When Will Americans Stop Hating and Love the Maid Café?

by Justin Sevakis,

Michael asks:

I live in Ohio and recently a small group of people scheduled a maid cafe to be held in a suburb here. They rented out a cafe to use during its off hours and sold tickets, got everything setup, etc. On the day of the event, the owner saw them setting up and also saw two older gentlemen coming in for the maid cafe and called it off. This caused several articles to be published both in local newspapers and on the internet which made the event sound like nothing more than a pedophilia convention. As result, the group's Facebook page and comments on the press were full of hate, negativity, insults and harassment. I guess my question is, do you think this will ever change? Will the public at large ever be more tolerable of otaku culture or will things like maid cafes have to remain in our little bubble kept away from the eyes of the mainstream public?

Maid cafés can be a fun place for both the girls that want to experiment with dressing up and role playing, and the guys that love them for it. But the concept is not one that fits naturally within the context of America, and to an outside eye, looks a lot more like a regressive place where girls act subservient and get skeeved on. It's a very foreign concept, and being that it's deeply rooted in fantasy role-play, one that probably doesn't have a lot of mainstream potential. As such, when trying to introduce the concept to the general public, you have to be VERY, VERY careful. And this whole mess seems like a case study in what not to do when attempting such a feat.

From what I was able to ascertain from the news reports (which you can read here, here, here and here) the organizer of this event made several mistakes, the big one being not effectively communicating to the owner of the café what, exactly, would be going on there. People get very protective of young girls, and had the owner known exactly what opening up a pop-up maid café would entail, she probably would've said no from the start. Maybe that wouldn't have been what the organizer wanted to hear, but it would've prevented this whole mess in the first place.

I think the real question we should be asking is, do maid cafés really have a place in America at all? To be honest, I'm not sure they do. Even in Japan, they're not exactly mainstream -- they're mostly found in nerdy places like Akihabara in Tokyo and Den-Den Town in Osaka. And if we look beyond the role-playing and fantasy elements, they are essentially a place for lonely guys to pay to be doted upon by cute girls. Japan already had a ton of hostess bars (and far, far worse), so when maid cafés became a thing in the mid 2000s, and they seemed comparatively innocent. That said, they are still a place where girls dress up and fulfill guys' fetish fantasies. They may not be a big deal, but they're still not a place most parents would want their daughters working.

Now take that idea and put that in America, with its more conservative attitudes about sex and its constant (and justifiable) concerns about sexual predators. Our guys are a lot less shy and reserved than they are in Japan. We also have a huge problem with untreated mental illness that meshes rather terrifyingly with a large ex-prison population. Suddenly the idea just FEELS a lot more dangerous, even though it might not be. If I had a teenaged daughter (I obviously don't) I would probably be okay with letting her take part in a maid café at a convention, with its security team and its police presence and its large lawsuit-cognicent organizing board. But at an open-to-the-public thing in a quiet midwest suburb with no on-hand security? HELL no.

I don't mean to cast aspersions on anybody taking part or wanting to take part in a maid café, or their parents. It's easy to stand on principle over something that doesn't interest you in the slightest. (I mean, my fantasies involve oddly cuddly Abercrombie models serving me Korean BBQ while we watch Mamoru Oshii movies, not girls in frilly french maid outfits playing games with me over tea.) That said, I don't think that disqualifies me from saying that the concerns are real, even if the way they came about in this case were overblown.

As for this story, I'm not taking anyone's account at face value. The café owner literally filed a police report, which is just ridiculous. The organizer stated to local media that the maid costumes she intended the staff to wear were plain, dowdy knee-length maid uniforms, which I'm not buying for a second. And then once the local media got involved, it was all internet pitchforks from there on out. Because local TV news websites are where the pearl-clutching middle-aged sanctimony squad likes to fester.

And you ask me if there's any reason you should hope this would change? I'd say the problem isn't America hating on otaku, the problem is that we're reacting to all of this like Americans. Everyone in this story has acted either self-righteous, closed-minded or supremely lacking in self-awareness. This is what happens when otaku don't take into account that they're in America, and that otaku interests can look really weird and oversexed when you're not part of it. And this is what happens when the other side overreacts and freaks out on them.

That's not going away. That's a tale as formulaic and repeatable as your average Marvel movie.

Thank you for reading Answerman!

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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