacel Salazr Parrenas.




@klaus I'm halfway through this documentary and wow do I have a lot of feelings/thoughts/questions right now

Passion Fruit

@Megano! "My understanding is that explicitly they are not, implicitly they are (just like geisha)."

That's basically every one of my first dates before 10 pm/3 drinks. After that benchmark, it's allllll explicit.


@iceberg Stratosphere Girl is a film about it which doesn't make you want to die.


@Passion Fruit And jobs in general. Aren't we all wearing masks at work? And it's definitely true in the bar trade, anywhere. It's Always Showtime.


@Toby Jug Perhaps, just go? I deeply regret not doing the traveling I longed to do, before my health declined. Stay in a hostel? I've an (American, Anglo) friend who dearly loves Japan. Her husband was driving her bats, so she went, alone and six months pregnant, to Japan for R+R. She said the Japanese were so gentle with her that it brought tears to her eyes.

Lady Humungus

I want to hear so much more about this!


Whoa, this is crazy and fascinating. How do you get paid if someone buys you a drink outside the club? Like, how do they regulate that?


@jacqueline Yeah, I'm not really sure I understand the business concept here? Like she gets a bonus for every drink he buys her, so does that mean he also pays more for every drink he buys her, or is it more of an "if he's buying her drinks, he likes this and will come back and pay more money in the future, so she gets a bonus for ensuring that" thing?


They should just serve the hostesses fake alcohol after the first couple drinks, or water it down, or something (Of course you would still act drunk)? It's in your best interest to keep them looking and feeling beautiful!


@Megano! And spending less on actual alcohol!


@Megano! And spending less on actual alcohol!


@Megano! Yeah they do that at strip clubs right? I am really surprised these poor ladies are expected to drink so much for real.

death by banality

@Megano! I worked in the French version of a hostess club and they absolutely served us colored water with sugared rims. When the customers bought a bottle of champagne, we tag-teamed them and each of us poured our glasses into the ice bucket when they weren't looking...

It's seriously the only way to survive through till dawn, and once the customer is drunk, (which is the only reason he's there, he knows he's not going to get laid going in) he really cares a lot more about whether you can keep him propped up while still looking pretty.

fondue with cheddar

Wow, that sounds like an exhausting job. Being social with people I know and like is draining, but this is people you don't know and maybe don't like, plus you have to drink a lot and pretend to be having the most fun ever. Sounds fun in theory, but no thanks.


@jen325 people you don't know, maybe don't like, probably don't speak the same language

hoo boy

fondue with cheddar

@redheaded&crazie Actually, I think the language barrier would make it easier because all you have to do is smile and don't have to make conversation.


@jen325 I've heard that people exist who actually get energized from socializing. Supposedly they're called "extroverts."

Toby Jug

@theharpoon Wierdos and deviants?



@Toby Jug I don't think I've ever met one, so I'm not sure?

fondue with cheddar

@theharpoon How does that even work?


@theharpoon I'm thinking this is kind of like the difference between having a ton of sex and being a prostitute for a living, though. If you've got a lot of economic incentive to not disengage from someone you're not feeling so keen on until at least they've racked up a bill, you're probably not going to get the same pleasure out of it as if you were cruising a party in your own service. Especially if the person footing the bill is at least somewhat invested in the idea that you're an amenity, not an equal partner in the exchange.


@wharrgarbl Talking to people makes me tired, is all I'm saying.


@theharpoon Yeah, I'm right there with you, but there are also a lot of people who don't feel that way. And they probably still wouldn't get much out of this.


so based on this aspect of the entertainment industry alone, compare the "boys clubs" of Big Business America and Big Business Japan. I mean, ugh, they're probably all pretty awful? (And I have no actual experience with either so as usual I don't know what I'm talking about)

But the whole hostessing industry is explicitly only geared towards men and the expectation that business executives will be men. As far as I know taking your clients out to hostessing clubs is the way to entertain in Japan.

H.E. Ladypants

@redheaded&crazie There are also host clubs for ladies! "The Great Happiness Space" is a pretty depressing documentary about them.


@redheaded&crazie Well, there are host clubs, but sad story, most of the people who go to them are prostitutes.

sudden but inevitable betrayal

@H.E. Ladypants Also Ouran High School Host Club, which I'm sure is factually accurate?

H.E. Ladypants

@sudden but inevitable betrayal High level documentary making, right there.


@sudden but inevitable betrayal I just preordered volume 18. It is absolutely accurate, and I'm going to be reincarnated into that insane club. (Ok, not really. Just reading about their antics can be exhausting.)


@Megano! The women who visit host clubs aren't mostly prostitutes from what I've seen, though there are a lot of other hostesses who go to them (after they get off work), as well as OLs (office ladies).


This sounds fascinating, but I believe it's incredibly draining. I want to hear more stories though!


@elizabeast I'm drained from simply reading about it :( (that's probably just a lack of sleep + overeating at lunch.)

But seriously, fascinating! If you weren't a hostess wandering through that district at night, could you be mistaken for one? (Is it safe?)


@beeline96 Yes. You can, especially if you are foreign.
But in my experience traveling in Japan, it is very safe.

dj pomegranate

Just reading this makes me want to curl up on my couch and not speak to anyone. However, it is fascinating and I would totally want to try it...for a day. Maybe two!


Oh man. This reminds me of the time I was in Kyoto (living in a suburb outside the city called Ogoto) and buying socks at this random store, when the Japanese clerk asked me if I was living in Ogoto to work at "the Soapland." I gave him a puzzled look. He said, It's an English word, shouldn't you know?
Turns out Soaplands, which are all over Japan, are where men go after work to have women scrub their naked bodies down with bubbles and give them bubbly hand jobs. Okay.


@sudden but inevitable betrayal
Cue a "The More You Know" graphic with a rainbow and a little tune.


@BoozinSusan They were originally known as "turkish baths," but Turkish people (oddly enough) felt that was a bit culturally demeaning and petitioned the Ministry of Health to change the name. So the government solicited public opinion and that's how they decided on the name "Soapland"

The more you know.^^


@saritasara Ahaha and then Japan came along and did its usual cultural appropriation thing and gave the term a whole new meaning!

Koko Goldstein

Someone tell me more about this business model. So he buys her drinks, and she gets a bonus? From the club, or they charge the guy more? So he gets charged for the drink itself *and* for the act of buying her a drink? Also why do you get rewarded for someone buying you drinks outside of your club? Do you have to convince them to come back to the club? I'm totally lost here.

Karen Louise@twitter

@Koko Goldstein The drinks at the hostess club are extortionately priced, say around $20 for a beer; $40-50 or so for a glass of wine, so the club pays the hostess around 1/3 of the price (the customers' drinks are usually included in their entry fee). In the drink back system it is the same deal, but they are 'normal' bars, they don't have anything to do with the hostess clubs. The bars are willing to pay the hostesses a cut because they are bringing business in.


I'm pretty sure they would fire me for going to pee every 20 minutes and then falling asleep at 1am.

Karen Louise@twitter

@Toby Jug Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein is great. Also, People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry -- it is about a British hostess who is murdered by her customer (true story). From a more academic point of view: Nightwork by Anne Allison and Illicit Flirtations by Rhacel Salazr Parrenas.


I had this job for two weeks. In Houston! Excellent money, pure torture, and the incessant begging for hand jobs was NOT SUBTLE

Passion Fruit

@TheDogRuiner TELL ME MORE, OMG! The money, the torture, the begged-for hand jobs -- I need to know it all.


@Passion Fruit I only showed up for about three shifts lol. They wouldn't let me wear my glasses and I realized I had been very naive about the sincerity of the owner's "no hand jobs" rule. Everyone expected hand jobs to happen except me lol.

Apart from that it could have been fun! The girls sat in two long rows of chairs facing the entrance and the customers picked who they wanted. The owners would then punch your time card and you would be shown to a table (or a love seat) as a couple.

The bar was BYOB (of ourse) but if the customer hadn't brought anything the owners would make a liquor run for him. As long as you sat with the customer you were "on the clock", earning an hourly wage (50 bucks? I don't remember), and the customers also tipped cash, 50-100 bucks an hour. You would drink, dance, shoot pool, or chat (in-between refusing to give hand jobs).

This club was in Houston, but 95% of the patrons were Asian, so a lot of the time there were language barriers.

Passion Fruit

@TheDogRuiner This sounds fun to me! "[...] Earning an hourly wage (50 bucks? I don't remember), and the customers also tipped cash, 50-100 bucks an hour. You would drink, dance, shoot pool, or chat (in-between refusing to give hand jobs)."

This sounds, truly, like hell. "The girls sat in two long rows of chairs facing the entrance and the customers picked who they wanted." I am having violent flashbacks to middle school dances.


I've met lots of hostesses over the years, and it's interesting how few of them seemed to really save any money--the problem of needing to blow a lot of cash on the occasional vacation detox seemed to be a common theme. I also first moved to Japan right around the time of the Lucie Blackman murder, and while cases like that are rare, safety is definitely a concern when you're working in a (technically) illegal industry and the police aren't very interested in helping you out if you get into trouble.

I'm also saddened by the way that hostessing reinforces the whole "women are pretty objects who smile and giggle at you when you pay them money" idea. Still, have definitely been tempted by the money a few times.


@TokyoPlum There's an American podcast called "The Because Show" of three women telling stories from their lives. One of them was a stripper but had spent time with a bunch of rich Middle Eastern guys on a yacht. I don't think she kept much of the money from that, either.


PS! Karen, great story, thanks!!
A smash from your opening sentence to the end.

Karen Louise@twitter

@Myrtle Thank you! I love your photo!


Somehow just read this, and wow, what a read! I've always been really fascinated by the global sex industry and its related off-shoots such as hostess clubs. I have to say, sometimes the money you can get in Asia as a hostess does sound tempting, all objections aside. But as other people mentioned, it seems like you usually don't save most of it. I think, "Oh, I'm different," but I bet everyone thinks that. Also, my liver. Ouch.

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