- Belle Brett
How I Became a Bar Hostess in Japan, Part I
Updated: May 7, 2021
The rain poured down in opaque sheets outside the American Express office in Tokyo, where I collected my mail, and considered my alternatives for the afternoon. For eight months in the mid 1970s, I’d been traveling over large stretches of Asia, much of it alone. Once more a natural phenomenon would determine my fate. Had it not been for an earthquake in Darwin, Australia and the subsequent purchase of a cheap "bucket shop" plane ticket that allowed me multiple stops on the way back to Los Angeles, I might, at that precise moment, have been flippering my way through a coral sea in the Great Barrier Reef. Instead, I examined my soaked shoes and berated myself for leaving my warmer clothing back in the hotel. After much internal debating, I’d decided to leave for the USA within the week. For the last month, I’d been living on borrowed money. I was eager to return to a land where people spoke English and maybe get a job in California for the summer before returning east to graduate school. Staying in one place for more than a few days had great appeal as well.
Sloshing to a nearby museum for the sake of culture seemed unattractive. I sat down on a couch and thumbed through the notebook where I had recorded important tidbits of information from other travelers: be sure to eat at Mama's in Bali; take the East-West highway in Taiwan for an unparalleled view; buy all your plane tickets in Bangkok. Better than any printed guidebook, my worn notebook had been my inside track to bargain Asia. It also contained all the names and
addresses of the people I met. I came to a section on "Possible Employment," and at the bottom of the page was a name and an address close to the American Express office. I remembered recording this item over tea in Jogjakarta, Indonesia. An American woman, who had worked as a cocktail hostess in Japan claimed to have made a substantial number of yen. Kay, the contact in my notebook, had been a hostess at the same time. With an impulsiveness that had become a part of my travelling personality (far different from my personality at home), I called her, and she invited me to drop by right away.
Seeing her apartment house confirmed the account of the fortunes to be made. The rooms were small but elegant and filled with the trappings of the good life. Kay was tall and striking, with long black hair, a perfect blend of her Japanese and American blood. She sat me down and told me her story. She was now head hostess at a posh Tokyo club that catered to wealthy Japanese and foreign businessmen, as part of the corporate ritual. However, her ambitions went far beyond the lowlife job of hostess, which ranked somewhat under flight attendant as respectable employment for a young, unmarried woman in Japan. She wanted to write, and the high paying job allowed her the daylight hours to live her other life. Despite her disparaging and somewhat defensive attitude towards her line of work, Kay was most eager to see me employed in the same way. Her hand reached for the telephone. "I'm going to call Mr. K and see if he needs someone." Before I could protest, she had dialed the number of her ex-boss and handed me the receiver. A smooth talking Japanese man with a sprinkling of American slang convinced me to meet him the next day. I felt as though I had been propositioned and worst yet, had accepted.
My lack of caution was all the more surprising since I‘d already had two abortive attempts at employment in Asia. A three day stint with an "escort service" in Singapore, aside from its sordid associations (all true) and cattle market atmosphere, actually cost me more money than I earned. I had to buy "real" shoes. On the third evening, thoroughly disgusted, I took off and never came back. The friend who had accompanied me in this strange endeavor was all smiles the next day. She had been taken out by three gentlemen from China, who enjoyed her intelligence and conversation and would have welcomed a second escort. In Kyoto more recently, I’d had a one night stand as a completely confused cocktail waitress. In the space of four hours, I managed to break every rule of centuries' old Japanese etiquette. Needless to say, my services were not needed thereafter.
Optimism, a sense of daring, selective amnesia, and financial desperation must have been operating after two such unpleasant experiences. Although objectively shocked at my own behavior, I looked forward to playing another persona and in acting in ways that would have sent me burying my head in the nearest sandbox at home.
I thanked Kay and slunk out, not sure whether to be pleased or horrified.
(My novel, Gina in the Floating World, She Writes Press, 2018, was inspired by my experiences as a bar hostess in Japan.)
Image: photo by Belle Brett
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