They live fast, drink hard and have more game than a pachinko parlour.
Some say that hosts are good-for-nothing cads who live off women but for those who love ’em, they’re a therapist, boy toy and rock star rolled in one. In the interest of research (but of course), I recently watched Yaoh and the British documentary The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief to get a better understanding of the subject.
So, low-life gigolos or cold-eyed casanovas out to make a killing? I’ll leave it to you to decide but suffice it to say: Toto, we’re not in Ouran anymore.
Yaoh: 2006 drama about an ex-thug (TOKIO’s Matsuoka Masahiro) who overcomes various obstacles (read: backstabbing, over-amorous patrons and host club power struggles) to become the number one stud in Tokyo’s red-light district.
Put it this way: If Jackie Collins were a Japanese woman and she had written a novel about a rookie host who out-beds, outwits and out-charms his rivals to become Tokyo’s top lothario, this would have been its live-action adaptation (well, except for the out-bedding part.)
The Great Happiness Space: 2006 documentary by British director Jake Clennell that takes viewers behind the scenes at Stylish Rakkyo Cafe, which used to be one of Osaka’s top host clubs till it closed its shutters. We meet its owner Issei, his boys, as well as the club’s clients, and through a series of candid interviews find out the answers to all the burning questions that you’ve ever wanted to know: Do hosts sleep with their clients? If it’s all just make-believe, why do women bother spending so much money at host clubs? That whole “healing a woman’s heart” spiel — is there any truth in it or is it just plain BS?
The Den of Iniquity
Yaoh: Club Romeo, Shinjuku, Tokyo
Located a discreet distance from the gaudy neon lights of Shijuku’s main thoroughfare, Club Romeo is basically a more adult version of a butler cafe. Its waist-coated employees and Euro-esque interior are meant to evoke suggestions of class and refinement. Too bad no one told their patrons that carrying bricks of yen around in their purse spoils this illusion.
The Great Happiness Space: Stylish Rakkyo Cafe, Minami district, Osaka
Rakkyo caters to a young clientele and its style is similarly laidback and unfussy. In fact, it looks rather unassuming and if I were to walk past it without seeing the club’s signage, I wouldn’t automatically think it was a host club. The furnishings aren’t particularly fancy but for those willing to splash out a bit more, there are semi-private booths for rent, which are ideal for jealous types who don’t want to see their hosts mingling with other customers.
Host with the Most
Yaoh: Seiya, age unknown
Suave and charismatic, Seiya is a charmer who never fails to dazzle his clients, not even when he is wearing a suit that has obviously been fashioned out of 17th century brocade curtains. Or a polar bear.
No club hostesses for him, Seiya deigns only to entertain women from the top echelons of the business and entertainment worlds. And they in turn are only too happy to drop millions of yen (sometimes literally) just for the pleasure of smelling his lip gloss.
While his underlings are often seen enjoying sexy times with their clients, Seiya’s own encounters are very chaste in comparison, which makes sense if you think about it. Who knows what kind of a bloodbath would ensue if they found out he was sleeping with one of them? This explains why his clients are mostly content to hang on to his arm, though he’s been known to go wild and reserve an entire cinema for a private movie date.
The Great Happiness Space: Issei, 22
Oh, Issei’s got game all right. At the time of filming, he was apparently the number one selling host in the entire Minami district and it isn’t hard to believe this. On the surface, he has a disarming charm that draws people to him. Though he’s got a swagger that comes with knowing that he’s the district’s top dog, he’s not obnoxious about it (then again, he was being filmed. For all I know, he could be a complete asshole off camera.)
Charm, however, isn’t the only thing that he has going for him. Like all successful hosts, Issei is a born salesman. He can read his clients like a book and more importantly, he has, in the words of his bar manager, “an instinctual understanding of women’s needs.”
Considering that he’s peddling dreams of a relationship that can never be, the fact that one woman even went so far as to break up with her fiancé just so she could be with him at the club should give you an idea of how good he is at his job. And unlike his drama counterpart, let’s just say he’s seen a lot of action on the side.
Issei: I’ve done whatever girls asked of me. Sure, I had sex. I was having non-stop sex. I had sex with 365 girls a year.
A Day in the Life…
Unspecified hour of the day: Wake up, thank the drama gods that your hairdo has the tensile strength of concrete so you don’t have to spend hours styling your hair every day.
This leaves you time to hang out with your friends at your friendly neighbourhood diner and do good deeds such as helping soapland girls clean their bath tubs and saving clients from a life of prostitution.
Evening: Head for work. If you’re the leader of a host faction, gather your boys together to do The Strut™ down Kabuki-cho. Presenting the Fall/Winter 2006 Rent-a-Stud collection:
Night: Enjoy civilised tête-à-têtes with clients and since this is a club of sophistication and taste, this means no rowdy karaoke sessions or champagne calls. Club Romeo must be the only host club in Japan where the employees do not suffer from alcohol poisoning or liver failure.
Morning: Close shop for the day. If you’re Ryosuke, retire to the rooftop to admire Tokyo’s skyline. One day, all this will be yours when you become the King of Kabuki-cho because behind every successful man is a woman, and behind every woman is obviously a host. As you can see, logic is clearly not this drama’s strongest suit.
The Great Happiness Space
Unspecified hour of the evening: Crawl out of bed, check that liver is still alive, drag self into bathroom.
Nighttime: Head to club, style hair, accessorise, get ready for another night.
Midnight: Solicit and pick up new customers, flirt and chain smoke with regular clients, down 10 bottles of champagne and abuse liver all over again, think of the money you’re earning while throwing up.
Morning: Say goodbye to clients, close shop for the day, stagger out into the daylight, try not to walk into a lamp post. Head home for much needed sleep.
The Rest of the Boys
Yaoh: The rest of the hosts at Club Romeo basically fall into two factions – Team Seiya (aka the Baaaaad Hosts) and Team Ryosuke (the good guys who just want to make women happy — for a fee.)
Over on Team Seiya, we have:
Hikaru: The cold-blooded Madam killer (think Honey-senpai but older with a knife fetish)
Taiga: the ex-boxer who lures girls into prostitution
Ran: The man skank who will suck you dry, in more ways than one
Making up the numbers for Team Ryosuke are:
Takeshi Kaneshiro’s long lost twin an ex-medical school student and heir to a family hospital who gives up his fortune so that he can answer his true calling — healing women’s hearts as a host. (Given the kind of roles Kaname Jun has been playing, I can only guess that his rent must be exorbitant. Either that or he has some very expensive habits to maintain.)
The loud, annoying one no one wants to fuck Ryosuke’s yankii kouhai
Kin: The granny killer
As you can see, Team Ryosuke is quite the egalitarian faction. It doesn’t matter if you turn tricks (as long as you’re not related to any of them) or if you’re a little on the mature side, there’s a host for everyone!
The Great Happiness Space
What’s your poison, baby? Do you want someone cool, someone with a sense of humour or someone who makes your heart beat like a boombox? In a sense though, it doesn’t really matter who you end up choosing because ultimately, their job is to be whatever you want them to be.
Issei: Catering to women’s desires is what it means to be a professional host…We facilitate their desires. If she wants a humble, cool guy, I will be [that person.] If she wants a funny guy, I can be like that too.
Yaoh: The big spenders at Club Romeo are lonely businesswomen with lots of disposable yen to splash around. Ryosuke’s patron is a successful fashion designer who saved him from a life of crime and introduced him to the world of host clubs because — wait for it — he has the ability to make people happy. (If you need career advice, these are not the people to speak to.)
The Great Happiness Space:
In reality, sex industry workers are the ones who form the financial backbone of the host club industry. They’re the only ones who can afford to a) visit regularly and b) drop up to a few grand each time they visit. For them, host clubs are a place where they can enjoy themselves without being judged for their profession and receive the kind of attention that they give their clients. Of course, things are rarely that simple when feelings are involved and the relationship between a host and his clients can often turn into a vicious cycle, especially when he’s the reason they have to continue working in the trade since they won’t be able to afford the regular visits if they were to quit the industry.
Quite a bit has been written about Japanese host clubs and if you’re interested in different perspectives on the subject, here are a few links to check out:
- CNNGo interview with Manabu Numata, a Tokyo-based photographer who held an exhibition of host club portraits in 2009 after spending a good number of years taking photos of the city’s smooth talkers. Read it here.
- Memoirs of a (Male) Geisha: An American Host in Japan — Part 1 | Part 2| Part 3
- Interview with Usagi Nakamura, a popular Japanese columnist who spent 15 million yen (US$195,570) on her host over a 14-month- period.
- Are Japanese host clubs a modern phenomenon? Not really, according to this feature story. Though written in 2003, Casanovas for Hire still makes for an entertaining read as it navigates the inner sanctums of some of Tokyo’s most popular host clubs.
- Once a host always a host? Not so for Kanehara Takumi, who walked away from a life of honeyed words and liver failure to become a manga artist. Check out his stunning Ghibli fanart here.
- Finally, if you’re planning to visit a host club during your trip to Japan, here are a few things to keep in mind: The Rules of Host Club