If you’ve been reading manga long enough, then you’ve almost certainly come across the phenomenon of Japanese host clubs. Just in terms of setting, placing your story in the middle of the host club scene makes sense: lots of hot guys (and/or girls) in close quarters, a hierarchical structure perfect for the formation of rivalries–both professional and romantic–and plenty of new clientele coming in all the time to provide new characters and narrative fodder.
Of course, host clubs in fiction are far from a realistic depiction of reality, and even though I’ve enjoyed reading manga like Heart Strings by Akira Norikazu in the past, I’ve never believed hers and other manga-kas’ implication that these clubs are altruistic places that actually “help” women. Though my skepticism never lessened my fascination with the idea of maybe, one day, going into one–just to see what it would be like.
Well, that curiosity was largely satiated during my recent trip to Osaka. In my desire to stay in a hotel close to the centre of things, I wound up in Namba, a district famous for its nightlife. Though little did I realise that my hotel would also be smack-bang in the middle of what had to be one of the highest concentrations of host clubs in Japan. Next door, opposite, on both sides of the street; I couldn’t go back to my room without walking past half a dozen young guys in the standard host club uniform of a suit, sparkly tie and gravity-defying bleached hair.
And my conclusion, after several days of witnessing firsthand the life of a host? Skeevy. Like, really skeevy.
These young guys and girls are basically paid to stay up all night and into the morning, drinking on another person’s dime in exchange for obsequious fawning and empty compliments. A couple days in a row, picking up something to eat at the 7-Eleven closest to my hotel around lunchtime, a group of still-tipsy and incredible rowdy hosts tumbled inside, before all making their way to the convenience store’s shelf of medicinal supplements. I never got a good look in their baskets, but their sallow and exhausted faces made it obvious that they needed something to counteract what was probably a near-constant hangover. Also: cirrhosis of the liver.
Look, I read all manner of fiction, and often take delight in characters who are mobsters, contract killers, cannibals and psychopaths. But does that mean I condone any of those traits or behaviours in real life? Hell to the no! So despite having now seen the less-than-rosy reality of host clubs, and knowing that I’ll probably never go into one myself, I doubt I’ll stop enjoying reading stories about them.
My time in Osaka certainly didn’t diminish my pleasure in being a casual observer of the host phemonen, either. At about 1pm, when most of the clubs around my hotel were shuttered for the daylight hours, I crept up the steps to one and pinched a free promotional magazine from a stand by the door. Its contents were full-page advertisements for most of the clubs in the area, along with coupons, “featured” hosts, club statistics etc etc. I pored over it for most of my two-hour flight back to Taipei, enraptured, creeped out and befuddled by turns.
Now I only wish I’d taken a few more magazines with me. For my friends, I mean. *shifty eyes*