Maid in Japan
Tokyo is the city of theme bars, and recently, one theme in particular has become synonymous with drinking in Akihabara – maid cafés.
The maid café concept itself is fairly simple: in a nutshell, cute young girls dressed in French maid outfits serve customers a variety of drinks and food. And, when you see the kinds of customers who come, you can understand the logic.
The primary patrons of maid cafés are Akibas, a pejorative term used to describe those who frequent Akihabara’s anime and electronics stores. Your average specimen is, of course, a guy, and generally has very bad social skills, preferring the company of comic books to that of his fellow men. He will usually have a rather strange view of women, too – well, you would too if your only knowledge of the fairer sex came from time spent with the big-breasted, fictional variety. Still, the economic power of these nerds is no laughing matter. Akibas are estimated to spend $2.5 billion annually on their geeky pursuits, so it’s no surprise that a variety of shops have popped up to pander to their eccentric desires. And empty their wallets.
After a hard day’s shopping for the latest tech gear, Akibas flock to maid cafés for a real-life re-creation of the fantasy world of anime and manga. The maids at all these joints display total subservience towards customers, an act befitting their role-play as servants. Even the welcome call reflects this: instead of the traditional irrashaimase (come in), they cry out okaerinasai go-shujinsama (welcome home master).
The presentation of food is also part and parcel of the experience. Some places offer things like rice omelets with “Love” written across them in ketchup, or heart-shaped cakes. Often each maid in a café will have a drink or dish with her name attached to it, which is purportedly of her own design. While this sort of childish coquettishness may seem nauseatingly cute to some, the Akibas find it adorable.
The current popularity of maid cafés means that some of them do tend to get crowded, and you may find yourself having to queue. On a recent Friday afternoon at the Maid In Angels (MIA) Café, customers were being turned away at the door because of lack of seats. If you can handle the crowds, though, MIA holds the distinction of having an English language website and some English-speaking staff, making it a good place to try out first, especially if no one in your party can speak Japanese.
There are 34 maid-themed establishments in Akihabara alone, and the marketplace is reaching saturation point, meaning places must strive to stand out from the crowd. For example, Pinafore has largely eschewed the role-play and, aside from the costumes and drinks named after maids, is just like a regular café. Consequently, it attracts few Akiba, but trendy young hipsters (both men and women) flock there in droves.
Others, like Cos-Cha, have branched out from the maid schtick into a more general cosplay thang. Cos-Cha has a variety of specially themed event days each year: it recently held a Bikini Day to commemorate the end of summer, while on other days the waitresses dress up in costumes from specific anime series. Past swimsuit events have, unsurprisingly, attracted customers in the thousands.
Nanako, one of the waitresses at Cos-Cha, says of the clientele: “There are many extremely shy Akiba men who come in here, but we also have a good crowd of regular people as well.” And while the Akiba may fantasize obsessively about maids and play questionable computer ‘dating sims’, Nanako says that they are actually perfect gentlemen. “The worst thing a customer has ever done is grab my hand. None of them have ever asked me out on a date or anything like that. They are too shy.”
Sitting in the classroom-themed area of Cos-Cha were two self-confessed Akiba girls, Emi and Nao. These women insisted that maid cafés are not just for delusional males. “We love coming,” said Nao. “We think that the waitresses’ outfits are really cute.”
Little BSD is a cosplay izakaya that was also packed to the hilt on a recent Thursday night. The crowd is decidedly normal – salarymen and office ladies are out in full force. Here, the girls can choose their own costumes, and many are actually anime and manga fans themselves. As an added bonus, the staff will allow you to take photos with them, something that is expressly forbidden at many other maid cafés and bars. They are also quite happy to chat with customers, and most speak conversational English.
If you are not a huge fan of izakaya fare then perhaps you should head to basic Bar bB instead, a typical western-style drinking hole (well, with the exception that all of your waitresses are dressed up as maids in impossibly short skirts). As always, however, beauty comes with a price – the drinks are all ¥1000.
Another spot trying to offer something a little different is the newly opened Moekko Voice Café in Ikebukuro, which has hired a group of aspiring voice actresses as waitresses. These young women dream of putting their vocal cords to good use in an anime cartoon, and use their jobs at Moekko to hone their skills.
“I worked on one film dubbed from Chinese already,” said Izumi, one of the waitresses. “This is a great place for me to practice.”
Every day, the waitresses perform readings from anime series in front of the customers; many have sexual themes, something owner Yuka Hidaka hopes will attract a lot of guys.
According to Hidaka, one of the most important aspects of any maid establishment is the presence of moe girls. “Moe comes from the Japanese word moeru, which means ‘to sprout’,” she explains. “Moe girls must appear not to be a young girl, but also not yet a woman – like a flower on the cusp of blooming. Sixteen is the perfect age for moe.”
The women working at Moekko and other establishments are all older than that, of course. The creation of moe is rooted in personality as well as physical appearance: waitresses affect shyness, high-pitched voices and other techniques to appear like teenagers. It’s a large part of the cafés’ appeal for Akiba customers.
However, these days, maid cafés are only part of the picture. There are now quite a few maid massage parlors, and even maid hostess clubs. After a long day trolling the back alleys of Akihabara for the smallest possible camera to hide in your shoe, a stop at M@i Foot maid massage parlor may be just what the doctor ordered. Customers can enjoy a 10-30 minute hand and foot massage… from a maid. Afterwards, sidle up to the oxygen bar and choose from a variety of different aromas of highly oxygenated air, designed to soothe your troubled (or over-excited) mind.
M@i Foot is popular, though, so a reservation may be required, especially in the evenings. You might have better luck next door at Moema Relaxation, a similar establishment that opened this October and is actively seeking customers. As a bonus, the owner, Yoko Minami, also speaks excellent English. She explains the reason for the recent explosion of maid cafés:
“In Japanese, the word for husband is ‘Shujin,’ which also means master. In the old days, both meanings were true – the husband was the master of his wife – but now most men do not have that kind of relationship with their wives. Men like maid cafés because it gives them a chance to feel like a real master once more.”
In our modern world, amidst calls for women in Japan to be more assertive, it seems a bit odd that some would want to be so subservient. Two maid masseuses from Moema Relaxation, Aisha and Riri, share their thoughts on their current career choice.
“I am into cosplay, so this was the perfect chance for me to do it and make money,” says Aisha. “Normally I do cosplay from One Piece [a popular pirate manga], but I think maids are cute too.”
Riri’s inspiration was a bit more impulsive, “I went to a maid café a while back and I just knew I wanted to become a maid. I love the costumes. I’ve always been into anime, so it just seems natural for me.”
“I’ve wanted to become a maid for three years, but I didn’t want to work at a maid café,” says Aisha. “Everyone’s doing that. Here I have actually acquired a skill I can use in the future. I’d like to own some kind of maid shop some day, but who knows how long this will be popular.”
Not all employees have such enthusiasm for maid culture. Nanako at Cos-Cha admits: “I used to work at a family restaurant and now I work here. It’s the same to me.” She enjoys her job, but doesn’t feel the same attachment that others do. “I don’t even like anime that much.”
For customers, maid cafés offer a chance to escape the harsh world of reality, if only just for a few hours – but don’t expect the feeling to last. Dating customers is against the rules at all of the places we visited (yes, we asked). Either way, the maid fantasy only really works if it remains, well, a fantasy – everyone knows that the reality never quite lives up to expectations.
A Beginner’s Guide to the Maid World
As with most everything in Japan, don’t expect English service at the places listed below. Some, like MIA, offer English menus, and others like Moema and Little BSD have staff that speak enough for you to get by. For the rest, it is recommended that you brush up on your basic nihongo, or go with a game Japanese friend.
With so many maid establishments in and around Tokyo, it may be that this boom has reached its peak, so visit one while you still can. The maids are waiting for your return home, master.
Moekko Voice Café
8F, 1-13-9 Higashi Ikebukuro
Ikebukuro Station, West exit
Head towards Sunshine City, past the Hello Kitty shop and KFC. It’s on the right side, on the 8th floor.
Isamiya Dai 8 Building 2F, 3-7-12 Soto Kanda
Akihabara Station, Electric Town exit
Turn right onto Chuo-dori (the main road). Walk past Smoker’s Style, then turn left at the corner with am/pm. Walk two blocks and turn right. It’s on the left, on the 2nd floor.
Yamanaka Building, 1-19 Kanda Sakumacho
Akihabara Station, Showa-dori exit
Turn right down a small side street before reaching Show-dori. Walk for one block and Pinafore is on the left.
Maid In Angel Café
Meiji Building 1F, 3-12 Soto Kanda
English Site: www.cos-cafe.com
Akihabara Station, Electric Town exit
Turn right on Chuo-dori, then left at Smoker’s Style. Continue straight until the next major boulevard, then turn right. MIA is on the right side, up a short flight of stairs.
Isamiya Dai 8 Building 4F, 3-7-12 Soto Kanda
Akihabara Station, Electronic Town exit
On the 4th floor in the same building as Cos-Cha (see above).
Western Style Bars
basic Bar bB
KT Building 2F, 1-25 Kanda Sakumacho
Akihabara Station, Showa-dori exit
Turn left onto Showa-dori, and it’s immediately on your left, on the 2nd floor.
Suzuki Building 3F, 3-1-3 Soto Kanda
Akihabara Station, Electric Town exit
Head to MIA (see above) and keep going – it’s on the right.
Soto Kanda Dai 2 Nagashima Building 2F, 3-2-3 Soto Kanda
Akihabara station, Electric Town exit
Just along from M@i Foot (see above), on the 2nd floor.