In Japan, the term "hostess" doesn't mean wearing pressed black pants and seating customers in section eight. Nor is the word a euphemism for "prostitute." But after a month of working as a hostess at The Flamingo Club in the heart of Tokyo, I can tell you that the true meaning of the word lies somewhere in between.

Hostess bars are more plentiful than strip clubs in Japan, and considered a common pastime for Japanese businessmen, especially on compulsory nights out with the boss. The modern hostess is an offshoot of the geisha--a highly trained and disciplined entertainer of men. These days, a Japanese man's hunger for paid coquetry is satiated through more casual means, such as yapping, heavy flirtation, the occasional hand on the knee, incessant smiling, and most importantly, uncompromised attention paid to him.

Although the geisha days are long past, the tradition lives on in the hostess' every gesticulation, word, and calorie expended for the sole pleasure of a man. Let's remove our feminist thinking caps for a moment and take some time to appreciate and understand the hostess for her incredible discipline, mystique, and for the sheer shittiness of her profession--which is why this American girl lasted about two seconds.


If you want to work in Japan, there are two choices for foreigners: 1) teach English, or 2) hostess. I had a two-month contract to work at The Flamingo, a sunnaku, or hostess club. I was to be paid $8,000 plus airfare and rent. This deal was unheard of according to most girls--usually only $15 an hour or no guarantee at all. Sheryl, the Canadian bag who booked my work contract, would say, "Oh, Japanese men l-o-o-o-o-ve blondes. All you have to do is bat your eyes, eh?" As you can guess, she was feeding me complete bull--but at least it wasn't a scheme to kidnap me into the harem of some Yakuza gang lord.

Another girl, Kim, flew out to fulfill the same contract I had signed (she was a racist Canadian stripper who threw my purse in the trash because I used her curling iron). She and I lived together in an apartment the size of a playhouse. It cost the club $2,100 per month in rent. That's typical in Japan.


Count yourself lucky for the American labor movement--because Japan didn't really have one. The typical workweek is six days long, and my nights on the job lasted from 7 pm to 3 am. I was laughed at when I referred to it as "an extraordinarily long shift." Unfortunately, my motivation to work was not strictly financial; quixotic notions of experiencing Japanese culture quickly faded when I realized how little time I had to myself. Eight straight hours of smiling, sitting pert, acting, dancing, drinking, secondhand smoking, and karaoke-ing is like being trapped in a perpetual party from hell.

Nonetheless, being the "guest hostess" (white lady flown in from North America, especially of the blue-eyed breed) could be pretty invigorating. To sit with me cost more, and I got priority placement with gaijin (foreigners). There were special announcements over the speakers that I was from "Or-ai-gun," my favorite color was turquoise, and I hoped to be a "good model" someday.

Despite the novelty of being an exotic intrigue, part of me wished I weren't. It brewed tension amongst the house hostesses, who were 10 times hotter and more cultivated than I at this profession--Japan is swarming with the most gorgeous and rigorously groomed women on earth. I can recall seeing only two overweight Japanese during my entire stay, and an array of beauty products I hadn't even known existed, like full-body corsets and invisible face-lift masks.


Most of The Flamingo's customers were Japanese, and would pay $100 just to get in the door, and then another $100 per hour. Drinks and food with painfully unruly prices were bought as though they were free. I recall handing a bill for $13,800 to a table of just four men.

Most hostesses end up meeting their husbands on the job and hastily leaving the profession at a young age, despite the fact that most customers are married. One hostess introduced me to her Filipina friend who had become a millionaire divorcée at 23, which is not uncommon in Tokyo.

Despite the pseudo-opulent environment I was in, one thing was a bit off; I would always smell a farty cat-urine scent by the bathrooms. I swore it smelled like crack. I soon learned that it was crack, and that it's a typical hobby for upscale businessmen.

Thanks to Mama-san (the head hostess in charge of keeping the girls in line), I managed to have some regulars. One was a waify 21-year-old rock 'n' roll TV magician with long brownish fingernails like curly fries. Since I couldn't speak Japanese, our speechless moments together consisted of him pulling objects--like condoms--out of my hair while I clapped my hands in the manner of a gleeful retard.

Another one was "Lawyer Joe," a half-blooded Japanese-American who would get lazy-eyed drunk and insist on my repeating the admission that he was not Japanese! Then one night he started mumbling about ordering two hits on some "bad people" in Japan. I ordered two more drinks for him to make sure he wouldn't remember his little secret sharing.

My favorite was a jolly, fat, 60-year-old Chinese man who would supply me with Cuban cigars (women smoking cigars is considered very "unbecoming"). Luckily the one phrase of English he knew was pertinent to our relationship: "Inhale no-no, Jenna!"

Sean Penn was said to come in often, as well as Dabo, a famous Japanese rapper who girls freaked over. Japan was going through a hiphop frenzy at the time, and the night Dabo came in for his birthday was the only time I saw any of the girls go full-frontal on the karaoke stage.


Unlike strip clubs in the states--where dancers are typically fired for going home with the patronage--dating customers outside of work was encouraged at The Flamingo. It's called dohan. Hostesses get extra wages if they bring in new patrons or their regulars from a dohan, which usually consists of dinner or a visit to a smoking room, followed by the club. At first this seemed like signing your own rape warrant, but I soon learned that looming fears of violence and Jeffrey Dahmers don't infest Japan's female collective unconscious like they do in the U.S.--violent crime is scarce in general. (I once left a purse with $350 in it in a bathroom stall and had it promptly returned to me with apologies.)

Girls were encouraged to drink (this means more money for the club), and when bought a drink it's rude not to consume it. The girls would get so wasted they'd puke on the floor. Mama-san would simply have them sit out for an hour--then it's back to work! I quickly learned to order Dita soda with a splash of sake because the mix tasted much boozier than it truly was. This safeguarded against the possibility of my customer testing the drink to see that my drink was just as intoxicating as his own.


The novelty wore off after a month. I'd realized that Japanese cultural enlightenment does not occur by immersing oneself in a sea of drunk CEOs and karaoke--not to mention I had never worked so hard in my life. In order to get out of my contract, I got busy violating the most vital hostess laws of all. They were conveniently posted in the dressing room and consisted of the following: 1) NEVER leave a man alone, 2) hand the man an Oshibori (hot towel) after bathroom (this was gross), 3) light cigarette [within] 5 seconds, 4) always leave the toilet seat up and the toilet paper in triangle fold, 5) you will be fined for wearing a jacket, pants, or flat shoes on the floor.

Despite the fact I was caught in a wrinkled blazer and rumpled hair with my cigarette very lit, and my customers' very not, I just got yelled at instead of fired. Two days later, I arranged for a friend to wait in a getaway car two blocks from my apartment while I pretended to sleep until my roommate left. Then I packed my things in six minutes flat and escaped. According to some hostesses I kept in touch with, the owner of the club sent some goons to the airport to try and find me that night. I was instructed by my ex-coworkers to stay away, and I happily complied.

I spent my last days in Shibuya Square, drinking Dita soda and watching the pop-obsessed Guarango girls shop--not lighting anybody's cigarette, not smiling, and slouching like I've never slouched before.