Maid Cafés and the Myth of Japanese Perversion

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.