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Maid Cafés and the Myth of Japanese Perversion

Mari and James

(James Hildebrand)– I’m never going back to Akihabara. I mean, sure, it sounds like a real riot on paper (it’s the kind of place that travel writers might describe in decidedly unhelpful, but deeply intriguing phrases like “hypnotic neon mecca” and “dazzling incandescent playground”) but when you finally get there, you see that Akihabara, for all its mysterious history as Tokyo’s electronics black market and hub of contemporary anime culture, is actually pretty gross. It has that unique brand of seediness that can only comes from a place where Pokémon toys, custom Sony laptops, and resin statues of hogtied schoolgirls are never more than three floors apart. Really, it gets pretty soul crushing after twenty minutes.

It shouldn’t be surprising however, that if any place in Japan could birth something as decidedly weird as the Maid Café, it would be Akihabara. And while their inherent commodification of women is damaging enough, the real problem with Maid Cafés is even more sinister.

But I guess the mission statement behind a Maid Café reads innocently enough. Your average Café purportedly strives to capture the bygone charm of an old European manor, to offer the modern, disillusioned city-dweller a chance to escape into the company of 19th century French maid-waitress and experience the luxury of being loyally waited on by a cute young lady. Hell, even their websites insist that they’re a kid-friendly environment. Before I visited, Maid Cafés always sounded a lot like those places in America where the waiters talk like medieval peasants, and the staff dress up like knights for a big dinnertime battle. I thought, it can’t be that bad, right?

Wrong. Absolutely not. It’s so fucked up.

First of all, let me say that you can’t let the word “café” fool you – your average Maid Café isn’t some charming little bistro on the ground floor of a restored old Parisian office building. It’s actually just a cramped linoleum parlor squeezed onto the sixth, seventh, and eighth floors of your average seedy-looking Tokyo high-rise – the kind of building you just know is filled withYakuza bones.

So if you can brave the cramped four-person elevator ride, you’ll arrive just in time to see that the maids are already waiting for you. And by this I mean, they are actually standing at the mouth of the elevator waiting for you to step off, and when you do, they skip the traditional Japanese shopkeeper’s welcome and instead shout “Welcome Home, Master!” in unison. A little unnerving, but hardly a dealbreaker.

Soon after the Café’s solitary male manager (not hard to see the pimp parallel here) collects your party’s information, he hands you this typed list of English rules. First rule: you have to agree that you will leave after 60 minutes. Ok, I get it. These places get a lot of business, so they can’t have people squatting all day. Fine, totally reasonable to have this as a written rule so random tourists don’t get confused. As you make your way down the list, however, you quickly get the sense that some really dark shit has gone down in this Café before. Key rules: no, you may not touch the maids. No, you may not take free pictures of the maids. No, you cannot ask a maid’s legal name or home address. No, you cannot bring or send flowers to any of the maids. And finally, no, you cannot choose your maid “by name or in other ways.”

Once you’ve pinky promised that you’ll refrain from sexually harassing or stalking your maid afterhours, you can finally get seated. Time to call your maid, which you do via goddamn handbell. She comes and immediately kneels by your side. Now, at this point I was honestly relieved that my female friend had come along with me. Sure, the warm welcome was a little odd, and maybe reading the rules was a little uncomfortable, but giving your order to someone who keeps their head at crotch-level the whole time is just upsetting.

Really, every interaction with your waitress just reinforces that “oh my god this is really really bad they make her deliberately talk like a little girl what is happening I need an adult” feeling. Beyond that, our maid had all these feline costume accessories, because she was supposed to be a goddamn cat or something. I don’t know – it was never addressed. But the worst part is, after you’ve ordered, the maid “accidentally” leaves a diary, or some photo album on your table edge. Like you’re supposed to be all sneaky and go through her shit when she’s not around. It actually gets worse. Basically, in keeping with the deliberately affected child’s voice, the maid’s diary looks like it was done by a five year old. It’s full of crudely drawn cats and mindless musings on what it means to “kawaii,” and the photo album is a disturbingly in-depth collection of feigned smiles and dead eyes. It’s hard not to laugh in sheer horror.

That raccoon looks pretty hurt.

That raccoon looks pretty hurt.

What follows is just more of the same. You get your terrible food. Your maid teaches you some mortifying “spell” to “make your food taste better,” and then everyone in the restaurant participates in a rock paper scissors tournament during which you must repeatedly imitate some cute animal. We passed on that last one, but we at least got some sense of solidarity when a young female Japanese patron stopped suddenly and announced “I’m sorry, but this is extremely embarrassing for me.”

As you prepare to leave you’re welcome to pay for a commemorative photo as you wait for the check. Meanwhile another maid busily prepares your Café membership card. That’s right, because the more you visit, the warmer your welcome and the better your service. As you “level up” your card, you can actually receive more personalized messages from maids on the photos you buy, and special drawings on your food. Enticing as it is, I don’t think I’ll be a repeat customer.

So, what do you do with an experience like this? It hardly seems helpful to use this as a platform to highlight the obvious problems with infantilizing women and exoticizing foreigners – other people with fancier degrees have already explained those things much better than I ever could. But, beyond those more glaring issues, the reason Maid Cafés irritate me is because they’ve become the perfect fodder for a contemporary stereotype of the Japanese, one that even my most Liberál Ärtsý of friends occasionally mention. That is, there’s this recent notion that Japan, the country so often stereotyped as the land of Geisha/Samurai/Teenage Robot Pilots, is today a land of perverts.

Sure, if you spend enough time on the internet, I can totally see why you might think that Japan is, on the whole, an extremely strange place. It isn’t hard to find disturbing game show clips on YouTube or mysterious space tentacles in Japanese pornography. Sites like wtfjapanseriously don’t make it easy to dispel the pervert Japan myth. Hell, a Japanese game developer even released a rape simulator in 2006. There is absolutely some upsetting, decidedly depraved content coming out of Japan these days.

It’s important, however, to understand two things. First of all, as people, we’re more interested in the strange, the sexual, and the salacious, so obviously the stuff that makes another culture seem mysterious, perverted, or controversial is going to be the first to appear on sites like Reddit or Buzzfeed. You can’t then take that as entirely representative of its original culture. Can you imagine if Japanese students formed their opinion of the US based on The Expendables 2 and peopleofwalmart? And while I recognize that this is purely personal observation, I can say that nearly everyone I spoke to in Japan, from elderly female teachers to college age adolescents, were just as put off by Maid Cafés, schoolgirl fetishes, and subway groping as their American counterparts. It’s not as though there’s some tacit acceptance of these things that we’d deem perverted (though, in all fairness, I’ve heard Japan, as a generally more reserved culture, discusses them less openly).

The second thing I want to emphasize here is the issue that arises from culture familiarity. Ask the average American if ours is a land of depraved perverts, and they’ll probably disagree. Still, you can certainly draw up a list that would suggest otherwise. Just look at Pornhub’s recently released list of top seraches by state – spoiler alert: “monogamous heterosexual couple with good Christian values has tender, romantic sex to produce a male heir” is a lot lower on the list than things like “teen,” “virgin,” and “creampie.” Oh would you look at that, Kentucky’s top search today is for Japanese hentai. What I’m trying to say is, I may live less than a mile away from The Tropical Lei strip club, but I hardly feel cultural ownership of it. And that, to me, is the heart of the issue: every country exports some weird-ass sex stuff, and while that may form a small slice of the grand cultural pie, you can’t take its existence as evidence of blanket social acceptance. The game developer Illusion produced a rape simulator game, but Japan isn’t a land of rapists. Americans made Britney’s “Baby One More Time” video a number one hit, but the US isn’t a land of pedophiles. And, yeah, we all watched Miley twerk at the VMAs, but I doubt anyone’s going to add that to “Apple Pie, Baseball, and Jazz” anytime soon.

About jhildebrand15

4 comments on “Maid Cafés and the Myth of Japanese Perversion

  1. zm91
    August 30, 2013

    And while their inherent commodification of women is damaging enough, the real problem with Maid Cafés is even more sinister.

    While I understand your point about not thinking of this kind of thing as representative of Japan, I’m a bit disappointed that the dominant reaction on your part towards the cafe is basically “Yuck that’s perverted and gross”. It’s obvious that this Maid Cafe is meant for people with a certain fetish, a fetish which you don’t share and so you would certainly find weird and perhaps “gross”. The Maid Cafe is to me a perfectly fine enterprise, as it provides an outlet for people who share these fantasies and fetishes without actually harming anybody (given that there seems to be strict rules against actual touching and harassment, as you mention). Talking about it being a form “commodification of women” is misleading; as you yourself argued, Maid Cafes are hardly part of mainstream Japanese culture. It’s strictly a fetish for a small subset of people.

    Hence saying that it’s “fucked up” doesn’t really add much. You might as well say BDSM is fucked up, or (if you are heterosexual) say gay sex is fucked up. What I was hoping for is more of a reflection on why certain people can find this arousing, instead of being judgmental about it. Your complaining about the most popular porn searches further shows evidence of your narrow-mindedness, and inability to reflect a bit about sexuality. Seriously, is there even anything weird with the fact that the majority of the (presumably male) population would prefer to fantasize about having sex with girls who are young and nubile instead of old women? Is this “perverted”? Would you rather have people literally search for “monogamous heterosexual couple with good Christian values has tender, romantic sex to produce a male heir”, that kind of porn – is that what you think is not perverted and thus worthy of representing America? Frankly, I’m quite surprised to find so-called progressives talk about the concept of “pervertedness” at all.

  2. J. Hildebrand
    August 30, 2013

    [Heads up: my comment graphically discusses images of sexual assault]

    You’re absolutely right, who are we to decide what is and is not perverted? If its between consenting adults, who am I to attack a fetish purely on the basis of its being different from my own? What is perversion? Really, what is human sexuality? (#Liberal Arts)

    However…

    Here’s the problem with your comment. Everything you’ve said makes perfect sense if you work from your characterization of my description of Maid Cafés as “yuck that’s perverted and gross.” Unfortunately, this lynchpin of your criticism, if you read my piece more closely, is simply incorrect.

    In looking at your argument the immediate distinction you need to make is between statements in my piece that represent moral pronouncements and statements that characterize general conceptions of public attitudes.

    Let’s examine each instance in which I make a strong declaration in this post – keeping our eyes out for the words you’ve highlighted “gross” and “fucked up”.

    I made the strong, blanket statement that Akihabara, not the Maid Café, is “gross.” The immediate example I offered to this end was the juxtaposition of children’s pokemon toys and plastic statues that depict underage schoolgirls as the victims of sexual violence. That, I am comfortable declaring, is “gross.”

    Ok, but I’ll just be absurd here and say that those statues aren’t really depicting kidnapped minors who are being sexual assaulted. Let’s say, they are actually meant to be statues of consenting legal adults who engage in BDSM while wearing a schoolgirl’s costume. Fine, but even if that were somehow true, I’d still be comfortable calling it a “gross” environment on the basis that a vendor selling stuffed Pikachus to high school girls would be two floors below a vendor that sells statues showing the likeness of a high school girl being raped.

    Let’s move on to the next instance in which I make a moral pronouncement. In this case, it’s when I explain how Maid Cafés come across as innocent enough on paper, but are actually “so fucked up.” According to your argument, I make this blanket statement on the basis of it being seemingly divergent from mainstream sexuality, and thus, my statement is meant to prescribe morality onto a safe space for consenting adults who just happen to be different from me. Again, however, you’re incorrect.

    What examples do I offer following my insistence that the Maid Café I went to was “so fucked up”?

    -The disconnect between the image of a 19th century European Manor and the seedy, cramped nature of the Tokyo Highrise that houses the Maid Café. I feel comfortable calling this “fucked up.”

    -The unsettling surprise at finding the staff gathered already in anticipation of your arrival, already waiting to meet you face to face when the elevator doors open. In its resemblance to something out of The Shining, I feel comfortable calling this “fucked up.”

    -The immediate introduction to the notion that, although this place has a polished surface, it has clearly dealt with a darker side that has included verbal and physical harassment along with stalking. A self-proclaimed “family-friendly” restaurant must now remind all of its patrons, before they even sit down, that they may not commit crimes against the waitresses – I feel comfortable calling this “fucked up.”

    -And finally, the discomfort with the infantilization of the waitresses. Looking at my description, it’s clear that I’m not describing my disgust at mere attraction to a “nubile” female, but rather, the creation of a fetish persona that is meant to resemble a child. The high-pitched, giggly voice, to American ears, sounds like a five year-old’s. But hey, lets just say Japan has different standards of femininity because gendered behavior is just a construction, and that a high voice is not considered child-like. Fine. But I won’t sit here and say that a diary filled with messy childish scrawl and crudely drawn cats doesn’t resemble the kind of book a ten year-old would keep. This blurring of lines between potential sexual fetish and pre-pubescent elementary schooler – I feel totally comfortable calling this “fucked up.”

    And that’s where my piece ends its description of the Maid Café. Now we are at the point at which I begin throwing around the word “pervert.”

    I begin by saying that I am irritated with Maid Cafés in particular because people offer them as evidence that Japan is a “land of perverts.” I then say that I understand why people might think Japan is an “extremely strange place” based on internet depictions of weird Japanese culture. When I say then that there is certainly “depraved content” coming out of Japan today, it is immediately following a sentence that describes a rape simulator. Thus, my moral declaration is not merely attacking alternative sexualities. Rather, I’m saying that things like a video game that simulates sexual assault are depraved. I reject the notion making sexual assault a virtual experience that rewards the player for raping a young mother in front of her children is somehow a safe, victimless fetish.

    And finally, looking at my final paragraph – the one which, as you pointed out, mentions the pornhub top searches – its clear that we actually agree. I think you’ve misunderstood my argument. I am not saying that Americans are perverts too and thus should shut up. What I’m saying is that this notion that any fetish is by nature repulsive is hypocritical given that Americans enjoy many of the same fetishes. Americans’ stereotyping another country as perverted doesn’t hold water when we engage in the same things that would be deemed perverted by our own mainstream culture. This very idea is emphasized by sarcastic comment that “monogamous heterosexual couple” isn’t high up on the list of top search terms. It often seems that a general conception of perversion, in America at the very least, contains anything deviating form a heteronormative, monogamous relationship aimed at procreation. The idea is not that I agree with this definition of perversion, but rather that I am attacking how hypocritical it is to hold it and apply it to other cultures when millions of us are all clearly comfortable watching “teens” gangbang eachother online.

    To summarize:

    In this piece I did not argue that to have a fetish is to be a pervert. When I made moralistic declarations that related to fetishes, specifically Maid Cafes, they were always in criticism not of fetishes in general but rather of the points at which a fetish steps into sexual assault and sexualization of children. Finally, criticism of American culture was meant to highlight the disconnect between a general, Puritanical conception of sex and how sexuality truly is.

    I realize that this is a wall of text, but as a sexual minority myself, I felt obliged to thoroughly explain that to be different sexually is not immoral. I hope that MAID sense to you, and I appreciate your helping to facilitate a dialogue on sexual diversity, zm91.

  3. Sugi
    September 2, 2013

    America is biggest porn producer in the world. Americans are big hypocrites, saying that Strip clubs, prostitutes and all that porn isn’t part of American culture is an understatement.

  4. Anonymous
    October 24, 2013

    I wholeheartedly agree with this article. The pervert stereotype needs to wane and fast!

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This entry was posted on August 30, 2013 by in Gender, Travel.
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