Photo: Danny Choo at www.flickr.com
Well-paid, fun and pressure-free, working as a hostess in a Japanese bar sounded too good to be true. So it turned out …Welcome to Aphrodite’s Hostess Club – the Tokyo nightclub where I was paid to flirt and drink with Japanese businessmen. Beside me a grey-haired Japanese man slides his hand on to my leg. I smile and move it away, reaching to light his cigarette and top up his glass of whisky.
On my other side an arm creeps around my shoulder. ‘Would you like to go to a hotel later?’ a customer whispers in my ear. Hostessing is a very unusual job. We have nothing quite like it in Britain. Like geishas, Tokyo hostesses are paid to smile and party with rich men. As a hostess I poured drinks, sang karaoke and tried to ignore the customers who invited me to hotel rooms after work. Hostesses aren’t supposed to have sex with customers, but many do.
Back in London I’d first learnt about hostessing from my twin sister, who’d worked as a hostess in Tokyo for a few weeks. She told me it was a great job – especially the wages, which were about £30 an hour. I was having my self-esteem battered in London, applying for hundreds of graduate jobs and being rejected for all of them.
I thought working abroad, no matter what the job, would be a great confidence boost so I used my savings to book a flight. My family and friends were worried about me going to Japan alone but my sister reassured them that hostessing was perfectly safe.
A day after I arrived in Tokyo I found work at Aphrodite’s Hostess Club. It was in the sex district, where prostitutes walked the streets and bars had names like Fetish Palace and Red Sex. At Aphrodite’s I was paid £30 an hour and I received bonuses if I was requested to come to a table. It sounded easy but, actually, the way many hostesses got their ‘requests’ was to promise sex to customers after work.
The longer I stayed the more I was pressured to get requests. Every night I saw stunning, twentysomething girls go to hotel rooms with old, overweight businessmen just so the club manager would leave them alone. These were girls just like you and me – normal, educated and seemingly with everything going for them. Many hostesses became addicted to alcohol, cocaine or crack just to cope with what they were doing.
The longer I stayed the more I drank and the more the hostessing world became normal. Soon I started asking myself, Would I, could I, and what’s my price? Deep down, I knew I’d never be able to have sex with customers but I certainly thought about it. I knew my job would be safer if I did it, and I was often offered huge sums of money to do so.
The pressure to get requests soon became so intense that I left Aphrodite’s. But when I returned to London I found myself at the bottom of the pile again – a bright graduate among many, struggling to find work. It wasn’t long before I was back in Japan where I could earn £30 or £40 an hour for doing little more than drinking in a bar and fending off sleazy men. I moved bars every few months to keep the pressure for requests at bay.
After three years as a hostess a friend of mine married a customer and it scared me enough to decide it was time to leave Japan for good. By then I was a different person. I couldn’t bear my face without make-up and I drank every day. Slowly I rebuilt my confidence and began working as a journalist.
When I told people in Britain about hostessing it sometimes affected their view of me. Women didn’t like me being around their boyfriends, and men wouldn’t know what to say. It felt strange having sexual relationships after spending so much time fending off men, and not all my boyfriends understood what hostessing meant. Some of them had a hard time dealing with the fact that I’d been in such a sleazy environment, but my current partner is fine with it.
I’m lucky I got out when I did; I saw so many girls trapped in the geisha life with much sadder stories to tell. I wish I could help them but, sadly, for many it’s already too late.
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