Answerman What Are Host Clubs Really Like?
by Justin Sevakis,
Being a more mature female anime and manga fan, I'm very intrigued by the idea that host clubs, as depicted, actually exist in Japan. I always said if I made it to Japan, it would be the first place I'd visit. (It's on my bucket list). Can you tell me more?
Host Clubs have been a thing since at least the early 2000s. They were inspired by hostess clubs -- bars where guys can buy overpriced/watery drinks and hang out with attractive girls who flirt and fawn over them all night. Host clubs are the male equivalent.
If you got your entire mental image of a host club from Ouran, I'm sorry to say that you're probably a little off. That would be a HIGH SCHOOL host club -- i.e. something a lot more innocent and whimsical than the real thing. Also, those don't exist.
As with hostess clubs, the whole thing is actually kind of seedy, and socially, working at or going to a host club is considered something that respectable people don't do. But the city is big and crowded and anonymous, and it's not like host/hostess clubs are prostitution or anything like that, so many people don't see the harm in them. The people that work in this sort of business are usually the ones without a whole lot of options, but really want a lot of money. And if you don't look past the surface, it really does seem like harmless entertainment.
Your first time at a host club, you might get ushered in by one of the guys paid to stand on the street and chat you up, hustling you to go inside and spend money. Once inside, you'll flip through a catalog of handsome, skinny young Japanese guys with lots of jewelry and Final Fantasy hair. The guy you select will be your fake-boyfriend at that club, and no matter how many times you come back, you can't switch.
While you'll probably interact with most or all of the hosts, your host will sit with you, chat with you, pour you drinks, dote on you, and try to make you feel special in some way. (Note that you probably will need to speak Japanese for this to be very effective.) He may be juggling a few customers that evening, but in the time he's spending with you, he's all yours. If you REALLY want attention, however, you order a "champagne call" -- wherein you pay the equivalent of several hundred dollars (depending on what champagne) to chug a bottle with with your host. Most of the time, the host will end up drinking most of the bottle for you. But most importantly, the entire bar stops and lavishes you with attention.
Whereas many hostess clubs make their money from businessmen entertaining clients and charging the evening's festivities to an expense account, host clubs make a bulk of their money from a number of "regulars." It almost goes without saying that this sort of thing can quickly develop into a problem for the women who frequent these places. Most end up falling for their host, and show their affection for him with money -- sometimes competing with other women to see how much attention from him they can buy, but with champagne calls and other "extras" like sitting in a special premium seat secluded from other customers. Some regulars can drop as much as ¥5 Million (US$50,000) in a single night.
What they're paying for is entirely fantasy. The hosts are saying anything that will embellish the customers' fantasies, even if that means lying to them that they love them, and otherwise stringing them along. While some girls are after sex, generally host clubs have a no-touching policy. While the hosts do sometimes sleep with their customers after hours, this is regarded as a bad idea, since those customers usually never return after that.
The uncomfortable truth is, many of the women who frequent these clubs are hostesses themselves, or even sex workers. After all, there aren't that many other women with both the expendable income and the tendency to spend it on frivolities. For some of these women, host clubs become about healing from their day jobs where they've had to serve and pretend to like a bunch of guys. At a host club they can relax and be treated like a princess without being judged. Sometimes this becomes about reclaiming control over this part of themselves: The head games between them and the hosts can get very intense. Some even continue working in prostitution just to continue going to the host clubs.
If this all sounds like a pretty intense line of work, that's because it is. Unlike hostesses, who usually have customers order them non-alcoholic drinks, hosts generally spend the entire night chugging champagne and throwing up. New hosts burn out REALLY fast, and those that stick around can develop severe alcohol problems, have an attack of conscience about their regular customers, or get fed up with the girls that glom on too hard or start stalking them. Obviously, having a real relationship while being a host would be impossible. And that's to say nothing of the hours.
More worryingly, there were also a series of highly publicized incidents a few years ago where women would stay at the host club until the next morning (or even afternoon), and ring up an insanely high tab that she couldn't pay. The scummier clubs would then sell this debt to a (probably yakuza) loan shark, who would threaten or blackmail her. Some women were forced into prostitution. In order to crack down on this, most major cities regulate that host clubs can't stay open past midnight or 2am. This also had the side-effect of making it harder for hostesses to go directly to a host club after they get off of work. Prior to these laws, host clubs would stay open all night and into the next day.
But a lot of entertainment industries can offer a night of fun, while the more you pull back the curtain, the more seedy weirdness there is under the surface. Ultimately I think of places like this like I think of casinos or strip clubs: if it's what you enjoy, by all means, go ahead and have a ball -- just don't stick around too long or dig too deep. Nobody is forcing these guys to work such a punishing job. But understand that it's a place that's engineered to play upon your emotions to get you to spend as much money as possible. Going too often is probably indicative of some larger problems in your life, and will almost certainly cause more of them.
Although it's a little dated now, I highly recommend the documentary "The Great Happiness Space," a 2006 film that follows the most popular host club in Osaka and its owner. As of this writing it's only available from Netflix's mailed-disc service.
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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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