Ōsu was an interesting place. At one end sat an ancient Buddhist temple, Ōsu Kannon, and behind it lay an enormous shopping mall—the old gods and the new side by side. People spent an afternoon buying clothes and then dropped by the temple to burn some incense. Oddly, it flowed better than you’d think.
The district itself, was a strange combination of an indoor/outdoor mall. The main walk way was covered by a roof that connected to the stores on either side, yet there were no doors at the entrances and the buildings seemed to have sprouted up independent of one another, with differing heights and architectural styles. The whole place felt less like a mall and more like a neighborhood with a giant umbrella over it.
Entering beneath this parasol we found the first café just off the right. Outside the door was a life size anime cutout of a ridiculously proportioned smiling young woman dressed in the typical French Maid’s uniform: ruffles, short skirt and an apron. We decided to check out the rest of the mall and hit the maid café on the way out, figuring it would be a nice capper to the day. As we explored we found a second maid café, also advertising an equally well-endowed maid though this one dressed in a more conservative outfit. It was a kind of Victorian look. We weren’t planning on hitting these things more than once so we figured we might as well do the cuter looking one.
After an hour of window shopping and a quick cleansing at the temple, we made our way back to the entrance and paused outside the original café. Second thoughts were had, but in the end we agreed that women, people dressed as French maids, and hot beverages were three individually splendid things, thus the marriage of the group ought to be superb.
Gathering our confidence, we approached the glazed glass windows. Beyond them we could just make out the shadows of figures moving about. As I pushed open the door the sound of laughter and the smell of baked goods wafted towards us. A good sign, I thought.
I pushed the door all the way open.
In the center of the room tugging on one another’s hair and pawing at each other’s dresses were five young women in French maid’s uniforms. On cue with the door opening all five of them let out an eep and froze, eyes shooting to us, mouths forming into comical O’s. The one on the left still had her hand on her friend’s ponytail and the one in the center was trying to wrestle her fuzzy Pikachu yellow purse away from the right most maid. It was like walking into an all girl tickle fight in a sleazy anime movie.
I heard Candace’s voice behind me, “We should go.”
“We’ve come too far,” I hissed. “We can’t turn back now. It’d be rude.”
Before she could reply the throng of French Maids erupted in a giggling fit. Quickly whispering amongst themselves, they dispersed. Four went back to checking up on customers while one of them approached us. She wore her hair in two pig tails and had a little circular button above her bust that read “I SPEAK ENGLISH.” Beneath this was a smaller button with a happy face on it. She smiled as arrived and bowed. She still had braces.
“Hello,” she said slowly, recalling her English. Nagoya is not a very international city, so people speak English about as well as Californians speak Spanish. “If you want come in it one thousand yen for one hour. Okay?”
We smiled and bobbed our heads, “Hai.”
She beamed and led us over to a square table in the middle of the room. In the center was a leather bound menu and a pink napkin dispenser.
I looked to Candace. She had a painful grin plastered on her face, a look I realized I shared.
“I don’t know about this,” she said through her smile.
“Me neither. Let’s just see what happens,” I grinned back.
Behind her I saw our Maid at the cash register whispering to the Maid with a Pikachu purse and glancing to us. I couldn’t quite read her look. She didn’t seem worried, necessarily, just curious. That was what I hoped, at least. After fiddling with what looked like an electric candle, she came back to our table.
In Japan when waiters take your order they often squat down to be at your eye level. Outdoing this, our maid squatted down past our eye level moving to her knees. Her chin rested just above the table and she looked up to us as she spoke.
I exchanged a glance with Candace.
“Hellooo! I Megumi,” she said.
“Hi, I’m Candace.”
“Candace!” she repeated.
“Zac,” I said, gesturing to myself.
I nodded. I didn’t know why I felt so awkward. She was just being friendly.
“We play game, yes?” Megumi asked cocking her head to the side.
“Yes,” she nodded.
“This magic candle.” She produced the little electric candle. She was holding it in a small cup a little larger than a shot glass. “We count to three and blow on candle and if candle light then,” she paused here, speaking with the slow deliberateness of one feeling for stairs in the dark. “Then you are my master.”
She smiled at us from down on her knees. She looked like she was sixteen.
Candace laughed. It sounded like someone had stepped on her foot.
Again we exchanged a glance. The only way out is forward, I whispered with my eyes.
“Okay,” I replied giving my best grin.
She smiled back. “Ready?” She wanted us to count with her.
“One, Two, Three!”
We both leaned forward and blew on the candle. It lit up.
“Yaaaaay,” she said clapping and setting the candle on the table. A few of the other nearby Maids paused to clap for us. They seemed genuinely pleased.
Candace glanced to me. That wasn’t so terrible, I could see her thinking.
“Good!” said our maid, chin still at the table. “Now, you. Are. My. Ma-ster.”
She smiled again looking between us, her braces flashing.
This time I laughed like someone had stepped on my foot.
Megumi continued to smile, looking between us and cocking her head from one side to the other like a puppy responding to a strange noise. Did she expect us to give her a command?
“When you ready order you make, ‘Nyaa nyaa nyaa.’ Okay?” She made a two fists with her hands and the moved them back and forth.
I had no reply to this.
“Nyaa, nyaa, nyaa?” repeated Candace slowly, mimicking the gesture with her fists.
“Yes. Nyaa, nyaa, nyaa,” she said again making the gesture and looking at Candace.
“Oh like a cat! Like Neko,” said Candace.
“Hai, like Cat. Nyaa, nyaa, nyaa,” she said smiling. She smiled a lot. “You make when you ready order.”
She stood, bowed and scurried off, her tiny skirt flipping as she went.
“What just happened?”
“Nyaa,” repeated Candace. “Like a Cat.”
“Nyaa. It’s the noise cats make in Japan.”
I stared at her. “They do?”
She rolled her eyes. “Well not literally—cat’s don’t literally say ‘meow,’ either—it’s an onomatopoeia.”
I nodded. “Right.”
The two of us grew quiet.
Around us the other maids flitted about laughing with customers and playing cute with one another. They all had matching outfits more or less: flat black Mary Janes with white thigh-high stockings and incredibly short black fluffy skirts. They also wore puffy pantaloons underneath so it wasn’t super scandalous every time their skirts flipped up, which was often. The combination of this childish immodesty and the diaper-esque pantaloons was bizarre. It was like being seduced by sexy babies.
“Are we going to order something?” asked Candace.
I looked back to her. “Well, I guess we have to. Right?”
“We could leave.”
I laughed. “Okay, I know this is weird—“
“It’s really weird.”
“—but let’s stick it out. Remember technically, here, we’re the foreigners—we are the weirdos—so let’s see if we can not judge.”
I said this more for me.
“You’re right,” she nodded. “Let’s just have some tea and get through this thing. It could be fun.”
“It could be fun,” I agreed.
Candace reached out for the menu and flipped through it. It had a surprising amount of cakes and desserts. Japan was big on sweets.
As she browed the menu, I watched the maids around the room. I couldn’t shake that feeling of sleaziness similar to being in a strip club. I felt sorry for them—sorry they had to do this. But of course that was stupid. I had no clue what any of their backgrounds were. Maybe the all had tons of options and they chose to do this. Maybe it was empowering. Or maybe dressing up like a French Maid and getting to behave all cute was just fun. They did seem to be enjoying themselves
Behind Candace in a corner of the room was a small stage where one of the maids was trying to coax a thirty-something looking businessman with John Lennon glasses into taking photos with her. He agreed, after paying extra of course, and another Maid appeared with a pink Polaroid camera. The two posed as she snapped photos, throwing up peace signs instead of putting their arms around one another.
To our left sat two round faced boys with long fluffy gold tipped hair. An Englishman we had met had described this look as the “gay lion cut.” The pair were quiet androgynous looking. They might have been girls, actually. I considered it. A maid paused by their table to chat, leaning forward so that her skirt flipped up. Was she just being careless or was this for my benefit?
“I think I’ll get hot cocoa.”
I looked up to Candace. “Just a coffee for me.”
She made to raise her hand but paused. She looked to me and I smirked.
We both raised our hands to chin level, forming the paws. “Nyaa, Nyaa, Nyaa!”
Our Maid appeared almost instantly. “Hellooo,” She cooed squatting down to our table level and smiling, her head once again cocked to the side.
“Sumimasen, Hotto kouhee hitotsu to hotto cocoa hitotsu onegashimasu.”
“Aaaah! Nihongo hanasemasu?”
“Hai. Uhm. Sukoshi-dake,” Candace smiled.
Japanese people were always happy she could speak a little Japanese. Candace explained that she was teaching English in Japan and that she lived in Nagoya. The girl seemed happy to hear this. Candace asked our Maid how she had learned to speak such good English to which she blushed and replied that she did not speak it so well. After a little more of this our Maid stood from her crouched position, bowed her head, and disappeared.
“Well that wasn’t so bad,” said Candace looking to me.
“She seems, nice,” I agreed.
We nodded to one another. We nodded again. Silence.
Near the cash register, two of the maids were speaking quickly to one another, large smiles on their faces. The huddle broke and the one with a pink Hello Kitty purse jumped on the little stage she’d been taking pictures at and shouted something. Some cries of approval went up around the room. The other maid from the huddle, with a green frog purse, riffled through the drawers by the cash register. She pulled out a CD and glanced to Hello Kitty purse. Hello Kitty was working the crowd. She paused to nod to Green Frog.
Green Frog put the CD into a drive and hit some switches on the wall. The house lights dimmed leaving the stage lit. The CD player made a whirring noise and Frog Purse frowned. There was a momentary silence then the music began to play. It was a popular J-Pop song I’d heard many times before. The band was AKB48, an all girl band with over 89 members (Don’t ask me how that works. I just read it on Wikipedia).
I had to hand it to Hello Kitty. She could really rock out. I didn’t know the lyrics aside from the chorus—“I WANT YOOOOOOOU. I NEED YOOOOOOOU”—but her energy was infectious. She had the whole place singing a long. After this were a few other songs I’d never heard and then the lights came back on. There was polite applause and the world returned to normal—the maid café version of “normal.”
“That was kind of cool,” I said. I turned back to Candace. Her brow was furrowed.
“I don’t get it.”
“Don’t get what?”
Candace was squinting around the room. “Like… it’s not a sexual thing, is it? Not really.”
I looked around the room. Five smiling maids in ass-high skirts scampered about pouring coffee and laughing with customers.
“Not totally,” I agreed. “It is, but it isn’t.”
“It’s like… you come for the sex but you stay for the company?”
I laughed. “Yah, that’s actually not a bad way to put it.”
She was right. On the one hand was this obvious in your face sexuality—the outfits and such—yet after the surface layer there was nothing overtly sexual about it; they weren’t giving lap dances or anything. Really, it was more about cute than sexy.
In many ways it was like a continuation of the geisha experience. Men came to a space full of attractive woman who served them drinks and played games with them. The musical element was even there. And again the whole thing had a sexual overtone to it but there was no sex involved.
I suggested this to Candace and she agreed.
“What I don’t get, though,” she said leaning in. “Is the baby thing. Like I understand the being cute like a little girl thing—well kind of—but this is… this is a whole other level. Clearly it’s all just an act—“
“—but man…it’s like infant chic or something.”
I took a sip of my coffee and nodded.
The lights dimmed again slightly and frog purse scurried by us holding what looked like light up wands—the kinds you might see at a rave. She was passing them out to people. Hello Kitty was on the mic now shouting things at the audience. She pointed at a few of the tables and maids rushed over to pull the men from their seats. She pointed at the two androgynous looking ones next to us and our maid, Megumi-I-SPEAK-ENGLISH, rushed over to pull them up. But the boys shook their heads and held their hands up. Our maid reasoned with them and pouted for a few minutes while Hello Kitty continued to speak in her cute anime voice. I wondered if she actually talked like that in real life.
“Wuah, wuh, wuh, wuuuah.”
Candace and I glanced at one another and turned to the table with the two boys. Our maid was still there making a big pouty face.
“Wuh, wuh, wuuuuuah!”
“Is…is she crying?” asked Candace.
“Wuh, wuh, WUUUAAAH.”
As Megumi-I-SPEAK-ENGLISH grew louder Pikachu purse and Puppy purse took notice and joined her at the table. The two boys raised there hands and tried to quiet them, shrinking into the wall.
“Wuh, Wuh, WUUUAH! Wuh, wuh, WUAHHH!”
The Café came to a halt. All eyes were on this table. All the maids were at the table. They were starring at the boys, begging, pouting with them, crying on their knees, pawing at their laps. Even Hello Kitty was crying over the mic.
They were literally throwing a fit to get what they wanted. And it was working. How could it not work? All eyes were on them, four maids surrounding them, crying, of course it worked. After about twenty seconds of it, the boys relented and stood to join in on whatever game they would be playing. Immediately, the crying was replaced by cheers and applause.
“Did that just happen?”
Before Candace could reply, Hello Kitty jumped back on stage and shouted something to Frog Purse, who was manning the sound system. I couldn’t hear what she said but I understood the gist of it: “HIT IT!”
Then the music began to play and the Conga line formed up.
Candace and I gaped. Dancing around us, happy as can be, was a string of smiling French maids, high school boys, and thirty year old salary-men.
“Dun da dun da dun dun DUH! Dun da dun da dun dun DUH!” boomed the music. At each “DUH!” the dancers threw their arms and legs to one side waving their raver wands in the air. This caterpillar of crazed cuteness wound its way through the café around all the tables as Candace and I starred. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before.
I hadn’t been in Japan long but one of the things that had immediately struck me was how much of a foreigner I was there. Everyone in Japan was Japanese. That seemed like a given except I didn’t quite understand what that meant until I got there. In the States most people were American—also a given—the key difference was that in San Francisco “American” simply meant your country of Residence, whereas in Japan “Japanese” meant country of residence plus ethnicity.
In San Francisco people could be American but might have Irish, Indian, Cuban, or any kind of heritage. Not in Japan.
Japan was 98% homogenous. 98%. Think about that for a second. That meant that nearly the entire country was 100% ethnically Japanese. Go up to pretty much anybody in Japan and you’d find that not only were they born and raised in Japan, their parents were born and raised in Japan, their grandparents were, and their great grandparents and so on and so forth.
What this also meant was that if you weren’t Japanese—or even if your parents were Japanese but you grew up in the states and are visiting—you were going to stick out like a sore thumb. If you’re thinking about going, don’t let this dissuade you—in my experience the Japanese are extremely hospitable—just know that the constant feeling of “otherness” is inescapable.
I say all this to build to my next point: I never felt more like the “other” than there in that Maid Café, and I went to bath houses where I sat naked next to scowling tattooed men who did not seem happy I was there. And I think that’s what bothered me the most about this whole experience: I felt like I was invading someone else’s private world.
This was a bizarre place, yes, but it was a safe place. It was a place where customers could do ridiculous things like dance around in Conga lines with girls from their dreams, and more importantly a place where people wouldn’t look at them and judge them for it. Except there was me: the tall white, red headed, foreigner who was doing exactly that—judging them for it. I didn’t want to. I came in to participate, to understand, yet I couldn’t bring myself to. Instead I was sitting, gapping, analyzing them, and hating myself for all of it. I could understand why they enjoyed being there but it wasn’t the place for me.
But in some strange way realizing that helped. Maybe I couldn’t bring myself to join in the conga line, and I wasn’t going to suddenly decide that this wasn’t bizzare, but that was okay. They were having fun. The slightly balding businessman in the suite and glasses? He was having fun. The pudgy cheeked high schooler with fluffy golden lion hair? He was having fun. The young girl with the Pikachu purse and the ridiculous French Maid’s outfit? She was having fun.
The people that this world existed for were having fun. It was tempting to come in and make observations about the nature of a culture where people paid to experience emotional companionship, but at the end of it all my anthropological observations didn’t matter. There were real smiles there. And I still don’t totally get it, but I don’t think I need to. It’s not for me to understand. It’s for them to enjoy.