Anne Allison performed the ritualized tasks of a hostess in one of Tokyo’s many “hostess clubs”: pouring drinks, lighting cigarettes, and making flattering or titillating conversation with the businessmen who came there on company expense accounts. She describes in detail a typical company outing to such a club—what the men do, how they interact with the hostesses, the role the hostess is expected to play, and the extent to which all of this involves “play” rather than “work.”
Allison seeks to uncover connections between such behavior and other social, economic, sexual, and gendered relations. She argues that Japanese corporate nightlife enables and institutionalizes a particular form of ritualized male dominance: in paying for this entertainment, Japanese corporations not only give their male workers a self-image as phallic man, but also develop relationships to work that are unconditional and unbreakable.
Nightwork is a good book in that it does exactly what it says on the tin – discuss hostess clubs in Japan from a sociological and anthropological standpoint. The problem is that it’s hard to recommend to almost anyone.
First, the subject matter. Hostess clubs are establishments where groups of men, usually on company expense accounts, go to socialize with colleagues and potential business partners. Hostesses are assigned to each table to light cigarettes, pour drinks, and keep the conversation going. It is not a place of prostitution or a sex club, and the better the establishment the less the chance of anything outside a casual touch. They don’t sell sex, they sell the idea of sex. The hostesses and “mama” ( club owner) make men feel smart and sexy and desirable for a hefty hourly rate.
I picked up this book because I’ve heard about hostess clubs the entire time I’ve been in Japan, but I’ve never known anyone who has been to one. They’re not as common as they used to be, I gather, and I’m not friends with any management types who have an excuse to visit on their company’s dime. A few early chapters outline what a usual visit is like, how the clubs are arranged, and why companies see visits as an investment in their employees.
The book carries a huge caveat with it, though – it has become extremely out of date. The author spent a few months as a hostess in 1981, and the book itself was published in 1994. Many of the cited works are from the 70s and 80s, and I’m sure research has advanced in the intervening 30 years.
Textbook-y and sometimes dry writing aside, that time disconnect makes this book hard to recommend. If you don’t know what Japan looks like now you may be tempted to apply everything to the current day, but you can’t. Some insights carry over, but not all of them. There’s no way to suss out which is which unless you’re already at least knee deep in the culture.
If you study Japan and/or speak Japanese and know the culture you’ll get some value out of Nightwork. However those with a more casual interest would do better looking elsewhere.