Sunday, May 27, 2007

Boy Toys: No longer under the shadow of their sisters, Japan’s hosts have taken center stage

By Brett Bull
Photos by Martin Hladik

In a club on the fifth floor of a building in the Kabukicho entertainment district, four ladies are whisked from their booth to the stage. Early ’90s-era techno pumps from the sound system as no less than 20 “hosts”—young gentlemen whose sole duty is to entertain women—hit the dance floor immediately in front of them.

The boys, outfitted in upturned collars, pointy shoes, sleek suits and practically trademarked spiky hair, shift laterally, clap, spin and swing their arms in unison as the glass chandelier above reflects the house lights. The club’s owner, Yuga, sits between the girls, facing his boogieing charges, who now are taking turns singing into microphones.

Then, just as quickly as it came to life, the party freezes to allow for a cork from a Dom Perignon bottle (white) to be popped in silence. As the performers huddle around the four guests, a boisterous shout of “Kampai!” breaks the quiet. With the ladies, glasses in hand, absolutely beaming, an escalating vocal roar from the troupe signals the resumption of the pulsing music.

It’s just another evening at Club Prince.

“This is an original space,” says host Ageha, 21, who is dressed in a velvet coat, curly black bow and lip ring. “Providing a dreamlike environment, as with the champagne toast, is something special. That is the most important thing. You can’t do this at an izakaya.”

Back in the vinyl booth after the floor show has finished, the hosts sit opposite the four ladies to gently feed them compliments about their personality, dress and demeanor. Fanned out in all directions, other young women giggle as they receive similar treatment from their doting attendants.
While this might sound like pure female fantasy, the nationwide host industry is often viewed as a vulture preying upon innocent girls who wind up entrenched in debt. Also not boosting public relations are assumed ties to organized crime. Yuga, who once fronted the pop trio Kids Alive, hopes to change that perception through the release this month of the CD single “Love Dokkyun” (Heartbeat of Love) by his new band—not coincidentally named Club Prince—on pop label Avex. His desire is to take the glamour and nonstop pace of the host lifestyle around the globe.

“I want to create an image similar to that of an amusement park, like Disneyland, for the host world,” says the 22-year-old of the group’s single, which is a high-tempo dance number that starts off with a call for free-flowing alcohol. “Since music is a worldwide language, I decided to use
a song to convey this message to as many people as possible.”

Inside Club Prince, each table has a standard setup: ice bucket, mineral water, glasses, ashtray and coaster. (Hosts will also be equipped with lighters in their pockets for quick draws on unlit cigarettes.) Small circular tables are bunched in single rows to allow the customer and her male admirer to sit directly opposite one another—but never next to each other, an important point so as not to appear too aggressive. Should a lady, however, request a little closeness, curved tables pushed into corners allow for easier side-by-side seating.

Basic rules at the club, in which flower arrangements in the corners give a romantic flair, require that a host not ask a guest her occupation because she is likely there to forget work-related stress. But once she passes through the front door and onto the red carpet that splits the room, any of the 150 svelte hosts on the rolls will typically be able to deduce her means of employ quite quickly. (Two thirds of all customers are involved in some kind of sex or hostess trade, with the remainder being office ladies or company presidents.) This knowledge is critical because a good host will always need to be conscious of the perceived needs of his target so he can adjust his approach.

“There are so many different kinds of ladies coming here,” Ageha says. “It is very difficult for my character to be flexible to each type.” Deciphering which customers would prefer an over-the-top personality versus those who want subtle sweet talk is necessary. But the overall theme, no matter the lady, is that simple flattery will get you everywhere.

“Even if the customer is not good-looking,” says Yuga, who like most hosts goes by his genjina (performing name), “the host will heap praise upon her. She should be like an idol. Hosts must treat the lady like a princess.”

The video for “Love Dokkyun,” whose cover features a pyramid of filled champagne glasses, is a staple on the club’s monitors. Vocalist Yuga and the other four members (all hosts) are flanked by a multitude of curvy, hip-shaking female dancers as the word “Love” is splashed on the screen repeatedly, which is perhaps ironic in that very little about the host experience is centered on sincere emotion—much less full-blown l-o-v-e.

It is not real, admits Kanako, who at one point in her on-again-off-again hostess career visited host clubs in Kabukicho once every few months. But the hosts are so smooth that it is easy to get lost in the whirlwind.

“If I am spending a lot of time in the club with these guys in what is a virtual world, the next thing I know I am out the door and on my way home,” explains the 26-year-old. “Then the next night I am working at my club. Events go from one to the next so easily that the virtual world starts to blend with reality.”

One of her entertainers, she relates, suggested marriage, which she partially believed to be a legitimate offer only to find out later that this was simply his standard sales technique.

Yuga, however, believes that true success for a host requires more than merely a golden tongue, saying that what lies beneath that shiny suit is most important. “If your heart is poor,” he explains, clutching his chest, “you are worth nothing.”

But to keep up expectations, he adds, a stylist comes to the club to shape the manes of Club Prince’s hosts into the stringy, scarecrow-like coiffure that has become the trade’s standard.

Other essentials include the shimeisha system, whereby a customer can reserve a particular boy-toy for her private use, and the dohan, which is a dinner date. Both services have a single rationale: developing a pseudo-relationship that will keep the lady coming back to the club.

Since a host’s ranking is based on the income he brings to the club, Kanako believes, this faux bond creates an obligation for the customer to faithfully support her man.

A stroll through the crusty alleys of Kabukicho will reveal numbers assigned to host mug shots plastered outside the windows of most establishments. Club Ai, an empire of venues generally credited with being the best in all of Japan, is known for its top-ranked hosts jumping ship to start their own businesses. When Kids Alive broke up in 2003, Yuga started hosting at Raphael, a Kabukicho club where he managed to ascend to the number one spot in three months.

“If I like a particular host, I want to see his stature increase,” explains Kanako. “So I will keep buying drinks. My feeling is that it almost becomes my duty.”

It is here that things can get dangerous very quickly. The price of that bottle of Dom Perignon from the dance number? ¥80,000. Other, more select varieties are ten times that figure. Even generic white and red wines that might be priced at less than ¥1,000 at a Tokyo liquor store sell for ¥8,000.
The go-go club environment further inflates the bills, almost exponentially.

“I might see one customer at another table buy an expensive bottle,” says Kanako, who often ran up tabs of around ¥40,000 yen. “And then invariably there will be another. I don’t want to be a loser. So it is like a challenge to keep up.”

Factor in an entry fee of ¥3,000, kick in a shimeisha charge of ¥2,000, and sing a dozen tunes in the executive karaoke room (¥15,000 per hour), and it is not surprising to hear reports of nightly tallies amounting to hundreds of thousands of yen.

Of course, any customer will be matched one-for-one in drinking by her trusty sweetheart—after all, his compensation is mainly a 50 percent commission of total sales. This leads to, Yuga estimates, an average host downing a staggering 30 glasses of various booze throughout one evening of entertaining multiple customers.

Offsetting this intestinal strain somewhat are the handsome pay packets hosts receive. Though a rookie just cutting his teeth might only pocket ¥150,000 a month, it is not unusual for a veteran of as little as six months to be taking home ¥3 or ¥4 million. Likewise, top-earners will be expected to look the part, dolling out a few hundred thousand yen a month on fancy threads and accessories, perhaps fancy rings or a sparkling necklace.

While legendary in host circles as a standard perk, lavish gifts (Armani suits and Bulgari watches, for example) are not permitted at Club Prince. “This is the case because otherwise hosts will not be motivated to generate more sales at the club,” explains Yuga, who sports a ¥3.5 million gold watch that he says he purchased himself.

The profession depicted in the lyrics of “Love Dokkyun” is that of a charismatic, virile gentleman who possesses superhuman skills to drink into the wee hours. But make no mistake: these boys take their lumps. Rookies are assigned to scrub toilets—heavy drinking often necessitates forced vomiting in the bathroom in order to indulge again for subsequent patrons—and the continual promotion process necessitates that dozens of phone calls be placed and hundreds of emails be sent each afternoon to prospective or steady clients, all the while nursing a cloudy head.

Then there is sex. Even though it is not on the menu and a legal element needs to be navigated as to protocol—what’s done in private without direct payment is not the police’s business—succumbing to a request for physical favors might be a last resort in getting a customer to return.

“Once it happens, she will want it to continue,” says Yuga of the type of customer referred to in host slang as a makura (pillow). “Of course, the host will then request that she make a return visit to the club. Otherwise it won’t happen again. It is a part of the service necessary to meet the customer’s demand.”

Further complicating customer recruitment are recent Tokyo Metropolitan Government regulations that prohibit hosts from trolling the streets to snag clientele and a mandate that clubs shut their doors between 1 and 5am. (Club Prince reopens at around the latter hour to service hostesses getting off work.)

These measures were set in place following continued instances of girls accruing mind-boggling bills, for which they were forced to secure high-interest sarakin loans or—worse—pushed into fuzoku (sex service). Hostess Kanako has a friend who, in spite of not having visited a host club for over a year, is still in the hock for approximately ¥1.5 million.

Yuga does not deny these shady elements exist in the industry. But he feels it is time for a change. “We have to stop painting a picture of violence and dirty behavior,” he says.

He even will go so far as to claim that his club is in defiance of yakuza gangsters, who traditionally extort money from business operators by requiring the purchase of mundane goods like ice and towels at outrageous prices in exchange for “protection.” Yuga says quite simply: “They are not welcome.”

Today Yuga possesses a collection of a half-dozen businesses that reach as far as Hokkaido and include an Akihabara maid café. This summer will see an expansion into Kyushu. “My dream is to be tops in Kabukicho in two years,” he says of his lofty goal to surpass Club Ai.

Though he is now primarily involved in the business side of things, Yuga still can’t resist the need to serve. “If I sit here in this seat,” he says from the edge of a table opposite one of the original four women, “it is my mission, my habit, and part of my personality to make sure that each lady enjoys herself.”

Club Prince. 5F-1-2-7 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku. Tel: 03-3232-7776. Nearest stn: Shinjuku, east exit. www.club-prince.com For more info about the Club Prince music group, see http://avexnet.or.jp/clubprince/index.html.

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