AT THE Tokyo Motor Show, the Misses Toyota, Nissan or Honda, BMW, General Motors or Rover, are as conspicuous as the cars. The smartly tailored uniforms come in a striking array of styles from executive chic to operetta kitsch, often coloured to echo corporate logos. They may show a lot of leg, but the days of the bikini bimbos sprawling on the bonnets - once as common as they used to be in the West - are gone. Known as "konpanions", these girls place an elegantly gloved hand delicately upon a gleaming car body as you pass and smile, smile and smile. Looks rank as a high priority for the konpanions, who have become an institution in an already image-intensive Japanese public relations industry. Many are former beauty queens, travelling up to Tokyo with their achievements on rural pageants prominent on their CVs. Some are students, others are professionals from specialist konpanion agencies. For all of them, the most desired qualities tend to be ingenuousness and acquiescence, paradoxically coupled with an ability to be articulate and informative.
Epitomised by the nubile "Office Flowers" who wait on male colleagues, the concept of women in service industries in Japan borders on the horticultural. For instance, one konpanion sub-species, the department store Elevator Girl, is a close human equivalent to the bonsai tree. Reeling off the goods on each floor in stilted voices painstakingly cultivated to be "feminine", these girls point gloved hands daintily upwards and downwards according to a carefully rehearsed routine. Konpanions, similarly trained in a gestural repertoire before the motor show, are also given reams of corporate literature to learn by heart. In department stores, too, uniformed variants of the motor-show konpanion are similarly on tap to escort wealthy customers and important clients. Joining the rank and file at opening and closing time, they greet customers with a customary bow which, perfectly angled, is the fruit of rigid training with an instructor wielding a set-square.
Insofar as she is akin to woman-as-work-of-art, the doll-like konpanion's role is not unlike the geisha's, but her origins are multifarious. The concept is as Westernised as it is Japanese. Often said to have been born in the PR department of an enterprising manufacturing company hiring actresses and models in promotional events during the Sixties (as per an American prototype), the konpanion really took off in her present form at Expo '70 in Osaka, at which each pavilion boasted a bevy of beauties in tailored uniforms. Still more popular in Japan than anywhere else, trade fairs and expos are often accompanied by mass recruitment rallies for konpanions.
According to Yumiko Aizawa, a Tokyo stylist who dresses konpanions at the motor show, "Most of the girls are freelance, but some of the larger automotive corporations keep them on annual contracts ready for other promotional events around the country. It's really all about customer service, in which the part played by image is absolutely vital."
Often run by agencies headed by former air stewardesses, the konpanion profession can be rigidly hierarchical, including women acting as interpreters and guides at the top, while at the bottom are students acting as little more than animated furniture deployed to bow, smile and open doors. One of the konpanion's most important functions, however, is to inform. What many Westerners would see as information overkill is heartening to the Japanese. The cultivated voice quality of the konpanion is echoed around Japan, where recordings of silky feminine voices are ubiquitous in railway stations, buses, department stores and tourist spots. Welcoming and informing, the cajoling voice of Big Nanny urges one to remember the right stop, not to forget umbrellas and to appreciate the meditative silence of a Zen temple. The konpanion might look sexy, but her utterances should be something of an automotive equivalent to those recorded messages. She may be a siren that the prospective customer might dream of having on the seat beside him, but she must also know how to reassure him with a wealth of information she has learnt by heart. The soft-sell can hardly come much softer than that. !
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