Tokyo Hostess Interview Series (Part II)
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The mama-san is the brains of the hostess club operation. As a boss, she is the captain of the ship in all respects: from hiring the girls to sending boxes of chocolate to her best customers as reminders to visit again. As a teacher, she instructs her legion of hostesses in the proper manner of speaking and dress. But above all, she is the club's top hostess, a fact that is never overlooked.
By all accounts, Ayano Iwata has seen everything there is to see in the hostess world. From the age of 18, she's been a mama-san at three clubs, one being in Tokyo's posh Ginza district. Ayano's world is one whose sole existence is to flatter and comfort some of Japan's most noted company men. Ayano is quick to point out that a hostess is not the same as a modern geisha. A geisha will have sex after serving her customers, she says. A hostess will not necessarily. But, of course, that can happen. This uncertainty, as she explains, is one of the keys to her business.
During Japan's bubble economy ten years ago, it was not uncommon for certain Japanese politicians to come to her Ginza club and have their fat tabs paid for by their coalition members. Likewise, company presidents from some of Japan's electronic and financial giants sometimes dropped 500,000 yen in a single hour. This isn't hard to imagine since two bottles of Dom Perrignon Gold were fetching 780,000 yen at her establishment. One time after closing, a customer gave her 500,000 yen for taxi fare and coffee.
Today, she is retired. But she holds onto a strong, yet vague, connection with many of her past customers. Through their assistance, she can still live comfortably. In her apartment (a gift of one of her customers), hangs a picture of her 14 million yen Mercedes - also a gift. Around her wrist is a Piaget watch. Boxes of Chanel perfume are stacked on the coffee table in the living room.
Still, amid all this excess, the almost obsequious nature of her current relationship with her past customers has created a sort of inescapable dependence on them. There are also elements of emptiness. Her dog is named Daddy because her 8-year old daughter, Honoka, doesn't have a father.
In May, she plans on getting back into the game by opening an izakaya (Japanese pub) and a hostess club, staffed by 48 girls, in Tokyo's Roppongi district. This week Captain Japan continues his hostess interview series by finding out from Ayano what it is takes to operate a club and what it is like to be on the other side of the whiskey glass.
Name: Ayano Iwata
Former jobs: Mama-san at two hostess clubs and one host club, manager of one casino.
Current Job: Will soon open an izakaya and hostess club in Roppongi, Tokyo.
Home: Kiba, Tokyo
Hobbies: Overseas travel and studying English.
Captain Japan: Why have you decided to start a new club?
Mama-san Iwata: I originally quit because my daughter was very young (4 years old). At the time, the environment didn't seem right to raise a child. Today, I have some money saved and I found some places with cheap land in Roppongi.
CJ: The Japanese economy is very poor now. What makes you think you can succeed today?
MI: Yes, the Japanese economy is in a recession. But, it doesn't matter in this world. The rich people are always rich. Almost all of the customers will be presidents of companies.
CJ: Competition in Roppongi with hostess clubs is extremely large. How will you set yourself above the rest?
MI: I always ensure that my hostesses are the most beautiful. Everyday, they go to the best beauty salons. Each girl has a wardrobe of at least 30 different suits, like Chanel and Gucci. Also, I make sure that they are informed. I insist that each girl reads the four main Tokyo newspapers. This way they can talk to the businessmen. They also cater to the customer's interests. If a particular customer likes kabuki or opera, the hostess will learn about kabuki or opera.
Also, I emphasize the personal touch. In the morning, each girl will call some of her personal customers. She will set up an appointment, pretending to be a business associate, at his company in the afternoon. At the meeting, she will say, 'We haven't seen you in a while. When will you come again?' Then she might give him some golf balls or chocolate, depending on his taste.
CJ: Can you talk about the relationships between the clubs in Ginza?
MI: The Ginza clubs are all connected. If a certain company president is at one club or other, a lot of the mama-sans will know this. They are always watching each other. Most of the hostesses know where her best customers are on any particular night. But also we have a watchman or scout, a kurofuku (black clothes), outside the club that is well connected in the area.
If I find out [from a hostess or the kurofuku] that a certain company president is at one club, I might call over and ask, 'When you are finished there, why don't you come over here?'
Also, the kurofuku scout and steal girls from other clubs. But if I have a friendly relationship with a particular club, then I won't steal a girl from that club. But it still happens.
CJ: Doesn't this start fights with the mama-sans?
MI: No, it is give and take.
CJ: How do your find your customers?
MI: Since, there is a strict "member's only" policy at the club, most new customers come from a recommendation from a hostess. Then there is a background check because we must find out who can pay and who cannot. Mostly they are presidents from real estate, electronics, insurance, and pharmaceutical companies, also many baseball players and film producers. But I have more confidence in the presidents to pay their bills. Still, you cannot trust anyone to pay. Nobody knows if a company will go bankrupt.
For the first visit, I explain to the customer that the entrance fee is 110,000 yen. Then there are additional costs for each bottle, each glass, etc. Also, if he wants to nominate a particular hostess as his own, the price goes up from there.
CJ: When hiring girls what are you looking for?
MI: Generally, it is a feeling I have about which girls might be suitable. But first, my girls must have experience. This is mandatory. Since the girls are responsible for making sure that the customers pay, this is vital to the club. If a customer drinks at my club and says, 'I will pay next time,' it is the hostess' duty to get the money. If after two months he still hasn't paid, then it is her that must pay.
So, overall, a hostess needs good eyes to find customers that will pay.
CJ: What do you expect from your hostesses?
MI: Again, it is smarts. She must pretend that a particular customer is her best customer. Not only that but she must pretend that he is the best at the club.
She also must make her customers spend more and more. As incentive, we pay her (part-time workers) 3,000 per hour plus a commission of the bill from her customers [if she meets her monthly quota]. For example, if a customer drinks, say, a beer, and it is 2,000 yen, she gets 400 yen for herself.
Then there is the yakuza (gangsters). She must be able to spot the yakuza because we can't allow them to enter. That is another reason why a hostess must be very clever.
Additionally, since I am only myself, I cannot
go out with all mycustomers for dinner each night. So the
hostesses must go out with some of them. (The practice is
referred to as dohan in Japanese - Captain.) Given
this, there must be loyalty. If one of my customers falls
in love with a hostess, there must be loyalty. The mama-san
is always afraid that she will lose a customer to a hostess.
The mama-san is number one and that should never be forgotten.
CJ: What is the biggest problem in being a mama-san?
MI: Definitely, it is hostesses that run away.
CJ: What is the secret to your success as a mama-san?
MI: I never have sex with the customers. Everyday, I say [to my customers], 'I love you, I need you.' But I never have sex. That keeps them coming back. If there is sex, they are gone.
They can never have the mama-san. An easy girl is boring. A difficult girl is interesting. An easy girl will become like trash in this business after 2 or 3 months.
Note: Ed Gelband and Eric Prideaux contributed to this report.
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