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.