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Out of Japan: A hostess with the mostest falls on hard times

TOKYO - Her name was Akiko, she was in her late forties, and she was the mama-san, or proprietress, of an exclusive hostess bar in the Ginza district in central Tokyo. Akiko had a full figure, probably from the endless drinking with which she accompanied her clients, but she was dressed expensively.

Akiko means 'child of autumn', a season beloved by the Japanese, when the ginko trees turn bright yellow and the dwarf maples are fired into searing reds and oranges. But autumn is also the time of a withering away of the life force before the onset of winter. And Akiko was full of the autumn spirit - not so much for her own appearance, which was carefully touched up with make-up, but for the dwindling strength of the Japanese economy, and its negative effects on her own business. So for two hours last week, a Japanese businessman friend and I listened to the lament of a mama-san.

It had started last year, as the pricking of Japan's economic bubble slowed the free-spending days of the late Eighties. But the real deterioration had set in this year, as companies facing huge debts and lagging sales began to cut back severely on entertainment expenses. Akiko, and thousands of other mama-sans in the hostess bars of Ginza and elsewhere in Tokyo, owe their living almost entirely to the corporate expense account.

The hostess bar is on the tamer side of Japan's after-hours entertainment. The mama-san presides over a group of younger women, who chat familiarly with the tired businessmen who patronise the bar, often with business contacts. There is much flirtation and bawdy conversation, all in the interests of massaging the ego of the clients. But physically, hand-holding and the occasional squeeze of the thigh is about as far as it goes. There are other establishments for those seeking more intimate services.

But the cost of several hours of risque conversation, and filling of clients' glasses with the universal whisky, water and ice, is astronomical. Each little snack of peanuts or fruit costs as much as pounds 50. At the end of the evening a pair of businessmen could easily face a bill of pounds 500 or more. The host signs a receipt, and at the end of the month the mama- san submits a bill to his company for payment.

But these days companies are issuing stern guidelines on what employees can spend on entertainment. 'They are just not coming any more,' said Akiko, whose bar was empty when we arrived shortly after 10pm. She gently chided my friend, who had not been there for more than six months. 'How could you forget me?' she asked coyly.

Some mama-sans are resorting to desperate strategies. As the end of the year approaches, many are contacting former habitues and trying to tempt them back for a bonenkai, or 'forget the year party'. Bonenkai are customary every year, but this December forgetting the year has a special significance, given the state of the economy.

After complaining about how difficult it was to pay the rent - property prices in the Ginza are some of the highest in the world - and how 'lonely' she felt on the evenings when her bar was empty, Akiko apologised for sounding so gloomy, and topped up everyone's whisky, including her own. But she had to apologise again when her two girls left early at midnight to catch the last train home. In the good days they would usually stay until 2am, and the mama-san would happily pay their taxi-fare.

Fairly late a couple of men came in, and Akiko's face lit up. She went to the bar to talk to them, and came back to tell us they were in the computer chip industry, and reported their business was showing the first signs of recovery. Would this spread to other parts of the economy, she asked us? Akiko was well-informed, and knew how my friend's company was doing - all part of the mama-san's job. When we left, she thanked us elaborately and wished us success in our business.