Lil is a woman who knows a thing or two about survival.

A single mother, she worked for years in Yokohama at a "grand cabaret" nightspot featuring a singer and a dance floor. Then she realized her salary wouldn't put her son through high school, and that she needed to make more money.

Fortunately, Lily (a professional name) had connections. Among her many clients at the cabaret was an employee at a real-estate company who put her onto an affordable rental property a short walk from Yokohama Station. She rustled up her savings and took the plunge. She opened a snack.

That was eight years ago. Today, at age 47, her ground-floor snack with its golden floral-motif walls and burgundy tables has two staff and a flock of devoted regulars -- and her son is ready to graduate from college.

Considering all this, Lily could teach a course on hanging tough in the face of challenge.

After a lifetime of serving a largely male clientele, she could also lecture on the convoluted ways of the male heart.

"Men are lonesome," says Lily, dressed in a stately black dress, before lighting up a smoke. "They endure tons of stress at work, but many are married to wives who won't listen to their troubles. After going all day without talking, they come here for a drink and let it all out."

Sadly for the men, and for every mama-san too, one of the first things to go in a bad economy is people's spare cash to pay for the after-parties that have long been the mainstays of the snack industry. And so Lily must compete ever harder for customers, both by keeping her prices low and also by creating an atmosphere more comfortable than her rivals'.

Keeping the mood just right means knowing when to engage in conversation -- and when to pull back. Though her customers are a generally classy lot, including traveled businessmen and an electronics technician who can assemble a computer from scratch, Lily knows as well as anyone does that men will always be men -- liberally mixing into otherwise respectable conversation low-brow banter that would offend a lesser woman.

Older customers obviously expect Lily, as a "woman of a certain age," to shrug off uncouthness up to a point, even that directed at herself. She endures the occasional barb with poise -- though when she's pushed too far she can dish it back twofold.

After all, behind that composed smile, there are undoubtedly memories of those same men on other days, days when some screw-up at the office or a family dispute dented their armor -- along with their pride.

"Japanese men are supposed to be samurai," Lily observes. "But get a drink in them, and some of these guys will cry at the drop of a hat."