June 29, 2006

Japan host clubs provide ersatz love for a price

By Linda Sieg

TOKYO (Reuters) - Dressed all in white and smiling, Yuka
and Manato stand side-by-side before a pyramid of champagne
glasses, framed in an arch of white, pink and red balloons.

"I really love Manato," says Yuka, while a score of
black-suited young men kneel before them, chanting loudly.

"I'll never forget this day," he replies.

The scene in the dark, smoky night club seems modeled

on a wedding, but no nuptials are under way.

Instead, Yuka is paying around 1 million yen ($8,700) for
the champagne the pair pour into the tower of glasses to mark
Manato's 25th birthday at Club Raphael, a "host club" where
women are pampered by the men of their dreams -- for a price.

Around 150 such host clubs dot the streets of Tokyo's
Kabukicho entertainment district, ranging from small ones like
Club Raphael to the famed Ladies' Club Ai a few blocks away,
where more than 170 gigolos are employed in a glitzy night spot
complete with dance floor and band.

"Hosts say things that ordinary guys are too embarrassed to
say. They are sweet-talk professionals," says Yuka, 27,
fingering the beads adorning her dyed-brown hair.

"This place isn't real," she added. "It's like Neverland."

Host clubs have been around for decades, but in recent
years have become the focus of a media blitz that has made them
seem more mainstream, if not necessarily respectable.

The TV drama "Yaoh," based on a popular manga comic, was a
big hit with viewers before its tale of a host dedicated to
"making every woman happy" ended in March.

Internet sites and magazines devoted to the topic provide a
plethora of information for would-be hosts and nervous novice

"It used to be that women were afraid of getting caught
going to a host club, so they went in the back way. Not
anymore," Takashi Aida, 66, who founded Club Ai in 1971 and now
owns five night clubs in Kabukicho, told Reuters in an

"Now everyone comes in the front," says Aida, flashing four
diamond rings, a diamond-studded watch and a diamond tie clip.


For hosts like Manato, who worked a string of low-paid jobs
before becoming a gigolo, the attraction of the job is clear.

"I'm not very bright, so this is the only way I can make a
lot of money," says Manato, his dyed-brown hair pulled up in a
partial top-knot and wearing a subtle smidgen of lipstick.

Popular hosts at Club Raphael can average around $25,000 a
month, while stars at Club Ai rake in as much as $45,000 --
almost entirely from commissions on the liquor they persuade
their female customers to buy, managers at the clubs said.

"I made as much last month as in three years at my old
job," says 25-year-old Kiyomaru, a slender high school dropout
who became the top host at Club Ai just 10 months after

Whether hosts provide after-hours services is up to them.

"If customers have money, they can do what they want with
the host -- go on dates, go out to dinner, have a physical
relationship," Kiyomaru says.

Many hosts drift into the job. Others are looking for a
quick fix of funds to start their own business. Some say they
enjoy the attention they get, but still don't plan to hang
around long.

"I've been on TV. I've been in magazines. People I don't
know, know me. I can do what I like. I can be famous," said
Kiyomaru. "Now I've reached the top, I need to find a new


Many hosts, though, drop out after the merest taste of a
tough apprenticeship that begins with scrubbing toilets and can
include trolling the streets to solicit or "catch" customers.

Even successful hosts tend to quit the business after a
couple of years, worn out by the heavy drinking and late hours.

The appeal for female customers is more of a mystery, for
all the hosts' talk of making the women feel like princesses.

Night club hostesses and sex industry workers looking to
turn the tables after an evening of catering to men account for
a large percentage of the clientele, those in the business say.

"I come for a change of pace. Maybe there are people here
who want to deceive me, but as long as I know what I'm doing I
can enjoy myself," said Reika, 56, a long-time Club Ai customer
who runs her own night club nearby.

Students and office workers looking for a thrill and
middle-aged housewives and businesswomen with money to spend
can also be found smoking and drinking with a bevy of hosts.

"It's the mirror image of hostess clubs," said John
Clammer, a sociology professor at Tokyo's Sophia University.
"You've got a lot of working women, single, getting a bit older
and probably not going to get married, and they can afford it."

($1 = 115.08 yen)