USAGI NAKAMURA

Shopping queen shelves host ‘illusion’

by Setsuko Kamiya

Popular writer Usagi Nakamura is known to many Japanese as “Shoppingu no Joo (The Queen of Shopping),” which is also the title of her popular column in the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun. Nakamura, 44, who describes herself as “shop dependent,” writes frankly about how she impulsively purchases luxury brand items and how foolish she then feels to have wasted so much money “chasing illusions.” What she calls her “serial follies” do not stop, though, and she usually ends up asking publishers for her royalties in advance to pay her credit-card bills.

While slowly managing to put the brakes on her buying, Nakamura found a new target for her spendthrift ways — host clubs. For 14 months from mid-2001, she was totally absorbed in one of the host clubs in the Tokyo entertainment district of Kabukicho, the industry’s “holy ground.” Surprisingly (or maybe not), Nakamura spent a total of 15 million yen on her favorite host over that period.

Once divorced and now married to a gay husband who is her soul mate, Nakamura has recently written four books on host clubs, including “Ai to Shihonshugi (Love and Capitalism),” published by Shinchosha. However, she says that her enthusiasm for host clubs has died down because she had major arguments with her host. She has also run out of available advance royalties.

Nakamura talked to The Japan Times about host clubs and reflected on her nights of “illusion” in Kabukicho.

Why did you start visiting host clubs?

I wanted a change in my nightlife. For six or seven years I’d been hanging out regularly in the “gay town” in Shinjuku 2-chome, but I got so used to the people there that everything was starting to lack freshness. I actually began hanging out in 2-chome in search of something very different from my ordinary life, but then it ended up becoming a part of my life, so I wanted something new.

What was your impression of host clubs before you went to one — and how did the reality differ?

Before I stepped into a host club, I had a strong stereotype in my mind that hosts were middle-aged men who looked like cheap enka singers with outdated hairstyles who would sit next to me with a brandy glass, put their arms around my shoulders and say: “You look wonderful tonight.”

I also thought that the customers would be rich women in their 50s and 60s, who were wives of successful men or were successful themselves. So when I got there, I was surprised to find that the hosts were so young they could have been my sons. They looked trendy, too. As for the customers, I’d say that 80 percent of them are hostesses or girls working in the sex industry. I didn’t know that until I started going there.

The atmosphere was like a drinking party for young people, and it was pretty fun.

When you visited clubs in different cities around Japan, did you find that the kinds of hosts were similar?

No. Even in Tokyo, those enka-singer types still exist in places like Asakusa. Among the young hosts there are variations. Generally, all of them are like J-Pop singers, but some are ojisama (prince) types and others are like yankii (bad boys). The one I regularly went to was one of those prince types. Many of them were cute looking, and knew their manners.

You’ve written that one of the chief reasons you got so absorbed in host clubs was the hosts’ monthly sales competitions. What was fun about that?

The more money you spend on the host you’ve chosen, the higher his ranking at the club becomes. And when you see him climbing up the table, there’s a sense of accomplishment.

I always live with anxiety about my position in the world, you know. I can’t numerically express my value as a woman, or what I do professionally. So when I entered the game, I was projecting myself onto my host, and when he was moving upward it made me feel as if my own value was rising as well.

If I hadn’t become involved in that competition, I probably would have got tired of going to host clubs once I’d made some friends like I did in 2-chome. And, anyway, I don’t think I spent that much money.

In a way, buying a Chanel coat for 600,000 yen is more understandable than ordering a bottle of brandy costing 1 million yen at a host club. How could you do that?

At host clubs, money simply becomes numbers without any meaning. They are merely symbols. It’s like a game.

So if everyone thinks that way, people don’t feel weird about spending so much?

Well, that varies. Some customers take pride in the fact that their hosts don’t ask them to spend money, but merely expect regular visits. Others may feel superior to be spending big money and be receiving much better treatment.

If you don’t want to spend money, that’s fine. But it’s clear that they treat you better when more money is spent. It’s not just your host but also the entire host club: When you are treated nicely by the entire club, it makes you feel like an odaijin (lord).

But I think that although many customers may feel like an odaijin while they’re in the club, they are really like a servant of the host.

What do you mean by that?

A person who spends 1 million yen just because their host tells them to is nothing but a servant! You see, the hosts are professional communicators. The relationship between a shop clerk and the customer normally never changes at an Hermes shop. The attendant can never take control of the customer. But with the host, it starts off with you being the one governing the relationship, but before you know it, he’s the one in control. You just don’t know when it shifts. The thing is, if you fall for him, you lose, because you want to listen to him so he thinks better of you.

What was your host like?

I was much older than him, so it felt like he was my boyfriend and my son at the same time — or I was a sister with a helpless brother. It was also like nurturing a celebrity. I accidentally chose a host who was ranked in the middle [among some 30 hosts]. But when I learned how things worked there, I began to think that I had to help him beat the top host. I wasn’t able to, though.

You haven’t written much about the other customers who also selected the same host as you. Why is that?

One reason was that I didn’t want any trouble with the other customers. I assume that most people who go there don’t want themselves to appear in the media, even if I faked their names.

But more than that, the hosts strictly try to prevent their customers becoming friends with one another, because they don’t want any information exchanged. My host could be telling me, “I’m only asking you for this favor, Nori-chan [Nakamura's nickname, derived from her given name of Noriko],” but he could be saying the same to others. He wouldn’t want that to be revealed. The information control is extremely thorough, almost like North Korea. This is why hosts need to increase their influence over their customers — to control the flow of information. If they fail to do so, chances are that their customers will get angry and they will lose them all.

Why do you think most of the customers are hostesses or sex-industry workers?

For one thing, they have a lot of money for their age. But I also feel it’s an act of atonement. Even though these girls know what they are doing and may say they have no regrets, I still believe that deep down they do have a feeling of guilt, and subconsciously have a desire to redeem themselves. That’s why they spend so much money on the hosts. Seeing him become happy because of their money, they confirm that what they are doing has a meaning. They can feel, “he needs me, and so there is a meaning to what I do — right?”

I know I also have a feeling of guilt, or the desire to atone for what I have done. But then, I always have an excuse for myself — “though you did these things, don’t cry Noriko, you can still write about them.” But the girls don’t have that.

In what way are the relationships between men and women in kyabakura (hostess clubs) and host clubs different?

They are very different. At a kyabakura, the male customers’ goal is to sleep with the hostess, and so she has to try to get her clients to spend more money without allowing them to become intimate with her because once a guy gets off with her, he’ll move on.

But things are completely different for hosts, because even if they have sex, that isn’t the goal for the girls. What the girls want more is to win the hearts of the hosts. They want to be needed. It’s for that illusion that they are paying. Sex, if it happens, only confirms that closeness. And hosts do not necessarily sleep with customers. [In fact, Nakamura never did. She has written: "I don't want to have sex with someone who I feel is my alter ego. No way. That's like committing incest." She also wrote: "The strong sense of accomplishment I get from the hosts' sales game is a lot better than sex."]

The relationship between the host and the customer could be seen as an extreme form of a classical Japanese relationship between men and women. People may call you a fool when you spend so much money on hosts, but providing aid, both mentally and financially, to the man you love by sacrificing yourself has long been regarded as a virtue in this country. People who devote themselves to hosts are probably still living under the influence of that ideal.

For the hosts, the clubs’ ranking system with a clear winner must spur on their efforts.

Exactly. I think men like competitions that are so simple to comprehend. Although there is a serious seniority system within a host club, the person who makes the highest sales is the winner. And no one can complain about that.

Their success can bring them titles within the club. So a newcomer can keep climbing up the ladder of titles if they produce good results.

It sounds pretty much like Japanese society in miniature, doesn’t it?

It’s really a caricature. Hosts are typical children of Japanese society, governed by administration and competition, and the customers still live under the influence of a traditional value system between men and women. And everything is converted to money.

Everything that goes on sounds really dirty because of that. But I feel that something besides money is in fact exploited in any relationship between men and women. So in the end, it feels like the same thing. Sometimes I thought that money was a better kind of exploitation because it was easier to understand.

Hmm. Marketing human relationships like this may be something unique to Japan. There aren’t any kyabakura or host clubs in other countries, right? They may have places with bunny girls, but I think there is a difference of quality between paying money for the size of the bunnies’ busts, or for communication between men and women.

I think that the history of the values that support these businesses goes back to the entertainment culture of oiran (high-class prostitutes) in brothels in the late Edo Period. Although relationships began with sex with the oiran, what came to be considered iki (stylish) was not the sex, but the human relationship that the clients developed with the oiran. Sometimes it was even considered iki just going there for days to meet her and not having sex.

I think that kind of traditional value continues to live in Kabukicho. In host clubs or in kyabakura, people are paying for the illusion of human relationship. They want to think they are connected, and it’s for that they are paying.

Do you think you, too, were paying for that illusion?

I guess so. A large amount of money tended to move for things that have no cost.

But I don’t necessarily think that paying money for an illusion is a foolish thing. In the days of rapid economic growth in the 1950s and ’60s, people’s dream was to buy a refrigerator. What people wanted was so concrete. But today, we basically have everything we need, and so consumption can’t happen without an added value for people’s illusions.

I do know that a Ferrari and a Toyota Corolla are different; but then, if you are just driving on a crowded street, there isn’t really much difference between the two. You are just paying for the illusion of the story of Ferrari.

When all our desires are satisfied, what’s left is to pay for something we can’t see — and it all comes down to illusions. And the ultimate illusions exist in human relationships.