Host clubs in Japan have been notorious for their questionable business practices for a while now. But a series of recent incidents of exploitation – including a stabbing – have the country’s lawmakers calling for action.
The structure of host clubs
Host clubs are bars where young, conventionally attractive men entertain customers (mainly women) by sitting with them at their tables. (Cabaret clubs, or キャバクラ, are the equivalent staffed with female entertainers – キャバ嬢, kyabajou.) The clubs charge sitting fees – either by the hour or as a set fee for “unlimited” time. There are additional charges for drinks, pictures, and various other services.
Clubs typically start off new patrons with a low-cost “first visit” course. This introduces them to multiple hosts while also supplying them with unlimited alcohol. After the customer chooses their “managing host” (担当ホスト) – their oshi (推し) – for subsequent visits, costs can rise from 10,000 yen ($66) up to 30,000 yen ($199) or more per visit, depending on how much the customer drinks.
“Champagne calls”, in which customers can purchase bottles of brands such as Dom Perignon or Louis XIII, can run into the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. Most expensive brands of champagne at clubs have anywhere from a 10x to 15x markup over retail.
Host clubs have been around since 1965. They took off as a trend in 1971, with Aida Takeshi’s Club Ai in Kabukicho. Since then, Kabukicho has been a mecca for host clubs.
Like all “customer contact” (接待; settai) entertainment businesses in Japan, host clubs are regulated under Japan’s entertainment law (風営法; fuueihou). The regulations stipulate how clubs must operate, who they can hire, and who they can serve. For example, hiring or serving anyone under 18 is illegal. (Several concept cafes, a similar business governed by the same law, have been busted recently for violating this law.)
But, as with alcohol and legalized gambling, just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s good for you.
A lust for profits brings misery
Hosts are ranked in their clubs according to how much money they bring in every year. That means many pressure their best female customers to spend more and more to push their ranking up. Many will maintain frequent contact with their customers via LINE, ingratiating themselves to the point where they feel more like a boyfriend than a professional entertainer.
Within the club, there are multiple incentives for customers to spend as much money as possible. The “last song” system, in which the host who makes the most money for the day gets to sing the last karaoke tune – with their supporter by their side. Customers may spend up to 300,000 yen ($1,992) for this privilege.
What’s worse, many shops will allow customers to buy expensive drinks, such as champagne, on credit. Women who get hooked on host clubs – known colloquially as ホス狂い (hosu-gurui) – can find themselves slipping into a debt spiral.
Sex work and stabbings
Women who want to continue their host habit will sometimes take up sex work to earn extra money. Last year, the Tokyo Tax Bureau fired a woman for working at sex shops to support her host. (The issue wasn’t the nature of the work: many Japanese companies and government agencies prevent workers from having side jobs.)
We also wrote recently about Watanabe Mai, the itadaki-joshi (“sugar baby”) scammer whom authorities say defrauded men of millions of dollars to support her favorite host. Watanabe is now facing jail time – as is her host, whom authorities allege knew full well how she was earning her money.
Hosts themselves often feel pressured to suck money from their victims by any means necessary. In some cases, the “credit” for expensive drinks or last songs is fronted by the host – who’s on the hook for it if the customer doesn’t pay. Hosts who rack up significant debt even once may be stuck with a negative image for the rest of their careers.
Stories abound in Japanese news of women whose hosts actively encourage them – or, in some cases, even force them through threats – to take up sex work to pay for their host habits. One woman who left a juvenile facility when she was 18 told politicians about how she began visiting host clubs out of loneliness. The club encouraged her to take up sex work to help her support her habit, which at one point hit 5 million yen ($33,190).
The workings of the host world made headlines again recently when a woman in her 20s stabbed a host in Kabukicho in his right shoulder. The woman, who seemed to be a customer, waited for police to come and freely admitted to the crime, screaming about how the man had ruined her life.
A crackdown on host clubs is coming (maybe?)
Of course, not everyone gets enamored of hosts to this degree. Many customers visit host clubs regularly for the sheer spectacle and enjoyment, spending only a modest amount.
But for some, the host lifestyle can become an addiction that ruins them, financially and psychologically. And many hosts and clubs don’t do anything to intervene. Many even encourage the downward spiral.
These tales of woe have reached the ears of legislators, who say they want to tighten restrictions on host clubs. The Liberal Democratic Party’s Kato Ayuko, who heads children’s policies for the cabinet of Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, called the coercion of young women into prostitution by hosts “a serious problem.” She’s calling for police in host club-heavy areas like Kabukicho to increase supervision of the clubs.
Kato also says the government should do more to support women who find themselves in these situations. She said that her office would work with the various departments in the government to formulate a prevention strategy.
The ruling party isn’t the only one taking (some sort of ill-defined) action. Diet member Shiomura Ayaka of the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) said she’s received letters from family members of women who’ve been done wrong by hosts. She says she and her staff are working on a prevention strategy to submit to the Diet.
In addition, the CDP said it sent a letter to the Tokyo Metropolitan Police demanding tougher policing of host clubs.
It’s hard to say yet whether these vague calls for action will amount to any concrete change in Japan’s entertainment law. But it’s good that someone in charge is finally taking notice. Businesses that take advantage of people at their lowest moments are just begging to be reigned in.
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