Letters from Japan: ‘Why Hostess Clubs?’

Ask Hilary: Questions From Readers Answered

By Hilary Keyes
January 21, 2022
Ask Hilary

Savvy Tokyo's resident "Love in Japan" columnist, Hilary Keyes, answers anonymous questions from readers on everything from dating in Japan to women’s health issues. Got a question you’d like to ask Hilary? Send it to askhilary@savvytokyo.com.

Hi Hilary,

I am originally from America, I live in Japan and have a Japanese boyfriend. My boyfriend owns a company and now that it’s the end of the year, Bonenkai parties begin. My boyfriend goes to several of these and they usually go to izakaya but he mentioned to me the other day, they usually end in hostess bars and to be honest that concerned me. I know there’s the whole cultural differences thing but I’m not liking the idea of him being in a place like that. I tried to explain it to him but he didn’t understand because to him it’s a cultural norm for men to go to these places. His reasoning for going is because the people from these companies he has to work with want to go, and he can’t tell them no. The nights he goes I end up staying up waiting for him to come home around 2 or 3 am, wondering where he’s been and what’s happened. I really hate it but I can’t seem to explain the issue in a way he can understand. Any advice that you can give me would be so much appreciated! 

–Culture Shock

Dear Culture Shock,

I think an explanation of the cultural differences you mentioned is key.

Japanese business culture is a fascinating thing to study if you have the time and interest in researching the interplay between different kinds of industries, the long history of how certain establishments work, and so on. Taking your coworkers, clients, or business relations out for expensive drinks is a necessity, not a perk.

There’s even a word for it. Nomunication is the portmanteau of the Japanese for “to drink” (飲むnomu) and the English ‘communication’. It refers to the kind of open and more honest discussions that arise after alcohol has loosened people up slightly. What you can’t say directly while sober becomes more palatable and easier to take after a beer or three.

Taking your coworkers, clients, or business relations out for expensive drinks is a necessity, not a perk.

Drinking at izakaya or pubs is common enough, but as you mentioned your boyfriend often ends up at hostess clubs towards the end of the night. For clarity’s sake, I want to point out a few things about hostess clubs themselves.

Hostess clubs are something akin to a modern geisha establishment: they casually drink and chat/flirt superficially with men, sing karaoke and otherwise help to facilitate conversation. The activities that go on there aren’t sexual in nature; hostess clubs are not strip or gentlemen’s clubs whatsoever. Generally speaking guests at said establishments aren’t allowed to touch the hostesses. According to some hostess friends of mine, men are more often than not banned for even trying or making off-color comments.

While both Japan’s drinking culture and the mizu shobai (水商売) or night-time entertainment industry are problematic in their own ways, for the sake of this article we’ll simply focus on the issue at hand: your boyfriend and his visiting hostess clubs with clients/companies.

Hostess clubs have been home to high-level business and political negotiations for decades. The relationship between hostess clubs and businesses is perhaps best summarized via a quote from Wikipedia: “Businesses may pay for tabs [at hostess clubs] on company expense with the aim of promoting trust among male co-workers or clients. At one establishment, about 90% of all tabs were reportedly paid for by companies.”

Hostess clubs are something akin to a modern geisha establishment

In fact, if you take the geisha image further, having women pouring drinks and entertaining while men discuss business or politics has been a Japanese cultural norm going back to the Heian era (794-1185 CE). It’s a deeply entrenched part of Japanese working culture.

As you mentioned, izakayas are a common place to take coworkers and so on for parties, but hostess clubs are, generally speaking, where clients or otherwise “higher level” people are entertained. Your boyfriend owns his own company, and therefore a hostess club is a more appropriate venue from a business standpoint than an izakaya when it comes to entertaining people from other companies.

What I find concerning about your message is the implication that him going to a hostess club in a business capacity is somehow him acting against you. You’re allowed to dislike him going to those clubs, that’s understandable. If he were going for any other reason I would be on your side as well but according to your email, that’s not the case.

He’s being told by those companies that they want to go. As in, these companies that he wants to work with or keep working with are directly requesting that they go to hostess clubs with him. If he were suggesting it himself, going to them on his own, or otherwise making it a habit of spending time at hostess clubs instead of with you, then my advice would be entirely different.

hostess clubs are just another aspect of working for himself

Because he’s being asked to go to them, and because he owns his own company, your boyfriend is between a rock and hard place. If he wants to keep working with those companies then he has to make sure they’re happy with him/his company, and if that means going to a hostess club, then he has little choice. To put things in a more stark perspective, his options are to either go to a hostess club or risk damaging/losing his livelihood. Put in that context, his answer is an obvious one.

Another thing I’d like to point out is that a lot of men don’t actually like going to hostess clubs whatsoever. It’s not fun for them, it’s expensive, the drinks aren’t exactly the best quality… “Having to sit around and pretend to care about some old guy’s fun for three hours while nursing a cheap gin and tonic is my idea of hell” (Japanese, 30s).

I think your boyfriend does understand your perspective on him going to hostess clubs. He might even be against it on a fundamental level, but at the same time and, again based on what you said in your email, this is all a part of doing business. To him, hostess clubs are just another aspect of working for himself and again, are at his client/other company’s request.

Unfortunately, this is one of those subjects where you will either have to be tolerant of the cultural differences or find yourself a new boyfriend that doesn’t work in any sort of industry that would require him to entertain or be entertained by clients/other companies. Good luck.

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