Hostess clubs are a common feature in the night-time entertainment industry of Japan, East Asian countries and other areas with a high Japanese population. They employ primarily female staff and cater to males seeking drinks and attentive conversation. The more recent host clubs are similar establishments where primarily male staff cater to females. Host and hostess clubs are considered part of mizu shobai (水商売, literally "water trade"), the night-time entertainment business in Japan.
In Japan, two types of bars are hostess clubs and kyabakura (キャバクラ?), a portmanteau of kyabarē (キャバレー?, lit. "cabaret") and kurabu (クラブ?, lit. "club"). Hostesses who work at kyabakura are known as kyabajō (キャバ嬢?), literally cabaret girl, and many of them use professional names called "genji name" (源氏名 genji-na?). Hostesses light cigarettes, pour drinks, offer flirtatious conversation, and sing karaoke to entertain customers. Hostesses can be seen as the modern counterpart of geishas, providing entertainment to the likes of groups of salarymen after work. A club will often also employ a female bartender, who is usually well-trained in mixology, and may also be the manager or mamasan. Hostess clubs are distinguished from strip clubs in that there is no dancing or nudity.
Hostesses often drink with customers each night, and alcohol problems are not uncommon. Most bars run on a commission system in which hostesses receive a percentage of sales. For example, a patron purchases a $20 drink for the hostess, most of the time which are non-alcoholic concoctions like orange juice and ginger ale, and the patron has purchased the hostess's undivided attention for the subsequent 30–45 minutes. The hostess then splits the proceeds of the sale with the bar 50/50. The light or no alcohol content of the drinks purchased allows the maximum profits and assures the hostess does not become intoxicated after only a short time at work.
Businesses may pay for tabs on company expense with the aim of promoting trust among male co-workers or clients. At one establishment, 90% of all tabs were reportedly paid for by companies.
Patrons are generally greeted warmly at the door and seated as far away from other customers as possible. In some instances, a customer is able to choose with whom he spends time, while most often that is decided by the house. In either case, the hostess will leave after a certain amount of time or number of drinks, offering the customer a chance to see a fresh face. While most establishments have male touts outside to bring in customers, it may also fall upon a (usually new) hostess to do so.
In addition to their on-site duties, hostesses are generally obliged to engage in paid dates dōhan (同伴?) with patrons outside of the bar and regular working hours. This system generates repeat patronage of a particular bar by developing attachments between particular customers and hostesses. Sometimes sex occurs on these paid dates. Hostesses may be deducted pay for not having enough dōhan dates.
There is also a hostess club in Tokyo catering to lesbians.
Hostessing is a popular employment option among young foreign women in Japan, as demand is high. However, work visas can be difficult to obtain, so many choose to work illegally. The clubs sometimes take advantage of the precarious legal situation of the women. The industry and its dangers were highlighted in 1992, when Carita Ridgeway, an Australian hostess, was drugged and killed after a paid date, and in 2000 when Lucie Blackman, an English hostess, was abducted, raped and murdered by a customer. The government promised to crack down on illegal employment of foreigners in hostess bars, but an undercover operation in 2006 found that several hostess bars were willing to employ a foreign woman illegally. In 2007, the Japanese government began to take action against these hostess clubs, causing many clubs to be shut down, and many hostesses to be arrested and deported. Now under strict laws, it is only legal for foreign women to work as hostesses if they are Japanese citizens or have a legal spouse visa.
In December 2009, a trade union, called the Kyabakura Union, was formed to represent hostess bar workers. The union was formed in response to complaints by hostess bar employees of harassment and unpaid wages by their employers.
A "snack bar" (スナックバー sunakku bā), or "snack" for short, refers to a kind of hostess bar, an alcohol-serving bar that employs female staff that are paid to serve and flirt with male customers. Although they do not charge an entry fee (and often have no set prices on their menus), they usually either have an arbitrary (and expensive) bill or charge a set hourly fee plus a "bottle charge". (Customers purchase a bottle in their own name, and it is kept for future visits.)
Venues outside Japan
Hostess bars are also found in other east Asian countries, Hawaii, Guam, and California. In Hawaii approximately half of Oahu's 300 bars are licensed as hostess bars. In Hawaii and Guam most of the bars are operated and staffed by Korean people, while most bars in California are staffed by Chinese people.
Some bars in Thailand label themselves as hostess bars; these are loosely related to the East Asian practice, although they are basically a class of the local go-go bars that do not feature dancing.
A host club (ja:ホストクラブ) is similar to a hostess club, except that female customers pay for male company. Some host clubs also specialize in transgender male hosts. Host clubs are typically found in more populated areas of Japan, and are famed for being numerous in Tokyo districts such as Kabukichō, and Osaka's Umeda and Namba. Customers are typically wives of rich men or women working as hostesses in hostess clubs.
The first host club was opened in Tokyo in 1966. In 1996, the number of Tokyo host clubs was estimated to be 200, and a night of non-sexual entertainment could cost $500 to $600. A women's studies professor explained the phenomenon by Japanese men's lack of true listening to the problems of women, and by women's desire to take care of a man and be loved back.
Male hosts pour drinks and will often flirt with their clients, more so than their female counterparts. The conversations are generally light-hearted; hosts may have a variety of entertainment skills, be it simple magic tricks or charisma with which to tell a story. Some host clubs have a dedicated stage for a performance, usually a dance, comedy sketch, etc.
Hosts' ages usually range between 18 and the mid-20s. They will take a 'stage name' (源氏名 genji-na), usually taken from a favourite manga, film, or historical figure, that will often describe their character. Men who become hosts are often those who either cannot find a white-collar job, or are enticed by the prospect of high earnings through commission.
While hostess bars in Tokyo often have designated men out on the streets getting clients to come into their clubs, some hosts are often sent out onto the streets to find customers, who are referred to as 'catch' (キャッチ kya-chi), but these are usually the younger, less-experienced hosts. A common look for a host is a dark suit, collared shirt, silver jewellery, a dark tan, and bleached hair. Recently clubs where hosts wear casual clothes have been increasing, but still the norm is the smart suit look. At these clubs there can be an 'own clothes day' (私服デー shifukudē) where the hosts can wear their normal clothes.
Pay is usually determined by commission on drink sales with hosts often drinking far past a healthy limit, usually while trying to hide their drunkenness. Because the base hourly wage is usually extremely low, almost any man can become a host regardless of looks or charisma (depending on the bar). However, hosts who cannot increase their sales usually drop out very soon, because of the minimal wage. The environment in a host bar is usually very competitive, with tens of thousands of dollars sometimes offered to the host who can achieve the highest sales.
Many of the clientele who visit host bars are hostesses who finish work at around 1:00 or 2:00 a.m., causing host bars to often begin business at around midnight and finish in the morning or midday, and hosts to work to the point of exhaustion. But business times have changed in recent years by order of the police due to the increased incidence of illegal prostitution by host club customers who could not pay the host club debts they had accumulated. Nowadays most of these clubs open about 4:00 p.m. and have to be closed between midnight and 2:00 a.m. However even after the order, some clubs are still open all night, or, which is the "new strategy", the out of club business increased. Drinks usually start at about 1000 yen but can reach around 3 million yen ($US 30,000) for a bottle of champagne.
Buying bottles of champagne usually means a 'champagne call' (シャンパンコール). All the hosts of the club will gather around the table for a song, talk, or a mic performance of some kind. The champagne will be drunk straight from the bottle by the customer, then her named host, and then the other hosts gathered. Often a wet towel will be held under the chin of the customer and hosts while they drink to prevent spills. The performance differs from club to club, and is believed to have originated at club Ryugujo in Kabukicho by the manager Yoritomo.
Also a 'champagne tower' (シャンパンタワー) can usually be done for special events. Champagne glasses are arranged into a pyramid, and champagne is poured onto the top glass until it trickles down the layers of glasses. A champagne tower uses at least 6 bottles, but for a 7 layer tower, 20 bottles can be used. Depending on the champagne used, this can cost between 1,000,000~2,000,000 yen.
On the first visit to a host club, the customer is presented with a 'menu' of the hosts available, (男メニュー), and decide which host to meet first, but over the course of the night, the customer will meet most of the hosts. The customer then decides which host they like most, and can make him their named host, (指名). This can be done by buying a 'keep bottle' (a bottle of liquor that can be saved for next time), stating your interest in a host, or inviting them to sit by you. The named host will receive a percentage of the future sales generated by that customer. Most clubs operate on an 'permanent nomination' system, (永久指名): once the named host has been nominated, a customer cannot change hosts at that club.
Sometimes a host will go with a customer for a meal or karaoke after hours. This is called 'after', and considered bad manners by some people. Staying longer at the host club is considered the 'proper' way to treat your host. It is possible to go on day trips or travel with a host, but a host can only go with their own customer. A host interacting with another host's customer is liable to be fined or fired from the club. Drinks can be purchased 'on tab' (掛け売り), but contact information is taken and the customer must pay later. If the customer does not pay, the host must. It is considered rude to leave a customer alone, called 'only' (オンリー). A customer who is abusive and troublesome is called a 'painful customer' (痛客) and may be expelled from a club.
Usually, hosts try to make the clients feel loved without having sex with them, as it takes up their time and energy. Sometimes, for instance if a customer pays a large amount of money and/or if the host likes them in return, the host can have sex with the client. If the same host meets the same client, they have a higher chance of having sex than the host having sex with another client. There are various terms for a host who has a sexual relationship with his customer, e.g. a 'erotic love business' (色恋営業), 'erotic love' (色恋), 'erotic guy' (色彼), 'pillow business' (枕営業) or 'pillow' (枕).
There are other methods of 'business.' For example, 'mail business' (メール営業) is the practice of a host emailing his customer regularly to ensure their return. Similarly, a host may call their customer, but this is fading in popularity now with the rise in popularity of mail business. Hosts will usually carry a business phone (営業電話) and a private phone.