Host Clubs: Lessons in Language, Culture, and Power

Reiko Yamagishi


[A]lice Walker coined the term ‘womanist’ in the 1980s, even though a similar word, ‘feminist,’ was already in vogue at the time in the United States. Yet for her, ‘feminist’ was an innovation solely of a specific group of women – white, middle-class and heterosexual. She knew the word was created to achieve this group’s political interests; yet, at the same time, it overlooked the lives, issues and concerns of many others. As a woman writer of an oppressed people, Alice Walker was keenly aware of the power of language. Language is not merely a means of communication; it conveys, controls and constructs knowledge of the dominant power for the dominant people. Language and knowledge are inextricably linked to those who hold the power.

In a similar context of language’s power, as a sociologist I often experience misunderstanding when using the English term “sex work,” widely used in academia, whenever I apply it while trying to explain to Westerners the host club, a non-Western form of sex entertainment in Japan.

What’s a Host Club?

I was attending a 2004 gathering for international professionals living in Tokyo who were concerned with human rights. Naturally, I was expecting to meet up with critically-minded people. People in the room were mingling and introducing themselves, so I stopped to talk with a group of American men who asked me my occupation. I told them that I was a Ph.D. student at the National University of Singapore and had just returned to Tokyo to conduct fieldwork on the host club phenomenon in Shinjuku’s Kabuki-cho. Despite the popular media coverage on the Japan host club phenomenon these men did not seem to have any clue about what host clubs were. I explained, “Hosts are sort of heterosexual male sex workers, but they do not sell ‘sex,’ though it can happen outside of the club. It is more of a companionship, like a hostess club. Or their work is similar to escorts, but much more institutionalized.” They looked at each other and cracked some jokes that I did not catch. The only thing I knew was that they were smirking at me.

Later, one of them approached me. He stopped and stood close by me, slightly sideways. With the same smirk I had seen a moment ago on several faces, his eyes moved unhurriedly up and down my body, from my face to my legs, which suddenly felt vulnerably exposed underneath my yellow mini-skirt. “Oh, shit.” I clicked my tongue in my mind. I knew where this was going.

“So, you must really like ‘it’,” he said finally, still smirking.

As politely as I could, I asked, “Do I like what?” He lowered his face and whispered to me, “Oh, you know what I mean.”

Since I have started this area of research, I have frequently experienced such incidents. These uncomfortable moments happen especially while interacting with “Western men.”By “Western men,” I mean native English speakers. Certainly, I do not mean to say, “All Western men are sexists.” Indeed, some have responded respectfully and professionally. Yet, at the same time, this particularly patterned reaction has occurred often enough so that I could not ignore the cultural and gendered stereotypes residing in the comments..

The prevalent “occidental” characteristic in the comments was that the Western men with whom I talked to about my work were likely to identify me as a sexually-active woman, and thus “available” for them. Furthermore, anything I did was perceived as sexualized. For example, a British man who lived in the USA told me that he prefers sending me an SMS via his cell phone rather than an e-mail because, he said, “The Internet is for people like you searching for sex.” Then, once, I asked a Canadian friend to help fix my computer, and before he had even examined my pc he said to me, “You have this computer problem because you are always searching for porn sites.” Another Canadian man asserted that I must really be good in bed and like to try “different stuff.” Why? Because, he said, “You go to those kinds of places.” This type of treatment has never turned up in comments made by Japanese men about my work.

Contrasting Perceptions

Rather, Japanese men with whom I talked about my work never perceived me as a sexual being/object. Instead, the bulk of the attention shifted away from me to the hosts: Japanese men tended to look down on the hosts. For instance, I often got into the situation where Japanese men would, politely but teasingly, ask if such a ‘trivial’ thing could be considered worthy of academic research. Some asked if my work was just an ‘extension’ of my hobby. Others said that a person like me, who is educated, should not be visiting host clubs. Knowing full well how hosts are treated in the Japanese media, I rather expected such comments from Japanese people. Yet, I cannot recall any Japanese men who suddenly began to treat me as a sexualized being. Moreover, women, whether Japanese or from elsewhere, tended to be either greatly interested in my work or utterly indifferent. In general, women seemed much more interested in the hosts themselves, and a number of Japanese women, even my relatively conservative mother , asked to accompany me when I went a host club.

Why the Sexualization?

The question for me then is why Western men, more than Japanese men, were inclined to sexualize me in this manner? Some scholars who conducted research on women working in the sex industry illustrated similar experiences. When a particular researcher took on the role of a sex worker as a part of her data collection, she also tended to be more targeted for this sort of sexualization. I, however, neither research female sex workers nor work as one myself; nor, obviously, do I work as a host. Moreover, even though it is openly known that occasional involvement in a sexual relationship between a client and host outside of a host club occurs, a host club is not a place to participate in any sexual conduct. It is a space reserved only for the production and consumption of fantasy (along with some costly drinking). Futhermore, compared to the hostess clubs I have visited, I have sensed that activities held between a host and a woman client are, on the whole, “cleaner and purer” than ones in a hostess club. So, why then did I get treated as a slut by some Western men?

By observing Western male reactions, I believe that the problem may lie in the English term “sex work.” As I said earlier, language is not just a mean of communication, but it is also a mirror of the specific culture from which it emerged. Thus, when we simply adopt a term from another language, while it may be a correct correlation in terms of its strict definition, the cultural meanings and social knowledge contained inside transfer to a foreign culture, along with the mere term itself. The term “sex work” becomes problematic for me to use when discussing host clubs because 1) this term often connotes a strong link to “sexual intercourse,” or is often used in place of the term ‘prostitution’ and 2) it carries an occidental perspective of “sex work” and infuses the images of the Western sex industry into the understanding of the host club industry in Japan.

Since the late 1990s, the proliferation of sex businesses has been widely observed internationally due to the emergence of globalization, the digital information society and an embracing of women’s liberation. In this new age, the term “sex worker” is as applied to any workers involved in the adult entertainment industry, such as (in the case of United States) prostitute, street workers, brothel workers, incall/outcall workers, exotic/lap dancers, phone sex operators, rent boys, nude models, adult film actors/actresses, full-body masseuses, bar girls/in-house prostitutes, strippers, adult film producers, pimps, madams, escort service owners, adult web owners and webcam models (ISWFACE).

From this perspective, technically speaking, any kind of sex entertainment is categorized as “sex work.” In common usage, however, it seems that the term still carries with it a more conventional notion of sex work as solely prostitution. Interestingly enough, the term “sex worker” was invented in 1979 by Carol Leigh – an American feminist, activist and prostitute – when she attended a workshop on prostitution. This term had a clear political, feminist agenda of establishing the unity of women in the sex industry and of obtaining an acknowledgement of their agencies. Yet at the same time, it was invented 1) in the USA, 2) by the group of feminists/prostitutes, and 3) during the time when prostitution was still the dominant form of sexual commodity in the sex industry. Simply put, the term “sex work” carries an American understanding of a particular sex entertainment that is usually oriented to a “penis penetration.”

Perhaps in an attempt to be politically correct, scholars frequently use the term “sex work” and “prostitution” interchangeably, or as equivalents. Yet, for other sex workers, such as exotic dancers, strippers and phone sex operators, scholars tend designate them by their specific job categorizations, such as “strippers.” To me, this inconsistency in scholars’ application of the term “sex work” creates the impression that the term is only a euphemism for prostitution. Confusing as it may seem, the term “sex worker” successfully integrates the feminist agenda of empowering sex workers; yet, on the other hand, it also highlights sexual intercourse as the primary nature of all sex work.

“Sex work” is then Western-born terminology, or more specifically it is “made-in-the-USA.” Thus, it contains a singularly American perception of “sex work.” As we know, the nature of “sex work” or “sex industry” in the USA and Japan are somewhat different. Though I am by no means an expert on the US sex industry, from my experience of living in both the USA and Japan, and also from researching the types of sex businesses that exist in both countries, I have found the US sex industry to be predominantly oriented to selling “penis penetration,” while in Japan, the generation and sale of ‘fantasy’ plays an much more important role.

Similar kinds of adult-entertainment in the US exist in both countries, but in Japan there also is another category: a variety of adult businesses that sell ‘companionship.’ While sexual conduct remains a possibility, these businesses do not explicitly sell sexual intercourse. Yet this ambiguity can be hard for Americans to understand. Once an American male faculty member asked me why Japanese men who patronize the Japanese sex industries drop so much money for non-sexual activities. A former host also expressed his frustration about people’s misconceptions during his trip to the USA. He said the Americans he met did not quite understand the nature of the host club as providing women ‘companionship.’ Whenever he told them that it was a place for women to drink and talk with hosts, Americans asked him, “And what happens next?” A sex industry without sex is not the norm in the United States, especially if clients pay a couple hundred dollars or even thousands of dollars for ‘services.’ In contrast, such payments for non-sexualized services is often true in Japan’s host clubs. Clearly then, the English term “sex work” cannot convey the different cultural concepts present in the sex industries of Japan.

As a result, it becomes tricky for me to use the term “sex work” when explaining the host club to Westerners. All Japanese men and women I’ve spoken to already knew about host clubs via the media. They also have a certain level of awareness of the diverse types of sex entertainment in Japan. This awareness was not the case, however, for most Western men I met, so I have often ended up describing the host as a “sex worker,” as I had to the group of Western men at the human rights meeting in Tokyo.

Regardless of the additional description I added and despite the fact that it is technically correct to use the term “sex worker” in English for a Japanese host, I could not avoid the sexual leers that appeared so often as a result. To the men, once this word was uttered, I was immediately transformed into a woman who visits male prostitutes. I have sought an alternative word in English to describe more accurately the nature of a host’s job, but then switching one English term for another seemed only to create other levels of misunderstanding. As long as we depend on an English term to explain a non-Western cultural activity, it seems we will fail to capture the unique nuances and meanings residing within the non-Western society.

My intention, then, is neither to criticize the usage of the term “sex work” nor to create an alternative word. I would rather hope that we can begin to employ the actual culturally-originated words instead of simplistic English translations. For example, the Japanese term yakuza captures much better its inherent cultural meanings than words such as “organized syndication” or “Japanese mafia” because it begs for the particular phenomena to be described in detail rather than reliance on misplaced and inaccurate Western nuances and stereotypes. Furthermore, “male geisha,” which foreign media often use to describe hosts in Japan, fails completely to understand the hosts’ unique cultural role in Japanese society, and it also carries with it the strong occidental tendency to exoticize Japan. It would better serve society if we scholars introduce the culturally-specific word and take the time to define its meaning to other societies. Language produces knowledge. And knowledge is power. In the same spirit found in Alice Walker’s wish to include marginalized women in her term ‘womanist,’ we, the marginalized and the non-Western academics of the world, should be held responsible for heightening the cultural awareness and sensitivity of our culture-specific practices. We can help counteract the dominant rhetoric found within Western societies.

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Reiko Yamagishi

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