February 7, 2006
‘Maid in Japan’ Cafes Treat Geeks Like Lords
By Naomi Tajitsu
TOKYO -- "Welcome home, Master," says the maid as she bows deeply, hands clasped in front of a starched pinafore worn over a short pink dress.This maid serves not some aristocrat but a string of pop-culture-mad customers at a "Maid Cafe" in Tokyo's Akihabara district, long known as a Mecca for electronics buffs but now also the center of the capital's "nerd culture."
"When they address you as 'Master', the feeling you get is like a high," says Koji Abei, a 20-year-old student having coffee with a friend at the Royal Milk Cafe and Aromacare.
"I've never felt that way before."
Maid cafes dot Akihabara, which has become a second home for Tokyo's "otaku" -- roughly translated as "geeks." They're known for their devotion to comics and computer games and can easily be identified by their standard outfit of track suit, knapsack and spectacles.
In the cafes, girls dressed in frilly frocks inspired by comic-book heroines wait hand and foot on customers, mostly male, who might have once been obsessed with naughty schoolgirls and nurses.
At one cafe, maids get down on their knees to stir the cream and sugar into the customer's coffee.
At Royal Milk, diners can follow up a meal with a range of grooming services, including ear cleanings.
Maids at some of the more attentive shops even offer to spoon-feed customers at their table.
Maid cafes have mushroomed since they first emerged about four years ago, evolving from cafes where waiting staff emulated characters from a popular series of role-playing video games, often dressed in schoolgirl-inspired uniforms.
Shops where computer-generated characters came to life to serve coffee to gamers have since morphed into establishments serving customers ranging from teens to septuagenarians.
Akihabara now boasts around 30 maid cafes that cater not just to male geeks but also to couples, tourists and the merely curious.
Patronage is also on the rise among young women, some hoping to snag a geek and turn him into Prince Charming in a real-life imitation of last year's hit movie "Train Boy," a love story set in Akihabara that also became a popular TV series.
"These cafes offer a chance for men oppressed in their daily life to escape into a fantasy world," said social commentator Tomoko Inukai, adding that the phenomenon hardly helped to promote gender equality in a largely male-dominated society.
For some of the "maids," who are often as keen on comics and games as their customers, the job is a kind of virtual world.
"Being a maid is all-consuming," said Hinaka, a maid at Royal Milk Cafe who goes only by her first name.
"I'm not acting like a maid here, I am one."
Besides serving diners from a menu of inexpensive cafe fare, Hinaka also offers fully clothed massages, and for 9,000 yen ($75) customers can chat with her in a private room cluttered with comic books, character figurines and animation DVDs.
The average age of the maids at Royal Milk is 20, and an appearance of innocence is a priority.
"The concept of these cafes, where women who are physically and emotionally immature serve male customers, is not surprising given the fetish for young women among Japanese men," Inukai said.
Hinaka at Royal Milk gets plenty of stares as she moves around in a black dirndl-inspired pinafore worn over a white shirt, which is tied at the collar with a big ribbon that matches her billowing, short pink skirt.
"Sitting here and admiring how pretty the girls are is like admiring a flower," said Kinuko Nagahama, a 29-year-old woman sitting alone at the cafe. "If I were a few dress sizes smaller, I'd love to work at a place like this."
Hair salons in Akihabara are also cashing in on the trend.
At one such establishment called "Moesham," stylists dressed as maids give shampoos and cuts to a mainly male clientele not intimidated by the salon's decor, which resembles the bedroom of a young girl besotted by hearts and lace.
A few customers even come three or four times a week for a shampoo, said Yuki Todo, stylist-manager at the shop.
Yasunori Tomita, a 32-year-old salesman and first-time customer, said, "I don't have a girlfriend at the moment so getting pampered by maids will have to suffice for now."