All right, so I’m on a bit of a “Japan + Women’s Issues” kick this week, but this Al Jazeera video from a couple of years ago also piqued my interest (for some reason the video isn’t linking properly, do a search on YouTube for AlJazeera Everywoman Japan Part 2 if you want to see it). It features Kaori Shoji, whose Japan Times column on all manner of linguistic and cultural frustrations was always a good read. It documents the phenomenon of “host clubs,” bars where women pay huge amounts of money to be entertained and flirted with by charismatic young men (similar to “hostess clubs,” which have been around a lot longer and cater to salarymen). The idea of clubs where you pay for emotional companionship (and not sex, though that’s occasionally on the table) is one that seems to hold endless fascination for non-Japanese observers, probably because there isn’t really an equivalent in most other parts of the world. Japan has host clubs, hostess clubs, maid cafes, butler cafes, and even gender-bending varieties where women dress as men to serve female clients (documented in the film Shinjuku Boys). The question always seems to be: why pay upwards of $2000 a night purely for someone to shower you with attention (and not sex)? The answer is pretty straightforward: money’s not an issue, it’s a great way to release stress after a long work day, the clients can have the companionship and attention they seek without the responsibilities of a “real” relationship, and neither party has any illusions about the nature of the exchange.
There are a couple of things that bother me about the Al-Jazeera commentator’s assessment of the situation, as well as the other two panelists’ analysis:
1. Isn’t it sad that Japanese women are choosing superficial, uncommitted exchanges with hosts instead of seeking committed relationships and marriage? Well, not really, no. Who says you have to be in a committed relationship? Or get married at all? Is it really such a crime for these women to focus on their careers and get their emotional needs met by paying young men? I’m not really into this kind of lifestyle–prefer to be in a committed relationship and not have to pay for emotional companionship–but who am I to tell a financially independent woman that she’s not allowed to do whatever the hell she pleases with her money?
2. With the declining Japanese birthrate, it’s irresponsible for women to be behaving this way–they need to get married and start having more children. Easier said than done. As Sumiko Iwai mentions, the Japanese workplace culture is still incredibly hostile to childbearing and any notions of parental leave, and change is happening very slowly. Rather than just telling women to go home and procreate, the Japanese government has to make it easier to balance work and home life. Until then I’d be all in favor of staying single and child-free.
3. It’s unfortunate that Japanese women are choosing to focus on their careers rather than on meeting potential husbands and starting a family. Hello double standard! When was the last time you heard someone criticizing Japanese men for putting work first and family second? Why can’t Japanese women choose careers over husbands? Sure, I agree with Sumiko Iwai that workplace culture needs to change so that both women and men can have the OPTION of both a career and a family, but who says that women should always put relationships first? Again, I definitely need more of a balance in my own life and would rather not sacrifice my relationship to fourteen-hour days, but that’s my choice. Putting work first is theirs.