I Entertained Men For Money In Tokyo In The ’90s

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asian couple on date in tokyo

At night, the streets of Tokyo transform into blinking neon lights. And young, pretty girls on bulletin boards summon men to come in.

I passed by these hostess clubs to and from school every day, but I never thought I’d be one of those girls entertaining men for money.

In the summer of 1990, I was an 18-year-old fresh out of high school. My friends and I were celebrating by doing the usual, hitting the clubs in Roppongi, Tokyo’s popular nightlife district.

Photo: Danny Choo via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

That night, I was approached by a vivacious Australian girl. She asked me if I was interested in working at a Kyabakura, a hostess club where men come to chat with young girls who pour them drinks, talk, and sing the occasional karaoke.

That might be an odd concept for foreigners that men pay to chat without expecting sex, but it’s a perfectly normal part of the Japanese salaryman (office worker) life.

It’s like an offshoot of the geisha tradition or like a gentleman’s club for overworked men.

I figured, why not? I was headed to a university abroad after the summer vacation so a bit of fun cash didn’t sound too bad.

Besides, my parents didn’t need to know. I never told my friends either for fear of judgment. It was going to be my exciting, big secret.

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The girl without an identity

My parents moved from Nepal to Japan when I was two. I considered myself Japanese in a lot of ways. I spoke the language like a native and my mannerisms reflected that too.

My only connection to Nepal was through my parents when we visited relatives during summer vacations. I looked Nepali, but I was far from it.

My first taste of Japan was rough. I was bullied relentlessly in kindergarten for looking different. It got better when my parents enrolled me at an international school in first grade.

But, outside of school, the country was still a battleground. I hated looking the way I did. I despised my long nose, my frizzy hair, and my skin color. I wanted to look more like a kawaii (cute) anime character.

I had low self-esteem.

That’s why when I was scouted to work at a Kyabakura, I felt flattered in a way to be recognized in a positive way for my looks.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The first night

On the first night, the Australian girl introduced me to the mama-san (the owner and the matriarch) of the hostess club.

I still remember her vividly.

She was a loud-mouthed, petite woman probably in her early 40s who had a birthmark next to her mouth like Marilyn Monroe. She hung out behind the bar counter most of the time overlooking the operation like a hawkish pimp.

To the girls, she was like a mother figure — nurturing but tough.

I was nervous, mainly because I wasn’t used to talking to men or even boys my age, the result of a lifetime of attending an all-girls catholic school. I was the poster child of a good girl — obedient with good grades and a bookworm.

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I rebelled secretly. I started drinking at clubs when I was 16, thanks to Japan’s lax rules regarding alcohol and parents who chose not to question my hangovers.

So, here I was testing my skills.

I’ll never forget my first customer just like I’ll never forget my first boyfriend.

He was a tall, lanky man who looked like a middle-aged politician with a suit jacket, tie, and whisks of hair polished neatly to the side.

As soon as he sat down on one of the plush booths, mama-san flicked her hand at me, directing me to sit with him.

I offered to take off his coat, offered him a hot towel, and poured him a drink and then myself one.

He smiled warmly and asked where I was from, and the usual small talk. He talked about his job as a boss of an insurance company and how he wanted to speak better English.

As one bottle of whiskey disappeared after another, he let his guard down. He delved into his family life, how his wife was a nag, his sons were lazy, and work was stressful.

He wanted to be a singer but his parents were traditional and instilled in him the value of getting an education.

For the next three months, I talked to dozens of men who were looking for a companion to talk to. Of course, some men tried to take it further, but I was protected under the watchful eyes of mama-san.

I felt like a therapist consoling them, which I was naturally gifted at so I got repeat customers in no time, which translated to more money.

These men were desperately trying to let off steam just so they could survive another day of work and a home that didn’t provide them with solace.

I genuinely empathized with them. At work, they probably looked like bada** bosses, but their insides were screaming for help. I knew that feeling wholeheartedly.

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Finding myself

In an odd way, the club became my home.

In the most unlikely of places, I was permitted to feel what I had longed for all my life: accepted.

Men with power, money and status poured their hearts out to me as if I was their best friend.

In turn, it gave me a level of confidence and self-acceptance I had struggled to attain for years.

And the girls I worked with were sweethearts who were the most open-minded people I’ve ever met.

They too were outsiders in a country that regarded hostessing as a sleazy, low-class job.

The girls wanted enough money to travel or study abroad. They envied that I spoke English like a native. They complimented my nose, my eyes, and my face structure.

Some were married with kids. Others were single moms trying to make ends meet. I thought they were brave for doing the opposite of what society expected of them.

They wanted my life when I wanted theirs. It struck me how I was so consumed with my own life that I didn’t see that we all suffer in one way or the other.

In a funny twist of fate, we found belonging in each other.

Sixteen years of self-loathing turned into something positive just as I was about to leave the very place beating me down.

It was exactly what I needed before university, setting me up for reinventing myself in a place far away.

Being a hostess girl — who would have thought that’s all it took to find my happy place?

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June Kirri is a writer on culture, parenting, and mental health.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.