In Japan, drinking establishments where male patrons receive special attention from female workers tend to be described with one of two labels: mizu shōbai, which means “water trade,” and fūzoku eigyō, which means “business associated with public morals.” The latter designation is partly judgmental, and is used in a generic fashion to describe everything from pachinko parlors to massage parlors. Mizu shōbai refers to places that serve alcohol and provide entertainment.

At the intersection of these two worlds is the “cabaret club,” or kyaba-kura, a sub-genre of the more well-known “hostess club.” Essentially, a patron comes in and drinks in the company of a female employee. The difference is in the way of payment. In a classic hostess club — sometimes called a “snack” or “pub” — the patron orders drinks and pays for them. He will buy drinks for the female employees who sit and chat with him, but while it may be expected, it isn’t required. The added value of the female company is reflected in the higher cost of the drinks or the “keep bottle” — liquor that the regular patron keeps on the premises for his own consumption.

In a kyaba-kura, this transaction is formalized. The patron not only pays for his drinks and those of his hostess, but also for the time he spends in the club. The going rate for the basic “table charge” is between ¥5,000 and ¥10,000 an hour, not including drinks and food. Since this practice is rather ill-defined and not codified by any sort of industry rules, many clubs take advantage of it and gouge unsuspecting customers, charging them huge fees for just sitting down, a practice called bottakuri.

In any event, the club charges for everything that it can, but since the main attraction of the business is the women it offers as companions, they are the primary source of revenue. Customers are charged extra if they request to be served by a specific employee (shimei), and that employee will likely receive a commission as a result. More to the point, these women may have quotas, meaning they have to ply a minimum amount of drinks per night on customers; or they may even be expected to go out and bring in new customers. Though “fūzoku” implies sexual transactions as well, it’s not overtly part of the employee’s job description.

For these reasons, kyaba-kura can be a lucrative line of work for young women with no skills, and traditionally the vocation was filled with students working part-time. Want ads promise an average hourly wage well above what a woman can normally earn working in retail or food service, usually between ¥2,000 and ¥3,000 an hour. With commissions, a hostess can make more than ¥5,000 an hour.

According to a recent National Tax Agency survey, the number of women employed at kyaba-kura is going up as women’s wages in general are going down. The main reason they are going down is structural: More and more workers are taking on non-regular employment. These twin trends reflect two economic realities: that the promise of higher wages attracts women to hostess work who would otherwise not be interested in it; and that the very nature of the business makes it difficult to regulate, especially in terms of wages and workers’ rights.

It’s common for women working in kyaba-kura to be ripped off. Since the social image of the job itself is a negative one, women who are exploited may simply prefer to quit their jobs rather than stand up for their rights as workers; and employers, knowing this, will take advantage of the power this affords them.

This dynamic has been the subject of various media reports lately. Last fall, the Asahi Shimbun ran a feature on labor disputes at kyaba-kura. The paper profiled one woman who gave notice to her employer that she was quitting to get married. Her manager told her that if she quit, she would forfeit her previous two months’ pay, or about ¥200,000. The woman went to a union for part-time workers and they helped her carry out collective bargaining, which, according to the Labor Standards Law, anyone who belongs to a union has a right to do.

The union told the employer that the law required the club to pay the woman her back wages. The manager replied that by quitting in such a fashion she had broken the rules, and thus was being “fined.” The union countered that such fines are illegal.

Eventually the union threatened to disrupt the club’s business by picketing outside the premises, which they are legally entitled to do. The club kept passing the buck, but eventually came around and not only paid the woman the ¥200,000 it owed her, but an additional ¥150,000 it had withheld in “taxes” that it never paid to the government.

Eriko Fuse, an official of the union, told the Asahi that most kyaba-kura workers come from impoverished backgrounds and remain poor while they are working. Regardless of what the want ads say, pay tends to work out to much less than ¥2,000 an hour. That’s because the employer subtracts all sorts of expenses, including fees for makeup, clothing and transportation, not to mention fines for being late or absent or not fulfilling quotas.

Earlier this month, the NHK series “Tokuho Shutoken” covered the same topic and the same union, which claimed that so far this year it had carried out twice as many labor negotiations with mizu shōbai establishments as it did last year. The program profiled one such negotiation between an employee and her kyaba-kura employer.

Although the woman said she originally started working at the club to support herself while attending vocational school, she added that she enjoyed the work. In one month alone, she had brought the club ¥1.5 million worth of business, but the company that owned the club transferred her to another one, and then never paid her for the previous three months she had worked. When she demanded her back pay, the company said the former club was under new management so it wasn’t the company’s responsibility any more. She went to the union for help.

Despite the stigma attached to hostess work, it’s still a major source of income for many women. The union, which is basically an ad hoc organization, thus plays a vital role. In fact, some employment services now offer hostesses on a temporary basis to mizu shōbai establishments, which means those establishments have to play fair since they are dealing with companies and not individual agents.

One problem with the industry is that employers treat hostesses as self-employed contractors, which means no benefits and no recognition of union representation. Under the law, self-employed contractors have fewer rights than employees do.

Yen for Living covers issues related to making, spending and saving money in Japan on the second and fourth Sundays of the month. For related online content, see blog.japantimes.co.jp/yen-for-living.

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