Japan's Disposable Workers

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Hostess Girls

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Educated but Not Employed

As soon as Karen Hanazuka, 24, entered her senior year of university, all her classmates traded their short skirts and skinny jeans for dark suits and started going to job fairs. Hanazuka did not join them in their search for a full-time office job because she had already made up her mind to continue working as a hostess. “I didn’t go job hunting because there were no appealing jobs out there. Doing my hostessing job is worth much more,” says Hanazuka, who adopted the name Karen when she became a hostess.

In Japan, a hostess is a young woman who entertains men at bars or clubs. Customers pay large sums of money to these women for the pleasure of their company, for flirting, but not sex. There are at least 70,000 such establishments in Japan, according to Japan’s National Police Agency. Once frowned upon along with sex work, the job of a hostess has been gaining popularity among young women. Women working as hostesses have not only appeared on talk shows and television dramas, they have become models, actresses, and entrepreneurs. With the influence of popular culture and media, the perception of hostessing has changed. The profession has become a part of mainstream culture. Eriko Fuse, a representative of the cabaret club labor union, says, “There are many girls who dream of being a hostess these days, but there are also women who choose hostessing because there is no other work for women.”

Despite the Equal Opportunity Law of 1986, Japanese women’s employment opportunities are often limited to low-paying, dead-end jobs or temp positions. Even if a woman is fortunate enough to get a job, her career path is rocky at best. She will face a huge income gap with her male counterparts — women in Japan earn only 69.8 percent of what men make, compared to 78.2 percent in the U.S. She will rarely be promoted to a managerial position as the percentage of female managers in Japan was 9.8 percent in 2008, compared with 42.7 percent in the U.S., according to the International Labor Organization.

Hanazuka, who holds a BA in economics, was well aware of this tough reality. The last thing she wanted was to do secretarial work at an office. She says, “I’m not good at blindly following a boss’s orders. I will get bored with a job that does not require any thinking.” Julie, 31, who used to work at a duty-free shop at Narita International Airport, says she does not miss her day job at all. “With my day job, I only did what I was told to do and I felt like anybody could do that job,” she explained. Julie, who asked that her last name not be used, hopes to open a pet store with the money she earns by hostessing.

Despite the grim career prospects at Japanese companies, very few women have the aspiration to start their own business like Julie. More than 80 percent of entrepreneurs in Japan are men, compared to the U.S. where women start one third of all businesses. “A bank will not give a female entrepreneur a loan if she does not have male guarantors such as father or husband. Women don’t have access to money,” said Mariko Adachi, a professor of economics at the Institute for Gender Studies at Ochanomizu Women’s University.

Yoshihiro Nagata, president of LeJacks Groove, which owns about 120 clubs, says professions that pay women high salaries are limited. “We are proud to provide job opportunities to women,” he adds. About 5,000 hostesses work for the company’s clubs. A hostess’s hourly rate increases based on how many customers she can bring to a bar. This merit system is a big incentive to ambitious women like Hanazuka and Julie, who both make more than $300,000 a year. By contrast, the average salary of Japanese women with full time jobs is $37,000 a year. Fuse, however, points out that only the top 1 percent earn a good salary. “The other 99 percent work under very unstable and unhealthy working conditions,” she said.

Still, many young women are attracted to the potential of earning a high income as a hostess. “Women can work as a hostess only when they are young. We don’t want to throw them away like a disposable tool when they get older and unemployable. We want to take care of them afterwards,” Nagata of LeJacks Groove. When asked what kind of path would be available these women afterwards, he said, “We are still looking into that.



Till Her Expiration Date Comes

Cocoa Aiuchi, 21, sighed as she looked inside a locker full of skimpy cocktail dresses in the changing room of the bar where she works as a hostess. “I don’t want to go to work,” she murmured. After considering a few finalists, she picked a long, bright pink and blue dress and said, “I buy too many dresses, but it helps me to motivate to work.” As a popular hostess and a model for a fashion magazine that caters to hostess readers, she receives fan letters from young girls at junior high and high schools. Their dream is to work with her after graduation. Cocoa (the name she adopted as a hostess) says these girls think hostessing is an easy way to make money by looking pretty and flirting with customers over drinks. “They don’t know the tough reality.”

Many hostesses suffer from various health problems such as liver disease and alcoholism caused by late nights and constant drinking. Aya, 22, says she wants very much to quit hostessing but she feels there is nothing else she can do because she did not graduate from high school. When she started high school her parents divorced. With four siblings, the family didn’t have much money. “I didn’t want to be a burden so I left home. The only job that a 16-year-old could get to survive was hostessing.”The legal age to get a hostessing job is 18, but it is possible for some under-age girls to work as well because some bars don’t check identification. Eriko Fuse, a representative of the cabaret club labor union, says, “You don’t need a resume, education, nor identification to apply for a hostess job. It provides jobs to women who can’t get day jobs.”

Aya usually doesn’t go to sleep until 6 a.m. because she goes out with customers after her shift is finished at 1 a.m. The hardest thing about the profession, she says, is not physical but mental. “There is no sense of security. I always feel anxiety and tend to get ill and depressed.” When she wakes up around noon, she likes spending time reading books to escape from worries and an obsession with sales figures and popularity rankings at her bar. She says, “I either feel bad about what happened the night before at work or I worry about what will happen the next night. I think about what a customer said to me, what they did to me, and what upset me.” Customers who verbally abuse her with harsh criticism of her looks and other forms of sexual harassment are common. Aya says the customers, who are often highly educated and have high-paying jobs, treat her like a toy and look down on her for her profession. “I know it’s a part of my job, but I’m getting increasingly closed off.” Fuse, the union representative, calls hostessing “a depression-generating profession.”

Aya, along with a dozen hostesses I spoke with, sees that the only way out of this job is to get married. Being a housewife, however, is only granted for a privileged few in Japan these days. Mariko Adachi, a professor of economics at the Institute for Gender Studies, Ochanomizu Women’s University, points out that the number of men who can earn enough to support a family has declined. After the globalization of the 1990s, many companies moved their production overseas in search of cheaper labor. As a result, Japanese workers’ salaries have gone down. She says, “It has become more important today for women to continue to work after marriage and childbirth. Employment and income have become more unstable.”

Cocoa also wants to be a housewife, but she does not want to get married to a wealthy man like her customers. “A wealthy man will cheat on me. He may value me when I’m young and beautiful. But once my expiration date comes, he will throw me away like trash.”