Hosts Set Hearts Beating in Kabukicho (Part I)

Club Prince > Part I > Part II

The reasons the Captain heads to a hostess club after a day of pounding out news copy are many - a few cold ones, pleasant conversation, the chance to guess his girl's type of underwear...

But this week he is sitting on the other side of the ice bucket. Join him as he spends a night serving in a Kabukicho host club. Don't worry, ladies, there is no mystery: the Captain always wears boxers.

TOKYO - In a club housed on the fifth floor of a building near the Shinjuku Ward office in Tokyo's Kabukicho entertainment district, four ladies are whisked from their booth to the stage. Early '90s-era techno pumps from the sound system as no less than twenty "hosts," young gentlemen whose sole duty is to entertain women, hit the dance floor immediately in front of them.

The boys, outfitted in upturned collars, pointy shoes, sleek suits, and the practically trademarked spiky hair, shift laterally, clap, spin, and swing their arms in unison as the glass chandelier above reflects the house lights. The club's owner, Yuga, sits between the girls, facing his boogieing charges who now are taking turns singing into microphones.

Then, just as quickly as it came to life, the party freezes to allow for a cork from a Dom Perignon bottle (white) to be popped in silence. As the performers huddle around the four guests, a boisterous shout of "Kampai!" breaks the quiet. With the ladies, glasses in hand, absolutely beaming, an escalating vocal roar from the troupe signals the resumption of the pulsing music.

It's just another evening at Club Prince.

"This is an original space," says host Ageha, 21, who is dressed in a velvet coat, curly black bow, and lip ring. "Providing a dreamlike environment, as with the champagne toast, is something special. That is the most important thing. You can't do this at an izakaya."

Back in the vinyl booth after the floor show has finished, the hosts sit opposite the four ladies to gently feed them compliments about their personality, dress, and demeanor. Fanned out in all directions, other young women giggle as they receive similar treatment from their doting attendants.

While this might sound like pure female fantasy, this nationwide industry is often viewed as a vulture preying upon innocent girls who wind up entrenched in debt. Also not boosting public relations are assumed ties to organized crime. Yuga, who once fronted the pop trio Kids Alive, hopes to change that perception through the release this month of the CD single "Love Dokkyun" (Heartbeat of Love) by his new band - not coincidentally named Club Prince - on pop label avex. His desire is to take the glamour and non-stop pace of the host lifestyle around the world.

"I want to create an image similar to that of an amusement park, like Disneyland, for the host world," says the 22-year-old Yuga of the group's single, which is a high-tempo dance number that starts off with a call for free-flowing alcohol. "Since music is a worldwide language, I decided to use a song to convey this message to as many people as possible."

Inside Club Prince, each table has a standard set: ice bucket, mineral water, glasses, ashtray, and coaster. (Hosts will be equipped with lighters in their pockets for quick draws on unlit cigarettes.) Small circular tables are bunched in single rows to allow the customer and her male admirer to sit directly opposite one another - but never next to each other, an important point in not appearing too aggressive. Should a lady, however, request a little closeness, curved tables pushed into corners allow for easier side-by-side seating.

Basic rules at the club, in which flower arrangements in the corners give a romantic flair, require that a host not ask a guest her occupation because she is likely there to forget work-related stress. But once she passes through the front door and onto the red carpet that splits the room, any of the 150 svelte hosts on the rolls will typically be able to deduce her means of employ quite quickly. (Two thirds of all customers are involved in some kind of sex or hostess trade with the remainder being office ladies or company presidents.) This knowledge is critical because a good host will always need to be conscious of the perceived needs of his target so that he can adjust the scope of approach as appropriate.

"There are so many different kinds of ladies coming here," Ageha says. "It is very difficult for my character to be flexible to each type."

Deciphering which customers would prefer an over-the-top personality versus those for whom subtle sweet talk would be preferred is necessary. But the overall theme, no matter the lady, is that simple flattery will get you everywhere.

"Even if the customer is not good-looking," says Yuga, who like most hosts goes by his genjina (or performing name), "the host will heap praise upon her. She should be like an idol. Hosts must treat the lady like a princess."

The video for "Love Dokkyun," whose cover features a pyramid of filled champagne glasses, is a staple on the club's monitors. Vocalist Yuga and the other four members (all hosts) are flanked by a multitude of curvy, hip-shaking female dancers as the English word "love" is splashed on the screen repeatedly, which is perhaps ironic in that very little about the host experience is centered on sincere emotion - much less full-blown l-o-v-e.

It is not real, admits Kanako, who at one point in her on-again-off-again hostess career visited host clubs in Kabukicho once every few months, but the hosts are so smooth that it is easy to get lost in the whirlwind.

"If I am spending a lot of time in the club with these guys in what is a virtual world," explains the 26-year-old, "the next thing I know I am out the door and on my way home. Then the next night I am working at my club. Events go from one to the next so easily that the virtual world starts to blend with reality."

One of her entertainers, she relates, suggested marriage, which she partially believed to be a legitimate offer only to find out later that this was simply his standard sales technique.

Yuga, however, believes that true success for a host requires more than merely a golden tongue, saying that what lies beneath that shiny suit is most important. "If your heart is poor," he explains, clutching his chest, "you are worth nothing."

But to keep up with visual expectations, he adds, a stylist comes to the club to shape the manes of Club Prince's hosts into the stringy, scarecrow-like coiffure that has become the trade's standard.

Other essentials include the shimeisha system, whereby a customer may reserve a particular boy-toy for her private use, and the dohan, which is a dinner date. Both services have a single rationale: developing a pseudo relationship that will keep the lady coming back to the club...on to Part II...

Club Prince > Part I > Part II

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