Even in in an area of Tokyo famous for its night-time colour and licentious thrills, it was a sight that turned thousands of heads: attractive women in cocktail dresses punching the air and shouting slogans.
"Pay us what we deserve!" and "stop harassment!" screamed the women – some in masks – as they marched unsteadily on high heels through Kabukicho, Japan's largest red-light district, last month. The protesters were almost outnumbered by the curious press pack, which came to ogle a group of workers not previously known for their militancy – nightclub hostesses.
Pouring drinks, looking sexy and laughing at the bad jokes of well-off men; to most Japanese, hostess work doesn't sound terribly hard. And, at about 4,000-yen (£28.25) per hour, it's increasingly coveted by young women keen to avoid office drudgery for a third of that amount.
But activists say unpaid wages, sexual harassment and tough conditions are often part of the job.
"Most women in this industry can't even earn enough to make a living," says Yu Negoro, who has worked on and off as a hostess for a decade since her early twenties. Like other young hopefuls, she dreamed of easy money when she first donned an evening dress at a club in the glitzy Ginza district. But in her early thirties she made just 1,800 yen (£12.70) an hour as hidden costs imposed by her employer ate into her pay.
"I was making the same amount of money as assembly line workers at auto factories," she said. Boozing, long hours and the threat of violence took their toll and she quit.
An updated cousin of Japan's centuries-old geisha tradition, magazine surveys regularly put hostessing in the top 10 most sought-after occupations in Japan, after movie actresses and TV "talent". Securing a premier-league post in a Ginza club, where politicians, lawyers and organised crime bosses come to relax, seemed to be a prize worth suffering for.
Hostesses were considered a different breed from prostitutes, with class and enough education to discuss politics and the economy with the elite. The best had careers and reputations akin to TV celebrities.
But recession has boosted the number of recruits and stoked competition in the "water trade", as night-time entertainment businesses are euphemistically called – probably a reference to pre-modern bathhouses offering sexual services.
The pressure is mounting as newcomers get younger, with many starting in their teens. Some even come to job interviews with their mothers, says another hostess, Rin Sakurai.
Activists say employers impose fines for showing up late, taking sick days, applying make-up badly and a host of other "offences".
Such treatment is illegal but rarely taken seriously by the authorities. Some women end up owing their employers money. Those who do complain can face violent reprisals, says Ms Sakurai, 26, with the steely gaze of a veteran negotiator.
"It's a seamy business," she says. Yakuza gangsters run much of the trade and news of a "troublemaker" quickly spreads. "The woman can never work in the same district again," she adds.
Ms Sakurai took her problems with the profession one step further. She quit a job where she says she was cheated out of wages and repeatedly sexually harassed by her boss, and joined a labour union. Then she began recruiting others.
For a week after she announced her membership to her former bosses, she was nervous enough to keep looking over her shoulder. "I'm still scared of going home alone from work," she says.
Today, she is president of the 30-strong Japan Cabaret Club Union. "An increasing number of younger women think they can earn a good living in this business without even trying," says Ms Sakurai. "They come for a job interview because they want to be able to buy lots of brand-name goods. But the idea that this is easy is a complete myth."
"The job has become just another career choice after graduating from schools. The clubs keep only the most popular hostesses and sack the rest," laments Ms Negoro.
The young apprentices are paid to attract men into high-end bars and cabaret clubs and to encourage them to drink alcohol. For every drink ordered, the women get a commission, and competition is intense.
Repeat customers are prized, so most hostesses spend much of their private time sending alluring email messages and making phone calls to regular clients. Some businesses demand that mobile phones be left at their pillow side just in case clients call in the middle of the night. "Different clubs have different rules, but the worst can be very bad," says Rei Shina, a Ginza hostess.
The hint of sexual frisson is never far from the surface although the job does not involve selling sex, a balancing act many women find difficult to maintain. Ms Sakurai, who constantly had to swat away the unwanted attention of clients and bosses, finally quit after being harassed by a manager who made late night perverted phone calls and pulled up her blouse to photograph her breasts.
Like many hostesses, she was fined for failing to make drink sales targets, taking sick days and robbed of her last month's pay when she quit. Ms Sakurai says most water trade jobs have labour problems but hostessing is among the worst.
She joined the business at 18, out of curiosity, and worked in nightclubs in Kabukicho and the entertainment district of Roppongi, where she was ranked among the top three hostesses at her club. She was quickly struck by the gulf between the slick media portrayals of her profession and the grimy reality on the ground; Japanese magazines regularly feature stories of hostesses who earn up to a million yen a month, five times the average wage of a college-educated, salaried office worker. "The reality was nothing like that," she says.
Those illusions hamper the mission of the union, which wants Japan's Labour Standards Bureau to take the perils of hostess work more seriously. Eventually, it hopes that the profession will be treated like any other, with the same rules and standards. In the meantime, Ms Sakurai is fighting her own war. Since unionising, she has been bargaining with her former manager for over 300,000 yen (£2,100) in unpaid wages and compensation for sexual harassment. The case is ongoing.
Since officially announcing the establishment of her union in December, she has been flooded with hundreds of calls. "As the initial excitement wore off, issues became more serious," she says. "Most women brought cases of sexual and power harassment.
"They don't need to put up with bad treatment just because they are bar hostesses. Nobody deserves that."Reuse content