The Secret World of Male Geishas

The original Japanese geishas were male, and today their influence is apparent in the burgeoning popularity of male ‘hosts’ in bars and clubs. Just don’t mention sex.

Everett Kennedy Brown/EPA/Corbis

White powder, cherry lips, a dazzling robe, and flirty eyes—the geisha wins the audience’s attention in the hidden ochaya, a wooden teahouse tucked down a Kyoto back alley. Graceful arm gestures are the prelude to a carefully crafted joke, then, suddenly a low voice bellows from the geisha’s mouth. This isn’t a drag show—it’s a rare appearance by the elusive taikomochi, or male geisha.

“Today there are only a handful of taikomochi left in the country,” says Akemi Toyama, the head concierge of the Ritz-Carlton Kyoto, “but long ago they were much more popular.”

“Actually, the original geisha were only men,” adds Laura Miller, a leading professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

The rich history of the male geisha dates back to the 13th century, when jesters advised feudal lords on practical matters, and entertained the court with various artistic performances. Their roles gradually changed over the years as Japan’s royal needs abated until finally the job description of a geisha, or ‘arts person’ was that of a comedian.

Female geisha only made their first appearance in 1751. Known as geiko, or ‘arts child’ (the term is still used for geisha in Kyoto today), their popularity grew so quickly that it took less than 25 years for geiko to outnumber their male counterparts.

Toyama, who is known throughout Japan as one of the most elite purveyors of exclusive experiences, has tapped into the geisha’s coveted inner sanctum of high art, and maintains contact with one of the only taikomochi that remain, Senzo Sakuragawa.

According to Sakuragawa “taikomochi are not unlike female geisha, who perform for banquets and business scenes. They are also skilled at singing, dancing, and playing the shamisen (a stringed instrument), but a man’s performance tends to be more comical.”

The skilled art of conversation is also a crucial part of Sakuragawa’s talents, and he devotes a portion of his day to reading up on world news so he can chat with his politically inclined clients in the evenings.

“But to ask a taikomochi, or even a female geisha, about sexual innuendo would be a gross misstep”, adds Toyama, who encourages foreign visitors to throw away any preconceived notions that a geisha—be it man or woman—moonlights as a prostitute. It would be like asking a prima ballerina if she sleeps with members of audience after a show.

There is, however, a whole other realm in Japan—completely divorced from that of the geisha—where the finely tuned skill of conversation, joke telling and charm is indeed directly tied to sex.

The Japanese call it mizu-shobai, or “water trade”, a common euphemism with questionable etymology that’s used to describe an easy-come-easy-go flavor of nightlife in Japan. It includes a broad spectrum of establishments from local bars to business ventures that are more obviously underpinned by a desire for carnal pursuits.

In the ever-expanding universe that is mizu-shobai, and its myriad ways to skirt the strict prostitution laws prohibiting the outright exchange of sex for money, the iteration of ‘water trade’ that is most easily be conflated with the art of the geisha is that of the hosting club. The commonality herein, according to Akiko Takeyama, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Kansas, is “the business of entertainment”, but very little else is the same.

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Geisha entertain guests with their carefully refined talents, be it music, dance or witty conversation, however, “their identity is not tied up in pleasing customers,” adds Miller.

In fact “modern geisha do not see themselves as existing in order to entertain male clients, rather, they are primarily students and performers of classical Japanese arts”. In Japan’s hosting clubs, on the other hand, the act of pleasing patrons through entertainment forms the crux of one’s income.

The majority of Japan’s hosting industry is comprised of female employees serving a clientele of businessmen, much like the gender breakdown in the world of the geisha, but a roaring subset of establishments are specifically targeted to women patrons with a cast of charming male hosts.

The first clubs with male hosts or hosuto, says Takeyama—who focuses her academic career on the gender roles in Japan—opened in the 1960s as a type of “social dance hall” to occupy wealthy women while their husbands cemented business deals at the local geisha houses.

These clubs then transformed into something entirely different during the Bubble Era of the 1980s when a post-industrial Japan saw what Takeyama refers to as “the evolution of beauty and wellness as a commodity.” As wealth became more diffuse throughout the island nation, host clubs opened their doors to ‘ordinary people’, shed their dance hall roots, and eventually started selling the country’s trendiest import: romantic love.

“As romance was idealized through marketing campaigns, television shows, and holidays (Christmas in Japan is celebrated like the Western equivalent of Valentine’s Day), the immaterial quality of love sold at male host clubs also began to grow,” Takeyama adds.

Today, although the “sensationality is low,” continues Takeyama, relative to Japan’s more prosperous Bubble years, “the popularity of the male host club remains stable.” And during a time of economic uncertainty, many young men are enticed by the get-rich-quick nature of the night business.

The largest cluster of host clubs in Tokyo is in the notorious Kabuki-cho district near Shinjuku, a famed red-light area known for its preponderance of yakuza mafiosi. Both Miller and Takeyama estimate that the area holds around 200 clubs, “which means that there are roughly 2000 to 7000 male hosts working in the vicinity,” according to Takeyama’s mathematical projections.

Although there are seemingly many venues and chances for employment, “the host club business is incredibly competitive,” states Miller. While geisha performances are vetted and contracted through an elaborate system of bookers, hosuto deal directly in their own economic gains by earning commission on the items they sell at their club.

New hosts are paid very little and encouraged to “watch the behaviors, gestures, verbal tricks, strategies, and tactics of successful hosts,” states Miller. Most clubs invest very little in their employees, offering no more than one evening of institutional training. “It’s all very abbreviated,” adds Takeyama, “you learn how to mix drinks, replace ashtrays, and you learn what not to say—it’s all very casual—and after that you’re on your own.”

A hosuto is essentially “paid to drink with women while liberally offering them an irresistible combination of booze, deft attentiveness and practiced flattery,” explains Miller. These social mores are finely honed over the course of their career in order to amass a clutch of repeat clients and encourage them to drop as much money as possible during their visits.

Large sums of cash are exchanged rather quickly, as food and drink prices are inflated five to 10 times higher that their usual retail value—“a bottle of water, for example, costs around 1000 yen (US$8.50),” states Takeyama. Clients are also billed for a convoluted cocktail of additional items like table fees, service fees and taxes, and, through an even more complicated system of payment, senior hosts generally pocket 40 to 50 percent of their tables’ proceeds. Patrons are expected to pay for a host’s consumption as well.

One of the most crucial facets of host club culture is what Takeyama calls the “eternal designation system,” which binds a female client to the male host of her choosing. This allows her to foster a more intimate relationship with her host and maybe even a “love connection.”

Female patrons are allowed to take their hosuto of choice out on paid dates to dinner, to a movie, or to a love hotel before and after their time at the club, “which is the model for Japan’s sex industry in general, since host clubs are absolutely not brothels.”

In a predominantly patriarchal society such as Japan, it may seem counterintuitive for the female to be so tightly in control of the purse strings, so to speak, but according to Takeyama’s field research, most hosts underwrite their career choices with a certain amount of machismo. “They are entrepreneurs, selling themselves as a commodity instead of, say, selling a car or a watch. The service they are rendering is the care of a woman, with the strong possibility of making large sums of cash.”

And unlike geisha, who ostensibly use performance to fund their continued study of the arts, it’s the lure of the almighty yen that brings these young men into the fold. “Most hosts have a poor education—many have only finished their compulsory education, and are seduced by the prospect of wearing Armani suits and driving a European car,” continues Takeyama. But very few ever achieve a life of luxury.

As crucial as it is to personify the word ‘charming’ in the club setting, there is an additional ingredient needed to assure one’s success in the hosting industry: beauty, which is perhaps the singular tie that binds the world of the hosuto to that of a geisha. Extreme self-grooming, an occupational byproduct of a career in entertainment, takes up much of a host’s day when he’s not cajoling his clients to visit the club through phone calls and emails.

The epitome of hosuto beauty is approached with rigor—“slim figure, no facial hair, and longer stresses” says Takeyama. “Hosts are meant to look very feminine.” This female physique is thought to remove any bodily intimidation a larger man could carry. “I’ve even heard of club owners who encourage their hosts to get plastic surgery,” Takeyama adds; “whatever it takes to make a living.”

It’s common for hosts to spend “up to an hour each day crafting a casual hairdo,” notes Takeyama; “it’s even common for some to take the day off if their appearance isn’t perfect, because it can negatively affect their confidence and prove detrimental during their time in the club.”

Hosts are generally in their early twenties to early thirties to capitalize on their young physiques, which can be more easily construed as feminine. But maintaining their coveted youthful glow can often prove rather difficult, as the hours are long, and the constant barrage of cigarettes and alcohol can speed up the aging process. “I doubt many hosts are able to work as hosts past the age of 40. Many former hosts become club managers, authors, and media personalities,” posits Miller. “Geisha [on the other hand] usually retire late in life, and the most popular geisha are in their 50s and 60s.”

Male hosts sometimes entertain male clients as well, but not in the way one might think. It’s common for male clients to hire male hosts as veritable wingmen while trying to impress a date (usually a hostess) by throwing down a lot of money. The male hosts pander to the male client’s ego by cracking jokes and building up the client’s ‘alpha male’ persona.

“Male hosts who market themselves towards a gay clientele are located in a different area—Shinjuku-nichome, Tokyo’s well-known gay district”, explains Takeyama, “though the social element is largely removed from the equation, as the exchange is targeted more directly towards explicit sexual acts.”

There are more male hosts in the secret world of the Kabuki-cho red light district than there are female geisha in all of Japan, which according to Miller’s estimates, number less than 1800. And although a career as a host burns fast and bright, whereas that of a geisha matures like a fine wine, the number of traditional geisha—eternal students of art and culture—continues to dwindle as Japan further globalizes.

With the practices of taikomochi verging on extinction and the prominence of geisha culture on the slow decline in general, the underworld of the male host may one day be the ironic vessel that preserves the deep-seeded traditions of intense personal grooming, feminizing, and elaborate costumes. However Sakuragawa notes, “The true desire to entertain remains but a part of the taikomochi soul.”