I had only been in Japan a few days and I was looking for work. I found myself for the first time at Suisho, a local bar that would become a regular haunt, sharing my apprehension over drinks with my boyfriend, Colin, and Mark, the longtime resident foreigner. The bar shared a kitchen with the next-door establishment called Pub Tiffany, a discreet, windowless building. Pub Tiffany was a hostess bar, a male-only club that charges an exorbitant cover charge for entry. In general, hostess bars are like this: upon entry, the men pick a girl from a lineup of hostesses to be their paid companionship for the evening. Hostesses sit with their patrons, pour them drinks, light their cigarettes, listen to their stories about their stupid wives and pretend like they’re the most interesting, charming men in the world. The girls push the drinks, the men pay for the girls’ drinks too and the bar makes money. After closing time, the girls often go out with their patrons, which may or may not involve sex. That’s their choice. One hopes.
Anyway, since Suisho and Pub Tiffany shared a kitchen, the proprietor of the hostess bar would periodically dart through to pick up orders. He was a middle-aged man who nearly always wore suitpants and vests, and looked exactly like the type of person to be running a hostess bar. I wish I had learned his name, but since I didn’t, I’ll refer to him as Suitpants-san. So Suitpants-san knew Mark, and stopped over to chat with all of us, speaking through Mark who at the time was far more fluent than Colin or myself. Through Mark, he casually offered me a job. At the time I laughed, but I briefly considered it, in my job-panicked mind. Within a couple weeks, I’d snatched up the first teaching job I could find, and didn’t think about anything else until it all started falling apart.
My boss always reminded me how lucky I was that she was sponsoring my visa, that there would have been no other place for me to teach English in such a rural area, that she was doing me a huge favor. I was paid cash under the table, far less than the going-rate for a native speaker, and I should have just been happy to be able to stay in the country, according to her. It’s true the company was struggling, but it was a sinking ship I probably never should have climbed aboard. I loved my students, but it only took a few weeks for me to begin feeling frustrated with my lack of knowledge and control over my schedule, the surprise classes, the office hierarchy. There was the manipulation, the guilt-trips, and the occasional devastating acts of kindness that made it all the more complicated to consider leaving. There was nowhere else that would sponsor my visa, Yoshiko would tell me, not in the inaka. Meanwhile, on cold nights out I walked down streets with friends and we would pass one hostess club after another—the larger places had girls standing just outside in shifts as a display of merchandise to lure men inside. They stood there with their usually dyed and inflated hair, shivering and dressed like they were attending a ghetto prom.
While there’s nothing illegal about working as a hostess, it still falls under the category of mizushobai, literally “water trade”, or sex work. Of course there’s a stigma attached to it. These joints are known for some shifty business, and it’s not uncommon for the hostesses to be Filipino girls or Eastern Europeans working illegally. In bigger cities, there are international hostess clubs that feature predominantly white or Filipino women. I remember passing by one in Fukuoka that had a group photo out front of a mixture of Southeast Asian women in traditional clothing and what appeared to be average to vaguely attractive Eastern European women dressed in the usual tacky prom dress fare, many with dirty-blond hair, large noses and wide-set eyes. Must have been exotic to the Japanese guys.
When we started experiencing white girl sightings in our own middle-of-nowhere, wasteland of rice paddies and onions town, I became extraordinarily curious about Pub Tiffany. Mark had only been in once, and said that it wasn’t worth it. There was a 4,000 yen cover charge (about forty bucks), plus you have to pay for all the drinks after that. At one point we heard from Suitpants-san that there were four Romanian girls working there. Colin and Mark had met one of them at Suisho after hours, when I wasn’t with them. That girl didn’t last long. Apparently, she called Mark not long after that because she needed help finding somewhere to buy a cheap alarm clock. Mark drove her to Trial, a Wal-mart type store in a nearby town, then returned her home. After a few hours, he received a call from Suitpants-san, delicately explaining that the girls cannot be seen out in public with him, because it’s intimidating to the customers and affects the girl’s reputation. Spending time outside of work with customers is a major part of being a hostess, so I wonder if it was more objectionable that Mark wasn’t a customer, or that he was a large, foreign guy.
Still, I was determined to get in somehow. Whenever we were at Suisho and saw Suitpants-san pass through, Mark would drop hints in Japanese, gesturing to me, “[She’s very interested in seeing the club.]” But the answer was always the same, delivered with a raised eyebrow: “[Hmm, she should work there.]”
Things continued to deteriorate at work, and it was only the students that kept me from losing it completely. Yoshiko had put me in a position where I felt constantly indebted to her, thus I could never refuse anything she asked of me. I had no personal space, no contract, no boundaries—I was on call at all times, and in a constant state of anxiety. I usually worked at night, but my sleep could be cut four hours short if she decided to call me in for any reason. She insisted that there was nowhere else I could find visa sponsorship, but what about those girls at Pub Tiffany? It was harder to get away with working illegally in the countryside due to increased visibility. My own visa listed me not as an instructor, but as an “international specialist in humanities”. Maybe they had strange visas as well, like entertainer’s visas or working holiday visas.
I was frustrated with my company, but the hostess club was always there. It was mysterious though, open to us only if we wanted to pay or work. Talking to Mark, Suitpants-san once said tantalizingly, “[You should come in. We’ve got Filipinas,]” The Japanese view of Filipino people is comparable to the American view of Mexicans, so I asked Mark why this would be a selling point. He told me that while Japanese hostesses are more likely to have a strict view of their working hours, Filipinas tend to foster relationships outside of work, exchanging texts and keeping up a rapport.
I straddled a strange position, wondering who I was in relation to the foreign hostesses in my town. We all worked nights, and we worked under perhaps less than legal circumstances. We didn’t have the benefit of a contract or a larger built-in network to assist in our transition to life in Japan or mediate any grievances. As sex workers, hostesses are more vulnerable to assault. When that worker is also a foreigner working illegally, she has no legal recourse. I began reading stories on the internet about hostesses being turned away by the police, about non-Japanese Asian women disappearing as if they had never existed. At the same time I was contemplating the dangers of being a hostess, a young British teacher in Tokyo was murdered while giving a private lesson at a student’s home. Most of my job involved giving private lessons at students’ homes.
I wasn’t actually too worried about getting raped or murdered, as a hostess or a teacher. It was rather the implications of these crimes that worried me—that as foreign women, regardless of our profession, we were being fetishized the same way, we were feeding the same unseemly pathology. It’s undeniable that the function of some foreign teachers is just a step above eye candy. Maybe we weren’t so different after all.
In times of increasing frustration, I began weighing the pros and cons of taking Suitpants-san up on his offer.
Pro: I’d be paid to drink and flirt. I like drinking and hanging out with old guys, I think. I’d just had a very nice conversation with an old man about Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. I’d probably make more money than as a teacher, anyway.
Pro: I’d get to practice my Japanese. As an English teacher living with my American boyfriend, I didn’t get much chance to learn Japanese beyond the basic communication I used in my daily life.
Pro: Great source of material for later writing.
Con: Expectations to meet with clients outside of work. One major way that these places make money is that they arrange “dates” between the clients and girls before work. The clients pay a fee and are allowed to take the girls out to dinner, then drop them off at the club before their shift. Girls are pressured to pick up as many of these “dates” as possible, and could be let go for failing to do so.
Con: I’d already had negative experiences with Japanese work-hierarchy and arbitrary rules, and I certainly didn’t want to experience what that might look like in mizushobai. Also, I had a hard enough time making friends with Japanese girls, and I didn’t want to see what ugliness could potentially emerge if I were actually competing with them.
Con: I didn’t even like being a cocktail waitress! What made me think I’d be that much more comfortable pretending to like and stroking the egos of old men who could potentially be gross, disrespectful, or racist?
Con: Probably not a good idea for my burgeoning alcohol problem. The excessive consumption of alcohol is actually a common job hazard for hostesses. Since it’s their job to push drinks, they don’t exactly have the agency to say no when drinks are offered to them.
Con: I’m living with my American boyfriend and he won’t let me.
I had to respect Colin’s wishes. That was the right thing to do, and that should have been the end of it. Still, I found myself resenting the fact that I was unable to go objectify myself if I felt like it. What if I wanted to debase myself, have a horrible, traumatic experience, make some money and fuck myself up? Maybe I wanted to disengage further from my body, and put a price tag on my smiles and conversation along with it.
I didn’t become a hostess, and had no choice but to avert disaster. Though I’d already made my decision, in actuality, the idea didn’t die in my mind until I realized that I didn’t own any nice dresses, and there was nowhere I could buy any that would fit. My resolution didn’t, however, kill my curiosity, and one night I finally did see the inside of Pub Tiffany.
My friend Grace was visiting from Chicago, and we’d spent the week doing the standard Kyushu tour. We were finally finishing things off with a local bar crawl of sorts, and we found ourselves highly intoxicated at Suisho. I had already gotten Grace interested in hostesses, and she was eager for a way into Pub Tiffany as well. As soon as we saw Suitpants-san pop in from his club to use the kitchen, we flagged him down: “[She’s interested in being a hostess! Can she look around your club?]” Suitpants-san agreed, but told us we had to wait until the customers left. We continued to drink, and in time Suitpants-san led myself, Mark, and Grace through the back entrance of Pub Tiffany. We expected the customers to be gone, but the place was devoid of any indication that people had just been drinking and carousing there. It was spotless, with low lights and plush seating, carpeting, far more luxurious than the gritty bar next door. It was completely vacant besides Suitpants-san and the middle-aged woman at the bar, who was the resident Mama-san. No hostess bar is complete without a Mama-san, an older woman who wrangles the girls and keeps up a platonic rapport with the clientele. Suitpants introduced the Mama-san, who seemed less than thrilled to see us. What came next was essentially a job interview. They would ask questions, and we would either answer for Grace or translate them for her. I remember Mark asking if they had any foreigners working at the bar. “Ima, imasen,” Mama-san replied. There aren’t any now. Mark chatted with them about the Romanian girls, sympathizing with them about how the situation had been taihen (difficult). Suitpants was friendly and talkative, but Mama-san seemed reticent, cautious. At one point she emphasized that the girls must do things like sing karaoke with the customers. She said it as if it were something she expected to be a problem for foreigners, as if she’d experienced issues with it before. I translated this to Grace, and she slurred, “I love to sing karaoke. Tell them that.” I did. Grace added, “Tell them I have a bar in Chicago, too.” When they asked what kind of visa she had, we told them it was a tourist visa. They exchanged a look of ambiguous meaning. Before we left, they told Grace to come back tomorrow, during business hours. It wasn’t until we were walking home that I realized Grace had no idea what had just happened. Through all of the arrangements Mark and I had made in Japanese, we neglected to tell her that we had offered her up for employment.
When I returned from Japan, I applied for a number of jobs, but the one that panned out was as a children’s literacy instructor at a social services agency. I enjoyed my work there for a year, but felt the need to move on, to move away from elementary education and childcare before it was too late to try anything else. Professionally, all I’ve been able to experience is elementary education, and it’s never been what I’ve intended to do. In some ways, I feel like it’s been forced on me, but after three years, it’s becoming me too. I would say that I’m versatile, but maybe I’m malleable; professionally, morally, in my personality, my selfhood. I came back from Japan a teacher. I can rattle off lesson plans, I can manage a classroom, I use a particular voice and have specific systems for dealing with behavior issues. After a year at the social services agency, I discovered that I’m actually a literacy instructor too, able to effortlessly follow a set curriculum and make adjustments when necessary, chart progress, speak cogently about LDs and IEPs. It’s shocking that after three years, I essentially became something that I thought I wasn’t. I’ve discovered that I’m actually very good with children, and not everybody who works with them is. Although I feel like I’ve fallen into this line of work somewhat against my will, it’s quite lucky that I’m really, really good at it. But just because I’m good at it doesn’t mean I’m satisfied with it, and I desperately feel like I need a change, since teaching is practically all I’ve known. Maybe I’m better suited for something else and I don’t even know it, but the universe never gives me the chance to find out. I’ve been trying to find work in non-elementary education jobs in social services and nonprofits, only to get shut down every single time. And every new opportunity to appear is further down the path of educating children.
This brings me to my final point: that a young woman with little more to show than a BA in English is essentially worthless, except in the areas of childcare and sex work. Working with children is incredibly important, but it isn’t for everyone, and it certainly shouldn’t be the default job for people who can’t do anything else. And sex work—well, I once read something about sex work, and I wish I could cite the source, but for the life of me I can’t remember where it’s from. Anyway, I read that the increasing problem of sex work is not that it’s victimizing poor and disenfranchised women, but that it’s attracting educated, middle class women. The reason that’s a problem is that it’s not sustainable work—a woman can spend her youth as a sex worker, but there’s a shelf life, and once it’s up, she’s in her mid-thirties with no career experience, and it’s incredibly difficult to start on a new path. Thus, the world misses out on many potential contributions of educated women. Women, as a population, are proportionately far more educated than men, but that isn’t reflected in their income or career advancement. I don’t hold it against a woman with an advanced degree who chooses a career in sex work. I do, however, hold it against society when sex work is the most viable option for a woman with an advanced degree.