Japan’s Affection Economy

by Nevada

You’ve had a long day working in the bustling metropolis of Tokyo, wouldn’t it be blissful to crawl into your significant other’s loving arms? But wait, somewhere in the hustle of the metro-life you didn’t prioritize a relationship. What’s one to do with a shortage of companionship and an excess of yen? Enter Soineya, a location where any patron can pay hourly to cuddle and/or nap with a variety of young women. This is Japan’s first venue for cuddling services, colloquially dubbed a ‘cuddle cafe’ by English media. More burgeoning establishments include Host Clubs and Hostess clubs, where men and women go to drink, chat and flirt with smartly dressed, extremely attractive hosts or hostesses. These establishments are dedicated to ravishing the patron with attention through the evening and not towards sexual encounters.
By using the Marxist understanding of economics as ‘the social manipulation of nature for economic ends’ we can gain insight into the cultural significance of the ‘cuddle cafe’. The cultural aspect of this phenomena comes into play when we examine cultural forces that generate its economic demand. This has to do with wage stagnation and traditional marriage-roles, and reflects the growing trend of young people avoiding marriage and relationships. Whilst wages have stagnated since the 1990’s housing prices have skyrocketed, leading men to believe that marrying will lower their resource base and quality of life. This is because there is strong societal pressure on women once they marry to only serve their husband and expected child and not to be employed. This creates a dynamic where men prefer not to increase their financial burden, any woman of ambition is repulsed by marriage. Because the cultural system has not created a desirable space for romance and human affection, market forces have created a non-committal economically driven system of their own.
Using poststructuralist theory we can analyze a darker sub-phenomena of host clubs and how they interact with the structural violence of human trafficking in Japan’s underbelly. In some cases host clubs are used as opportunistic traps to indebt Japanese women into sexual slavery. First-timer discounts at host clubs often dissuade new customers from the true cost of their patronage and encourage women to wrack up unpayable debts. At this point some establishments (it is unclear how many and unlikely the majority) will turn to loan-sharks or Yakuza connections, who will suggest and eventually imprison women into sex work to pay their debts. A further service host clubs may provide is that they may throw lavish parties for women when they pay off their debt, for which these women are given the extravagant bill thus ensuring their continued debt. This system belies the disciplinary power that is used to both take advantage of and to form new subject positions. The original host club takes advantage of a subject-position naive or romantic young lady and uses a predatory economic system to put these women into the subject-position indebted sex worker.
To Westerners, many products of Japanese and other asian cultures are exotified for their ‘strangeness’. Long chains of comments under articles on Japan’s new ‘cuddle cafe’ share a potent negative connotation, for example “ಠ_ಠ uh…ok, that’s weird.” “all i can say is WOW and EEEEWWW – and that menu – what the heck?????””Does the first person to laugh pay a forfeit?”. An interpretation of these businesses from western standards, however, does nothing to help understand the real meaning behind host and hostess clubs or the cuddle cafe. Instead we can ask, ‘How do Japanese view these phenomena?’, or, ‘What about life in Japan today makes these legitimate business models?”, rather than pushing them to arms length with a visceral interpretation of strangeness. In this way a reaction can be replaced by a real understanding.
1. http://theweek.com/article/index/254923/everything-you-need-to-know-about-japans-population-crisis

2. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/04/05/national/host-clubs-a-hotbed-of-human-trafficking/#.VGTsu_nF-Sp

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23 Responses to Japan’s Affection Economy

  1. Andrew Sullivan says:

    Because western standards cannot truly understand these phenomena, it is good to ask how Japanese view these phenomena, to go a long with this question it may be beneficial to ask how they view Western phenomena like strip clubs to understand why the Japanese think their way is common practice.

    • Kaleigh C says:

      I’m sure that Japan would have variants of strip clubs in their culture as well, the interesting part would be wether or not going to the “cuddle cafe” was as taboo to go to as a strip club.

  2. Olivia Smith says:

    I was unaware that anything like this was happening in Japan! Of course it does make since that in modern times people are often weary of relationships and marriages, but it it interesting to know if anything like host clubs or the cuddle cafe actually make Japanese men/women satisfied. For them, their cultural standards could turn this into a normal thing, but as for western standards we tend to find things like this not so normal or certainly not something we go and tell our friends or family we are proud to be apart of!

    • Larkin says:

      I agree with Olivia, I think it would be interesting to analyze these ‘cuddle clubs’ based on how they are valued on an individual level. By comparing the values of western cultures versus this japanese culture, we may be able to see certain cultural difference that directly influence this ‘strange’ culture. Overall though I thought this was a really interesting essay, it makes me think a lot about what it is exactly that different cultures value.

  3. Chelsea McGuire says:

    This idea seem strange because for me the benefits of cuddling are intimacy. Regardless this service also exists in Denver so it clearly isn’t weird to everyone. The Marxist analysis of the financial burden of marriage seems off here, to me. I realize this is a short blog assignment but I would like to know more about the purpose of acquiring wealth in this culture and in the scenario presented. Is it possible that people really prefer financial success over having a family? You chose a great topic because it provoked me to think of a thousand studies I’d like to hear more about in relation to the topic.

  4. Logan Arlen says:

    I have heard that there is a “celibacy syndrome” in Japan in which both young men and woman are just not interested in sexual contact of any kind which has led to a less than optimal birth rate. This lack of interest in the other sex and consequently marriage and intimacy could be what sparked these cuddle cafes to spring up. They intentions for them may have started out as noble but as you said are now abusing woman. I would like to see the history of these cafes and how they spiraled so far out of control.

  5. I read a book a few years ago called Ugly Americans, which was a financial book about how US graduated ivy leaguers went over to the Japanese markets in the 1980s and made millions. Aside from the financial aspect of the book it also touched upon the Japanese sex culture. I think your essay made an interesting point. These cuddle cafes would be very controversial in the states but seem to fill a void in Japanese culture. It seems to me like they are having a bit of a culture crisis and a need to transition into the modern world. You made an interesting point that a lot of young people do not want to get married because of financial obligations and women are often expected to serve their husbands. Your paragraph on how these cuddle cafes can transition into something darker leads me back to my point about the book that I read. Ugly Americans touched upon Japan’s unground sex culture, of the host clubs, and of the abundance of female escorts. I thought you made a very interesting point on how a certain cultural niche can evolve into something not intended and much darker. By the prevalence of these things in Japanese culture I think it would be interesting to look at how much these cultural practices are impacting Japan’s youth.

  6. Alex S. says:

    The aspect of finance is interesting, as I had always understood a different impression of Japanese standards of marriage. Finance is clearly a primary factor in success in this particular society; however, I can’t imagine that people choose not to marry because of it. Marriages are often based on financial commitment as opposed to intimacy and love, and while it may ultimately come at some financial cost to be married, wouldn’t a man be paying for this false sense of affection at a host/hostess club? It seems that either way affection comes at a price. And as a result women are being placed in worsening conditions.

  7. When I first started reading this article I thought that cuddle clubs were an interesting and innovative idea.I think it is accurate to identify the shift away from a family oriented society to one more focused on wealth and individual success because that is a change that is occurring within our capitalistic based society. I like that there is something being provided that does not lead to intercourse like buying a prostitute because I do think it is true that there are lonely people out there that just would like to have some company. I also liked it because of the inclusion of services for both men and women and their ability to cater to all people instead of just the male population. Although, when I read the paragraph about the darker side of the cuddle clubs my perception changed completely. Instead of a way to engage in human touch it becomes a dangerous situation where greed leads to sexual slavery and a life of debt. You could maybe use practice theory here to explain what the clubs are supposed to do, and the tragic turn they actual take when acted out.

  8. Maddie Ohaus says:

    The thought of going to a “cuddle cafe” or anything of the sort seems very odd to me. But it isn’t that way for all americans, not too long ago my friend came upon an app for iPhone thats similar to tinder but you just match with people meet up and cuddle with them. The app is called “Cuddlr”. But personally I feel like its almost impossible for cuddle cafes or cuddling apps to take place with out negative repercussions. Like mentioned in the essay, things stray away from the basic need of human contact to selling the woman into se slavery and other things that was not the intention.

  9. Angela Gianficaro says:

    This is a very interesting topic you’ve brought up, and I feel as if understanding this topic from a Japanese point of view is the only way to truly grasp what is occurring. I once watched a documentary on present-day Japanese women and their growing role as businesswomen who maintain a successful job and income within society. The main focus of the video described the halt put on marriage and reproduction, and how they prefer to put off starting a family until they are well into their thirties. This could be a major reasoning behind the lack of room for marriages and relationships in Japanese society and why businesses such as “cuddle cafes” exist and maintain importance.

  10. Kayla McClelland says:

    “Cuddle Cafes” is a very foreign concept to Americans (I admittedly felt mildly uncomfortable when first reading this essay) that distracts us from understanding and recognizing the phenomenon creating such a niche market, which is not too different from what is happening in our culture. The average age of marriage in our culture is a lot older than it used to be, no one I know is in a rush to get married before college or before they have a chance at a career. Instead of “cuddle cafes,” I would argue that our youth culture participates in Tinder. While the market for apps like tinder may not be an economic market to the extent of cuddle cafes, both exempt individuals from any commitment, financial or other and fill a void of a demand.

  11. Carly Morrison says:

    Actually, last year I had a CBS story about a “cuddle cafe” here in Boulder pop up on my news feed. They call it the “Snuggle Cuddle Service” and after searching google, I actually found all sorts of articles on this particular place and a lot information about something called cuddle parties. I think these types of things are more on the fringes of American Society, not particularly the things people hear a bunch about or talk about, but they do exist. There are many interesting conceptions and stigmas attached to an industry where someone has to pay for human affection. Though they are not the same, this might also apply to escort services and other jobs in the sex work industry. People may know about them, but the ideas and experiences connected to the industry are often based on misconceived ideas and stereotypes. These topics don’t come up in your typical dinner table conversation, but that’s not to say just because we don’t talk about something or see it, that it isn’t an important part of our society.

    If you find yourself needing a Snuggler heres the link! 🙂


    • Carly Morrison says:

      Also, here is a great ColoradoDaily article about this snuggle house, but also a little more information about places like these across the country.


    • J. Colegrove says:

      It is interesting to see Host Club-esque establishments pop up in Western Society. Of course it would be in Boulder… I think people should question why Americans think Cuddle services are strange when we live in such a hyper sexualized environment.

  12. Annie Birkeland says:

    I agreed with your analysis of cuddle cafes through the lens of a political economist who sees everything in relation to economic demand. I am kind of confused how cuddle cafes with innocent intentions ties to your second point about sex trafficking. In cuddle cafes it seems that women are knowingly and successfully setting up these services to make a profit, while many hostesses are being exploited and taken advantage of. I can see the correlation between the two services, but I would have liked to see the same topic, cuddle cafes, analyzed from different perspectives instead of introducing the new idea of hostesses.

  13. Mackenzie Carson says:

    I really like how at the end of your article you acknowledged that we as Westerners cannot fully understand this concept especially if we only look at it from our cultural perspective. To us these cuddle cafes seem weird and gross, but to them Japanese they may be normal. It’s always important to step back from the situation and look at it in a new light in order to fully understand it.

  14. Chris Manning says:

    In truth i don’t hear much about Japan other than from their economic standpoint as a world power, so this is an especially interesting concept for me. The closest i have heard before the snuggle house stated above was a cat cafe opening in Denver. in the cat cafe’s the literally just set out a large number of cats within the cafe so people can come to play with cats as the drink. Though not exactly the same it’s a similar idea to the snuggle houses.

  15. Laura Graham says:

    I think if you step back and think about it this is really no stranger than Tinder. Its similar in a way, at least I think so. It comes down to cultural differences, for instance in Japan, if your significant other takes you to Tokyo Disney, it means they take your relationship really seriously. Tokyo Disney is as much a place for couples as it is for children in Japan.

  16. Amy Knutson says:

    This was a really interesting essay and it definitely raises many more questions about both the Japanese society and our society, as well. I love thinking about the underlying framework for how these types of things arise and become a commodity in certain cultures. I think this just calls for one to look more deeply at other things that have become so common and necessary in daily life and how we adapt to societal change and pressure. For instance, look at the iphone. It has become such a norm and do you ever think about why? Maybe it is society adapting to the ever-growing pressure to get more done in a shorter amount of time, which is made easier by having access to unlimited information right at your fingertips. To bring it back, as sad as it may sound, “cuddle cafes” may be society’s adaption to the increase in working hours and cyber time.

  17. I am thinking more and more about the theories we have used in our anthropology class so far, and I starting to wonder if we get to use these theories to then CRITIQUE a society we do not belong to. What I am trying to say is that while had a critical view of westerners’ comments about “Cuddle Cafes” you also had very critical things to say about something that maybe does a lot of good for people who don’t have time to make relationships work. I think marxists approach is spot on when it comes to understanding why people would participate in these emotionally charged economic exchanges. Yet, I think your post-structuralist approach was narrow and frightening because I am now reluctant to think that women have any agency while working in these “Cuddle Cafes”. That being said, hegemony can do a lot of good in places where there are high sexual tension, because the threat of rejection probably leads a lot of men to be nice, and vice versa.

  18. Stephanie Scattergood says:

    This is a really interesting subject, but it would be interesting to connect these theories to feminist anthropology by considering further the role of the women and why this is a phenomena that has men buying these services from women rather than the other way around.

  19. Josie Anderson says:

    I thought this was a really interesting essay. Besides theories about economy and poststructuralism, I think you could include functionalism. I think it’s important to go into detail about the function these “cuddling” services and such provide. Since salarymen don’t have a lot of time, they use such services. I was watching a documentary about this topic once and it claimed that many men in Japan are very shy when it comes to women and that’s another reason why such services exist to men in Japan.

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