June 15, 2006
|UNIORB: ASIAN TREND: JAPAN|
As a nation known for spawning cultural phenomenon, Japan has given a new twist to the meaning of “maid” in the land of “maid café” catering to social outcasts known as “otaku” (geeks). As the shadowy part of the cute culture boom, the emerging legions of otaku have been boosting the lucrative markets for anime (cartoons), manga (comic books), and video games. By living in their virtual world, the otaku enthusiasts have developed the concept of moe — attraction or affection for characters in the anime, manga or video games. Thus, coffee shops, employing cute young girls decked in maid garbs or outfits right out of a manga page to wait hand and foot on otaku, have provided just the right touch for these anti-social technophiles to play out their fantasies in the real world.
It’s not surprising that Akihabara, the home of the world's cutting edge technologies, gave birth to the first maid café, Cure Maid Café, ran by Masato Matsuzaki in March 2001. Over the past few years, the Akihabara district in Tokyo has been transformed into an exclusive hangout with a string of coffee shops frequented by male otaku, while the Ikebukuro district has become a center for their female counterparts. Akihabara now features around 30 maid cafés catering to geeks as well as tourists. Furthermore, maid cafés have spread to other major cities as the otaku culture moves into the mainstream.
Although the majority of otaku are men, ranging from 18 to 45 years old, an increasing number of women are joining their ranks. The Moe Guide to Tokyo (Moe Rurubu Tokyo Annai) published by JTB Corp. became an instant hit for both men and women. When Biblos put forth the first Otaku Certificate examination aimed at geek’s knowledge of otaku culture, more than 500,000 Internet users tried to access it in the space of two weeks, causing Biblos’ computer to crash last year.
According to Nomura Research Institute, the annual spending power of an estimated three million otaku living in Japan is $5 billion. While entertainment and electronic businesses have been reaping enormous profits from otaku, maid cafés, in a way, have opened a window to otaku's world with the media coverage.
Otaku, nowadays, conveys a different image. No longer seen as shy, awkward, introverted social misfit, the male otaku has inspired a trend of geek fashion and a positive image of a trust-worthy mate. Identified by the common attire of tracksuit, knapsack, and glasses, the otaku appears sincere, relaxed, and modest — all are attractive characteristics by Japanese standards. Even a web community, “Spectacled Guy Lovers,” has sprung from Japanese women dedicating their feelings for men with glasses. Perhaps, one of the reasons why women are so willing to serve as maids has to do with the recent romantic appeal of otaku.
One major attraction for working in maid café is the opportunity for adult women to play dress-ups. "Cosplay" (costume play) has become a fad among ladies in metropolitan areas to engage in role-playing while wearing a variety of eye-catching costumes.
Many maids, who are devoted fans of comics and video games, view the job as a kind of fantasy world. They not only enjoy acting as make-belief characters but also they immersed themselves as these characters. Clad in manga-inspired or saucy French maid fashion, a waitress greets patrons at the door with a curtsy and the words, "Welcome home, master.” The menial maid services could include getting down on their knees to stir the customer’s coffee, spoon-feeding customers at the table, and providing grooming services, such as cleaning ears, after a meal.
To please their largely male clientele, maid cafés hire cute young women, emphasizing the look of innocence as a priority. Royal Milk is one such example — the average age of employees is 20. Cafe & Kitchen Cos-Cha offers costume-changing event where its young employees wear skimpy suits three times a month. Little BSD allows its waitresses to don a different costume every day.
Other types of business are also cashing in on the trend by having female employees dressed as maids. It is believed that workers in maid uniforms have a therapeutic affect on customers. The impression that maid gives is service and obedience. Hair salons, such as Moesham, have stylists decked in maid garbs giving shampoos and cuts to male customers. The masseuses clad in maid costumes at Cutie Relax provide massages for relaxation while girls dressed as angels in Holy-land offer foot massages and manicures to weary salarymen.
Although maid café is considered to be in the service sector, two coffee shops in Kyushu raised suspicion of violating the adult ‘entertainment’ laws when they first opened for business. Providing VIP service and the practice of waitresses accompanying customers in chats by request could be seen under the banner of "entertainment." However, the two maid cafés applied for a special license to avoid running foul of the law.
For female otaku, Swallowtail coffee house is their answer for a similar concept — a “butler café.” Dressed in a black tailcoat, the waiter greets woman customers with "Welcome home, Madam" and performs quality butler service. As the first butler café, Swallowtail has been quite successful — drawing more than 100 customers per day and taking only reservations for tables. More than 80 percent of the customers that come to Swallowtail are female, with a core group of 20 - 30 year olds.
A twist to the butler café is the latest “princess restaurants” where waitresses in maid outfits treat their customers like royalty as they are shown to their “throne chairs.” Targeting female customers in their 20s and 30s, Princess Heart is becoming a hot spot in Tokyo Ginza, providing service to only women and couples.
This type of servile market is showing signs of expansion as it has already extended to neighboring countries, such as South Korea, China, and Taiwan. As long as otaku culture becomes more accepted in the mainstream, so will the spread of maid and butler cafés in other parts of Asia.
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