How I Became a Bar Hostess in Japan, Part II
Updated: May 7, 2021
As I prepared for my interview with Mr. K, the club owner, I worried about my lack of glamour. I had all the wrong clothes and the wrong look. My skirts were too short and my hair, too long. I wasn't blond enough or foreign enough. I bought some makeup, washed my hair, and dressed as well as I could after ten months of living out of a backpack. I tried not to think what my feminist friends would say, nor to listen to my own feminist conscience.
At the appointed hour, I met Mr. K and his wife in a suburban train station. Mrs. K beamed at me. She was petite and attractive, but her face seemed too lined for a woman I guessed was in her forties. Mr. K talked a lot. Mrs. K spoke no English. They bought me a dish of strawberries and bananas in a small outdoor cafe. I was promised many things: good money, a wardrobe to choose from, and a small apartment. No problem was insurmountable. My name, a tongue twister to the Japanese, was changed to "Gina", after the movie star Gina Lollabrigida. "Gee-na, Gee-na", Mrs. K repeated, pleased with the choice. I felt like a newly discovered starlet offered her first role in a Grade B movie. Female "gaijin," the term for foreigners, were a saleable commodity. My exoticness made up for my lack of glamour. A hint of doubt remained, though. I knew no more about this type of work than I had two weeks earlier when I’d disgraced myself. My Japanese vocabulary had expanded by a dozen words, but my grammar was non-existent. However, I had an open plane ticket back to the USA, and nothing much to lose.
Two days later, Mr. K picked me up at a restaurant, with all my things, to take me to the club where I was to work and live--a dark, damp place with a jukebox, worn outdoor carpeting inside, weathered booths, large cockroaches in the kitchen, and absolutely no character. No one else was there. With a suspicious quickness of decision, he informed me that I would be needed at his wife's "snack," a working class bar in another town. Mr. K hustled me back into his car. Unlike the club with its intimate booths and low lighting, the "snack" was brightly lit and had a horseshoe shaped counter that shielded the hostesses from the customers like a giant chastity belt. The bar was alive with young men drinking whisky and beer.
Mrs. K, the "mamasan" of the snack, fawned all over me on my arrival and handed me a beer bottle, gesturing towards a customer. I felt tears of frustration well up as I realized I had no idea what to do with it. Mamasan flapped her arms like a deranged bird, and I feared that my honeymoon with her was over. I was rescued by Annie, a thirty-six year old Canadian woman, who was to be my mentor during the two months I would work there. Annie, a divorced army wife and mother of a precocious 15-year-old girl, was large and blond and loud. She swore in two languages and delighted in cursing in English about the foolish antics of her drunken customers. She took me by the hand and showed me what to do. As my first evening wore on, I lit cigarettes, opened beer bottles, ate the food that the customers bought for me, tried to converse in Japanese, and even danced to the music on the jukebox. Someone fell asleep on the counter. Mamasan, who hadn't stopped drinking the entire evening, flirted with the Mayor.
After eight months on the road, I quickly left behind my status as tourist and was initiated as an insider in this seemingly quiet and typical Tokyo suburb. The next eight weeks would be many things, but they would never be dull.
(My novel, Gina in the Floating World, She Writes Press, 2018, was inspired by my experiences as a bar hostess in Japan.)