Thoughts on life after the PhD
The New York Times recently ran this piece on how the economic downturn is causing more and more Japanese women to seek jobs as hostesses. For those who aren’t aware, hostesses work in bars that cater to male clients and are essentially paid to flirt with and lavish attention on the customers. They can make anywhere from $20 to $150 an hour, depending on where they’re working and how popular they are. Sex usually isn’t part of the package, though at the seedier clubs women may be pressured into having sex with long-time clients, and some hostesses choose to sleep with clients for extra cash. (Note: I’m referring predominantly in this post to Japanese hostesses–the world of American, European, and Southeast Asian hostesses working in Japan has a whole other set of issues attached to it).
I’ve always had mixed feelings about hostessing. Even as I wrote this post, I struggled with how I really felt about the idea of men paying women for companionship, and I found myself changing sides again and again. In the end, I think it’s not the idea of paying for companionship (or even paying for sex) that I find distasteful–it’s the sexist and materialist culture that surrounds hostessing as an industry. This sort of culture is of course not unique to Japan–it thrives in the U.S., where women are routinely celebrated more for their hotness than for their intellect, and where the idea that love is expressed with expensive gifts still holds strong. Hostessing in Japan just seems to be a very visible example of the negative impact of outdated, stereotypical ideas about gender and money.
On the one hand, if a girl decides on her own that she wants to get paid to flirt (and deal with a lot of sleazy men, and inhale gallons of cigarrette smoke, and constantly feel exhausted from partying every night), I think that’s her business. And if a guy wants to pay a girl for affection, that’s his business (there are male hosts and female clients as well–see previous post in the Japan category). Provided everything happens between consenting adults, I’d like to think that hostessing doesn’t really do much harm. But then I read lines like this one from the NY Times article, and I feel kind of ill:
Young women are drawn nonetheless to Cinderella stories like that of Eri Momoka, a single mother who became a hostess and worked her way out of penury to start a TV career and her own line of clothing and accessories.
“I often get fan mail from young girls in elementary school who say they want to be like me,” said Ms. Momoka, 27, interviewed in her trademark seven-inch heels. “To a little girl, a hostess is like a modern-day princess.”
I’m reminded of little girls who say they want to be like Paris Hilton when they grow up. Is this really what we want young girls to aspire to? Getting paid huge amounts of money to look cute and pretend to like someone?
Though I might defend the rights of women and men to pay for / get paid for affection, I can’t deny that hostessing has some pretty negative side effects. It promotes the idea that women can be bought and paid for just like expensive drinks, it reinforces the notion that the most a young girl can hope for is to be lavished with expensive gifts for being attractive and charming, and it glamorizes a profession that essentially “reduces human interaction to the level of transaction“, to quote one former American hostess. It also sheds light on the stark reality of women’s working lives in Japan–as the article points out, 70% of Japanese women work in temp jobs with few or no benefits that pay meager salaries. Faced with the choice of making $15 an hour at a boutique or $100 an hour at a hostess club, it’s no surprise that so many women are leaning toward the latter.
I’ll confess that the idea of hostessing crossed my mind numerous times while I lived in Japan. Being strapped for cash–and in some cases dead broke–could make anyone consider it. I don’t begrudge a woman the right to a job that pays ten times more than more “traditional” work, especially during a time when any job can be hard to find. What bothers me is the rosy, romantic picture that the Japanese media seems to be painting of hostessing in general, presenting it as a kind of fairy-tale world where women can have everything they ever wanted if only they’re willing to flirt for cash. When hostessing itself is depicted as a kind of top-level position for women, when the qualities of a hostess–being attractive and charming–are depicted as the most valuable qualities for a woman to have, well, that’s just sad. I really hope that one of these days I’ll see the Japanese media celebrating a woman for something other than her looks and her charm. And seeing the U.S. media do it more than once in a blue moon wouldn’t hurt either.
writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)
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