Young Japanese Women Vie for a Once-Scorned Job

TOKYO — The women who pour drinks in Japan’s sleek gentlemen’s clubs were once shunned because their duties were considered immodest: lavishing adoring (albeit nonsexual) attention on men for a hefty fee. But with that line of work, called hostessing, among the most lucrative jobs available to women and with the country neck-deep in a recession, hostess positions are increasingly coveted, and hostesses themselves are gaining respectability and even acclaim. Japan’s worst recession since World War II is changing mores.

“More women from a diversity of backgrounds are looking for hostess work,” said Kentaro Miura, who helps manage seven clubs in Kabuki-cho, Tokyo’s glittering red-light district. “There is less resistance to becoming a hostess. In fact, it’s seen as a glamorous job.”

But behind this trend is a less-than-glamorous reality. Employment opportunities for young women, especially those with no college education, are often limited to low-paying, dead-end jobs or temp positions.

Even before the economic downturn, almost 70 percent of women ages 20 to 24 worked jobs with few benefits and little job security, according to a government labor survey. The situation has worsened in the recession.

For that reason, a growing number of Japanese women seem to believe that work as a hostess, which can easily pay $100,000 a year, and as much as $300,000 for the biggest stars, makes economic sense.

Even part-time hostesses and those at the low end of the pay scale earn at least $20 an hour, almost twice the rate of most temp positions.

In a 2009 survey of 1,154 high school girls, by the Culture Studies Institute in Tokyo, hostessing ranked No. 12 out of the 40 most popular professions, ahead of public servant (18) and nurse (22).

“It’s only when you’re young that you can earn money just by drinking with men,” said Mari Hamada, 17.

Many of the cabaret clubs, or kyabakura, are swank establishments of dark wood and plush cushions, where waiters in bow ties and hostesses in evening gowns flit about guests sipping fantastically expensive wine.

Some hostesses work to pay their way through college or toward a vocational degree, or to save up to start their own businesses.

Hostessing does not involve prostitution, though religious and women’s groups point out that hostesses can be pressured into having sex with clients, and that hostessing can be an entry point into Japan’s sprawling underground sex industry.

Hostesses say that those are rare occurrences, and that exhaustion from a life of partying is a more common hazard in their profession.

Young women are drawn nonetheless to Cinderella stories like that of Eri Momoka, a single mother who became a hostess and worked her way out of penury to start a TV career and her own line of clothing and accessories.

“I often get fan mail from young girls in elementary school who say they want to be like me,” said Ms. Momoka, 27, interviewed in her trademark seven-inch heels. “To a little girl, a hostess is like a modern-day princess.”

Even one member of the Japanese Parliament, Kazumi Ota, was a hostess. That revelation once would have ignited a huge scandal, but it has not. She will run for re-election on the leading opposition party ticket, the Democratic Party of Japan, in the national election next month, and the ticket is expected to unseat the ruling party.

It is unclear how many hostesses work in Japan. In Tokyo alone, about 13,000 establishments offer late-night entertainment by hostesses (and some male hosts), including members-only clubs frequented by politicians and company executives, as well as cheaper cabaret clubs.

Hostesses tend to drinks, offer attentive conversation and accompany men on dates off premises, but do not generally have sex for money. (Men who seek that can go to prostitutes, though prostitution is illegal.)

Hostesses are often ranked according to popularity among clients, with the No. 1 of each club assuming the status of a star.