Opening the thick wooden door to the Swallowtail coffee house in Tokyo, a man in a black tailcoat greets female customers: “Welcome home, Madam.”
Then the “butler” leads the women to a table in a room designed to look like the interior of a British country house.
This is the world that Emiko Sakamaki wanted to create for women like her — female “otaku,” or geeks fixated on comic books, animation and video games.
“When I visited a ‘maid cafe’ (with waitresses dress as maids) last year, I thought there should be a cafe with a similar concept for women. And I saw people post some messages on the Internet that they wanted such a butler cafe,” said Sakamaki, 25, an employee at management consulting firm Oriental Corp. who drew up the basic plan for the cafe.
She proposed the idea of a cafe in which the waiters act like butlers to her boss in October and then sought cooperation from comic book store operator K-Books Inc., which had happened to conceive of a similar idea around the same time.
” ‘Otaku’ has a negative image, so unlike male otaku, women do not want to identify themselves as being one,” she said. “But as I am an otaku and have otaku friends, I thought the cafe could be accepted.”
In fact, Swallowtail has been a success, drawing more than 3,000 customers — roughly 100 a day — in the month since it opened March 24 in Higashi Ikebukuro, Toshima Ward, according to Ayako Abe, executive managing director of K-Books, which manages the coffee shop.
More than 80 percent of the customers are women, with those in their 20s and 30s forming the core group, she added.
“We didn’t expect to have such a large number of customers,” Abe said. “We’ve asked customers to make reservations on our Web site. All tables have been reserved until May 12, and weekends in May are fully booked.”
The otaku subculture — comics, animation, costume play, games and anime character figurines — has been burgeoning in Japan in recent years.
Yokohama-based think tank Hamagin Research Institute Ltd. estimated last year that the market for businesses targeting male otaku who show special “moe” affection for cute animation characters reached 88.8 billion yen.
Although there are no comparable estimates for the female otaku market, these women are becoming more visible, said Shinichi Shinano, an economist at the research institute.
For example, half of the roughly 510,000 visitors to the Comic Market — the nation’s largest fair for “dojinshi,” or comics written by amateur cartoonists, held twice a year in Tokyo — in 2004 were women, and women made up most of the roughly 20,000 people who took part in an event in Yokohama last year featuring game software targeting females, he said.
While the Akihabara district in Tokyo, long known for its high concentration of stores hawking electric products, is now transforming into a center for male otaku, the Ikebukuro district is becoming a mecca for their female counterparts.
Several comic book stores targeting women can be found in the Ikebukuro Otome (Maiden) Road quarter. K-Books, for example, runs two stores that sell animation DVDs, trading cards and dojinshi, some of which depict love between beautiful youths.
“Our shops’ prime target customers are women in their teens and 20s, but those in their 30s and 40s, who got used to ‘boys love’ comics while they were young, come to the stores with their daughters,” Abe of K-Books said.
The Swallowtail cafe, a newcomer to the Ikebukuro Otome Road area, is designed to meet the tastes and aesthetics of visitors there.
“Men would not mind if maid cafes use (cheap) tables and pipe chairs as long as the waitresses are pretty, but women are picky about the interior” and the tea and cakes served, Oriental’s Sakamaki said.
Swallowtail’s furniture was either imported from Scandinavia or custom-made, and about 20 “butlers” aged between 18 and 60, selected from about 350 men who applied for the job, received a one-month training program to learn about various kinds of tea leaves, how to make good tea and high-level service to customers.
These efforts appear to be paying off.
“The butlers looked nervous serving tea and cake, but I liked the ambience” of the coffee shop, said Noriko Suzuki, 28, a comic otaku. “I felt like I was peeking into the world of girls’ manga comics dealing with butlers.”
Other coffee shops are coming up with their own twists in the Ikebukuro Otome Road quarter. For instance, Wonder Parlour CAFE, a maid cafe, holds events in which women dress like butlers and serve customers, while B:Lily-rose has its waitresses don men’s business suits.
Chinami Kasama, a gender studies professor at Kanagawa University, said she believes the phenomenon of women flocking to butler cafes may indicate that some are unconsciously resisting the traditional role of serving men.
Oriental’s Sakamaki admitted to such feelings.
“Women have no one to serve them. In a virtual reality environment (at the butler cafe), I think many women want to spend some time when they can feel relaxed, drinking tea elegantly, and want to have a sense of superiority.”