It's 8pm at a restaurant tucked away in Tokyo’s red light district when the first call of Shoui Hara’s business day comes in. He has yet to report to work but his best client needs to talk urgently.
He forces a grin as he puts down his chopsticks and dispenses comfort by mobile phone in his most saccharine voice: “It’s okay, there. I’m sure you’ll get over your cold soon.”
The interruption over, Hara takes a long sip from his ice tea. Six months ago Hara was diagnosed with an ulcer for the second time and the doctor told him to stop drinking. He didn’t because he couldn’t. It’s part of his job.
Hara, in fact, still feels queasy from the previous night when he helped drink six bottles of Dom Perignon, at least two put down by himself.
His only regret is that the champagne cost a measly 100,000 yen (about RM3,700) a bottle. The better customers pick wine that is nearly US$10,000 (RM38,000) a go, he says.“Hangovers are a professional hazard,” the 30-year-old Hara tells me but he is conscious of his need to stay in shape, all the same. He went home at 5am and started his day trying to work off his belly at the gym and an indoor golf course, he says.
With his Versace suit, Rolex watch and hair gelled up 5cm, Hara is a 21st-century Japanese geisha.
Much like the legendary female hostesses, Hara and hundreds of other men known as “hosts” have devoted themselves to indulging every fancy of moneyed customers – but for these male geishas the clients are women.
The hosts can be called to duty at any time of any day to be an escort on a shopping spree, a date for dinner or, more discreetly, a warm body for what would otherwise be a lonely night.
And however modern the idea might seem of women paying for agreeable male company, the gentlemen-for-hire are often sought out by women whose idea of romance, even if paid for, is distinctly old-fashioned and based on old-style charm.
“The women are looking for someone who looks after them and appears confident at all times,” he says.
“I am a person, but I’m also a brand.”
Swinging into action
At 10pm, Hara and some 80 other hosts are trying to work their way into hearts and purses at the Lady’s Club, the biggest of the 200 host lounges in Kabukicho, the hub of Tokyo’s flesh trade.
Chandeliers dangle over each table and gold-coloured replicas of ancient and Renaissance statues clutter the ledges as a tuxedoed band plays Broadway numbers to which the hosts and their clients dance.
Hara isn’t worried about business tonight. He is with a regular: Kayako Namba, 28. Twice a month on average she takes the two-hour train ride to Tokyo from the western city of Nagoya, spending up to US$5,000 (RM19,000) each time for the train fare, a hotel and a night of conversation with Hara.
The relationship is complex. At times it is she who appears to want to pamper him.
As they sit at their table she pulls a gift out of a paper bag next to her Louis Vuitton purse. It is a plastic box full of beef and potatoes, a typical grandmotherly dish in Japan. “I made it myself. Last time he said he was longing for a little home-cooking,” she says.
At other times, it is Hara who is listening to and flattering her. The conversation is flirtatious. She carefully chooses her outfit for each meeting, tonight selecting an in-season black woollen blouse, a knee-length brown pleated skirt and nylon stockings.
“I wish she would come sometime in a kimono,” Hara says. “I see so many women in suits in Tokyo. I want something more feminine.”
Namba agrees that, weather permitting, she will find a kimono next time. She has grown to trust Hara’s advice since she first met him in March 2004 during a bus tour of Tokyo nightlife and enjoys the relationship.
“He didn’t seem like a host. He looks so natural and is so mature,” she says.
Hara, holding a pen which with a flick turns into a cigarette lighter, senses an opportunity for a bit of flattery in return.
“She has improved since I’ve been with her. She’s lost weight and her hairstyle looks great,” Hara says, bringing laughter of delight to Namba, a hostess herself, paid to clink glasses with men who pay for the privilege.
Behind the host business’s facade of soft-spoken, well-groomed Romeos paid to pamper the well-heeled women of Tokyo, lies an industry that is both lucrative and cut-throat.
Born to the owner of a profitable construction firm on the outskirts of Tokyo, Hara remembers the younger version of himself as a quiet and mediocre student who failed to meet his ambitions.
“My parents were so busy they didn’t have much time for me,” he says. “I was more brawn than brain. But I wanted to move ahead.”
He thought he found his chance at age 16 when, at a karaoke parlour, he ran into employees of another construction company, quit school and for a year and a half hauled iron bars at building sites.
But he realised his toil might be for naught when he discovered that key members of the construction firm were yakuza, the Japanese mob, which has a strict code of advancement.
“You start at the bottom of the ladder. I’ve always wanted to be on top of something.”
He returned to high school and did night university classes before at age 27 he discovered another path to success: hosting.
His first encounter with the business was watching a television documentary. He was drawn not by the thought of spending long hours with women but by the brutality of the profession.
“I saw on the television that the bosses would punch the new hosts, force them to clean the toilets and to answer phones. I knew I had strong willpower and could be Number One. Some of the new recruits don’t last even two hours.”
Hara says he has not experienced much abuse in his three years of hosting, other than the occasional under-table kick in the shins by supervisors telling him to drink more. He has, though, reached Number One in a competitive league table of the club’s top hosts.
“I was Number One in December with 29 customers in 27 days,” Hara says.
But Hara, who estimates his annual income is above US$360,000 (RM1.37mil), is not satisfied, as his earnings in the 200-host club are based on the drinks sold. “I was only Number Three in sales. The Number One found a rich woman of around 60 years old.”
“There are strict rules against stealing other people’s customers,” he says. “What I need to do is find more customers who are willing to spend a lot and to educate them to buy the most expensive wines.”
“In hosting there are always new goals to reach,” he says. “I want to be able to look at my father and tell him I’m more successful than him.”
No sex please
Hara can find competition a block away at the Top Dandy club, which opens its doors at midnight and has its own set of tricks.
Amid a dense fog of cigarette smoke, the hosts announce it is time for a toast.
Six men in suits surround the customer, a beauty industry executive who just returned from vacation in Hawaii, and open a bottle of champagne.
“What a beautiful tan you got!” one host shouts as they all clap loudly around her table and watch her blush.
“How beautiful you always are!” another bellows even louder as the executive puts her hand on her face to suppress her giggles.
For no more than 10 minutes of attention, she dropped on the table one million yen (about RM37,000) in cash – higher than the per capita annual income of most countries.
“There are people around her and she wants to show off,” says one of the hosts, who goes by Yoritomo.
Such high-flying executives are in fact the exception more than the rule among the clientele.
“We get more and more customers who have daytime jobs. But more often we have hostesses and sex industry workers. They are people who are socially down and out and want to talk about their jobs, their problems or even their boyfriends,” Yoritomo says.
Such intimacy has its risks. While it is an open secret that many hosts sleep with their clients, sex is discouraged as it can fuel jealousy and sour business.
Hara has become an expert in dealing with jealous women, knowing when to launch his full charm offensive on a customer if she seems angry he has gone to another table in the club.
“I’ve been slapped 10 or 20 times and I’ve been pinched all over until my body is blue,” he says matter of factly.
“But I have to keep smiling to make sure the woman is smiling by the time she leaves – and to make sure she buys more drinks.”
At 2am, Namba is smiling as Hara escorts her out of the gaudy club and onto the streets of Kabukicho, where the bright lights of strip clubs are flashing and a salaryman with his tie loosened is carrying a passed out woman in a miniskirt.
Hara, his work day only half over, slides his right arm firmly around Namba’s waist, flirting with the sex they are not going to have tonight.
“I would really love to spend the night with Mr Hara,” Namba says before staggering alone to her business hotel. “But if our relationship turned physical, there would be nothing more to dream about.”
In two weeks’ time she will be back for more. – AFP
Source: The Star
These clubs are generally called "host club". The first host club was apparently opened in Tokyo as early as in 1966. In 1996, it is reported that the number of Tokyo host clubs was estimated to be 200, and a night of non-sexual entertainment could cost US$500 to US$600.
The male hosts pour drinks and will often flirt with their clients, more so than their female counterparts. The conversations are generally small talk. Hosts may have a variety of entertainment skills, such as magic tricks or loads of charisma in telling stories. Some host clubs have a special stage for a performances, usually a dance, comedy sketches, male cat walk fashion show etc.
Hosts are usually between the ages of 18 to the mid-20s. They will take a 'stage name' or nickname. Men who become hosts either cannot find a good paying white-collar job, or are enticed by the prospect of high earnings through commission.
Male hosts are generallay high class gigolos selling their charm to entertain paying female customers.
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