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Ethnographical Research Related to Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club

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Anne Allison, a cultural anthropologist, wrote the book Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club in 1994. The book’s primary focus is on analyzing the meaning of hostess clubs within the corporate population of Japan. Allison took an interesting participant-observation approach to carry out her fieldwork. She was actually employed at a hostess club, Bijo, for four months in Roppongi. This was of particular interest to me since it’s a technique that’s been employed by some that I’d consider the best. Admittedly, I expected the book to be more focused on the particular female profession, but I understand if it had, it likely wouldn’t have been considered being the genuine ethnography it is. The book begins with a brief prelude that describes Allison’s typical night at the hostess club. She goes into great details about what she experiences and includes a few purposeful conversations to further elaborate the theme of the book. To be honest, I found myself wishing it would have continued for much longer than it did. While there are more moments that mirror this within the book, I feel as though the prelude did better at painting the picture.

The introduction goes on to describe what led her to the fieldwork done in Tokyo. She says she was “motivated by a number of issues in anthropology, gender studies, and feminism as well as by a number of gaps in the study of Japanese culture” (Allison 23). She goes on to include the vital topics of the book which are work, play, money and sex. She made many interesting points and asked questions that were even more so, but I was left with a few myself. I wanted to know how exactly she ended up working as a hostess. Better yet, did anyone know that she was solely working there as a student of anthropology? Unfortunately, the answers were only briefly hinted, in turn making the question one that was reoccurring. Nonetheless, her book is organized properly as an ethnography. It has three main parts. The first is “Ethnography of a Hostess Club” and includes three chapters – A Type of Place, Routine, and Woman. All of Part One is based on fieldwork, interviews, and other information that was equally part of her experience.

Part Two (“Mapping the Nightlife within Cultural Categories”), dives deeper into the examining why these clubs are considered culturally “essentialist” (Allison 116). She goes on to explain Part Two further by expressing that her goal is to “lay out the cultural ideas that support corporate entertainment by framing and legitimizing it as cultural custom” (Allison 121). This part of the book is broken into five corresponding chapters – Social Place and Identity, The Meaning and Place of Work: The Sarariiman, Family and Home, Structure of Japanese Play, and Male Play with Money Women, and Sex. Part Three, (“Male Rituals and Masculinity”) was my personal favorite of the entire book. It offered the authors own explanations for hostess clubs and their continued popularity based. It contains three chapters – Male Bonding, The Mizu Shōbai Woman: Constructing Dirtiness and Sex, and Impotence as a Sign and Symbol of the Sarariiman. Her considerations are primarily centered around experience, but also include information from prior publications on the subject. This is also the part that made me feel it strayed from traditional ethnographical work because despite her best effort to remain objective, it was clear I was reading a perspective under the influence of feminism and gender studies. Personally, I expected this. Writing objectively is an impossible expectation to place on anyone not discussing the stock market.

The culture in focus, as mentioned above, is essentially the work of the night. Whose work is almost irrelevant. It looks at all work conducted within the club, by both the employees of the club and the business men who elect to finalize negotiations there. The book looks at the hostess clubs in the mizu shōbai, (or the “water business” in urban Japan). Specially, the club in which Anne Allison was employed, Bijo. She describes it as being lavish and glamorous because “results are commodities that promise more than they can deliver, thus depending on an illusion of benefit” (Allison 31). Bijo is in a modern high-rise in the Roppongi area of Tokyo. It sits on the very top floor, although the view is concealed by long, heavy drapes. It’s designed to produce a sense of luxury, adorned with mirrored walls, tasteful paintings and a baby-grand piano sits as the club’s focal point (Allison 59). The ultimate focus however, is always the people who populate it.

“A guest, for instance, see in the piano an expensive mizu shōbai artifact, yet also the instrument that will accompany him as he sings; in the mirrors a beautiful and visually orienting fixture, yet also a surface that reflects his image; in the Mama, an attractive and fashionable proprietress, yet also a woman whose attentions flatter him; and in the luxury of the club’s surroundings, a scene pretty to look at and also a sign of his status and potential wealth” (Allison 65).

There are three motifs to Bijo – service, glitter (the overall ambience of the building), and reflection. When business men arrive, they are typically greeted by this and any bottle service they so choose at which point, the natural progression of idle conversation begins. It is at this point that the hostess steps in. Assigned to the table, she participates in conversation to keep it flowing in a playful manner, often making sexual innuendos, focusing most of the table talk on herself. This helps keep business matters from becoming as tense as they might be outside of the club. Essentially, they woman elects to become a sexual object, thereby performing a service to the business men and in return, corporations spend a great deal of money, (most of which is spent on liquor) while visiting the club. The book does a great job of describing the male privilege within Japanese nightlife. Allison maintains her argument throughout the whole book that this nightlife enables and institutionalizes a particular form of ritualized male dominance. A woman’s presence, although normal, is largely disadvantaged and Allison seems to push the topic of inequalities in the book, as one of the establishments biggest problems.

Within this book, the two major “religions”, if you will, are money and play. Allison notes in Japan, groups depend upon a ritualistically ignited “transaction between people through money” (Allison 31). She also refers to idea that “maleness” is almost ritualistic in nature, as outings encourage enlightenment. Apart from that, the book focuses much interest in presenting the connection between nighttime drinking and corporate expenses in the worldview of the Japanese. She describes this view as being rooted in culture and overwhelmingly natural in Tokyo.

While the idea of a household within the club is not applicable, there still is a sort of kinship but one that is ultimately fleeting. The relationship between business men and the club itself, if the relationship that is the most discussed in the book. It is one in which is suggested to be largely dependent on one another. Allison even goes as far to suggest that such institutions like the mizu shōbai, support “the feudalistic ‘foundation’ of Japan’s modern capitalist economy” (Allison 127). She uses the term, ningenkankei as the natural tendency to couple sets of human relationships to the “Japaneseness” of business in Japan (Allison 27). I think perhaps that her analysis of ningenkankei is one of her most interesting points in the book. She mentions that, rather than allow family at home to genuinely be family, the custom in Japan (within the hostess clubs), suggests instead, that workers should be more loyal to a company and structure their workplace like that of a family. Truly this idea expands upon the Western idea of having a work family, into an entirely foreign concept altogether. One of the conclusions noted about the hostess clubs,, this utilization does not always connect to a particular erotic interest. It is more attached to a masculine group association ritual and is progressively used as systematized freedom between a group of colleagues with a patriarchal authorization. It is a way of proving before the group, that they are ‘fully men’ (Allison 44).

The gender roles from within the hostess clubs are well-defined. There is not much room for any sort of open interpretation to their outlines structure. She does mention however that there are plenty of women who enter the nightlife as costumers and men enter as servicers, but not as it pertains to the ethnographical content of Nightwork. This specific book focuses less on mizu shōbai as a whole and more on the cultural framework of the work conducted in Bijo. While Allison includes many interesting points and mentions that her focus will be in other areas, the gender hierarchy is the theme of the book. She often makes mention of the inequalities and degradation towards women. It is made to seem as though men are ultimately the prime beneficiaries of the hostess clubs. Men are there to make business arrangements and negotiations, engage in the comraderies of a group of men that facilitates positively affirming conversations, participate in leisureliness, given respectful attention and given the control in all exchanges. Contrastingly, females are considered responsible for the complete success of the party, given the duty of filling drinks, lighting cigarettes and instigating conversations while often being ignored or “put in her place” by men (Allison 232). She says that, “hostess club sexuality constructs gender, but hostess club gender constructs male sexuality” (Allison 260).

Because the book deals with the culture from within the hostess clubs of Tokyo, marriage arraignments aren’t a part of it. However, in Chapter 6 in a section titled, A Male Perspective on Marriage and Home, Allison talks about the dynamics of the marriages that exist outside of play. In her research, she discovered most men, were unwilling to disclose much information about their home lives, wives or children. She said that in most conversations, men would place themselves “on the periphery of the family circle or even outside of it” (Allison 148). She only encountered one male, Takada, that disclosed much more than that by suggesting that home was as much a source of anxiety as work. He did not wish to have much interaction with his wife or his son and that he found it of higher importance to have his wife silently handle all domestic affairs.

The next section of Chapter 6 is called, Female Perspectives on Work, Home, and Male Work, is Allison’s examination of the female interpretation. She says the women all display a sympathetic attitude towards the play that the play men are subjected to in their lines of work and are very careful in how they speak of them. They all seem to suggest that it is nothing beyond normal “male behavior”, informing Allison that, “the nightlife Japanese men enjoy at company expense is about work, not sex” (Allison 150). Again, she is left presenting one answer that was a bit more explanatory. During a conversation she has with a young woman named Nakamura, there was an emphasis placed on how idealistic marriages are often subject to inevitable social forces. Nakamura says that at first, her and her husband vowed to have a non-traditional Japanese marriage but after pressure from his work, their marriage ended up being more gender-specific within a few years. It seems, that there were either more women interviewed or that more women were willing to tell a bit more than their counterparts. Allison suggests there are many women of Japan, who do indeed wish their husbands were a bit more interactive with their families but simultaneously implied that they didn’t mind the separation (Allison 153).

Anne Allison discusses the politics of hostess clubs, by relating them to analysis of a master-slave relationship (Hegel 111-19). She implies men entering clubs are like masters who cannot survive without being fed by slaves; the hostesses in the clubs. Allison notes corporations entrust male personnel to have “a good time together” with their colleagues, and allow the hostesses to accelerate negotiations, otherwise the focus is to make her a target of the patrons’ collective offenses. The “masters” cannot help but be contingent on the performance of “slaves” to obtain their wishes. Still, the enslavement of customers in the club, is seemingly masked by them compensating for their service with money (Allison 234). Using Hegel as a reference to understand these dynamics as being a master-slave relationship, Allison seems to suggest that this perhaps the only feature that empowers hostesses while they are expected to be subordinate to patrons.

The other aspect of politics in play is Allison’s outlining of the Mama-san, who is the owner and a manager of club. Besides any expected managerial work necessary to preserve the club, the position of the Mama is to be the primary allure of the hostess club. In essence, she is seen just as the madam of a brothel, upholding relationships clientele and personifying the values of the hostess club through her attitude, style, and choice of fashion (Allison 13). The Mama valued by all workers, and works as the hub, ensuring she maintains personal relationships while handling financial transactions that take place in the club (Allison 25).

Allison describes hostess clubs as having a distinctive role in Japanese society. Her book notes hostess clubs have an integral role in the big corporations of Japan, rather than being separated from other parts of Japanese society. She indicates that these clubs are positioned in the broader elements of the culture and positively impact corporate performance. The foundation of the industry greatly affects the economic success and/or stagnation of post-war Japan. The cultural role it takes thereafter, are influenced by greater ideologies and go on to illustrates client need.

Overall, Anne Allison’s look at the hostess clubs in Tokyo, was all subject matter that I hadn’t previously been aware of at all. I found the book to be interesting, but also slightly disappointing. While I admire Allison for her approach in both tackling the subject and her inclusive participation, I felt she approached the subject with a fair amount of bias. That’s not to say I can’t appreciate that either. I commend it! Especially because it would be such a brave sentiment today, namely in journalism. But that’s just it. Journalistic endeavors somewhat depend on opinion.

Ethnographical research does not, at least not in the way that I understood it. While she did make at least some effort to show both male and female opinion, it felt jaded and suggestive, even bordered what seemed to be all together dismissive. Her opinions wouldn’t have been a problem for me, if this weren’t an anthropological analysis of culture, but she took the book in a narrow direction based on her own accustomed and learned culture. I suppose, I just wasn’t prepared for it. I felt the references to Marx were a bit heavy, outside of those two factors, I found the book to be fascinating. The information based on her experiences however, was interesting and well organized. It was a glimpse of extraordinary customs that I had never imagined and because of that, I enjoyed it. I’m curious to read more on the topic and have looked books written with a similar topic. So far, I think next will be Dealing in Desire by Kimberly Kay Hoang.

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