There are three appropriately seductive qualities to be found in this book. The first lies, straightforwardly enough, in its subject matter, as the world of Tokyo host clubs can hardly fail to fascinate. They nightly draw immense sums of money out of willing female customers, who seek the dreams mentioned in this book’s subtitle as their charming, usually younger male hosts imagine their own dreams alongside them. Second, US-based scholar Akiko Takeyama is a good writer, and her accounts of the fascinating characters she encounters in her study are beguiling. The third quality lies in the book’s anthropological approach, for her decision to write what she describes as “affective ethnography” offers a high quality experience that arguably only such participative research can achieve.
Curiously, however, and I am not sure if this is intentional, the book does something for readers that is not dissimilar to what Takeyama describes host clubs as doing for its customers, namely holding out the tantalising promise of future pleasure. The preface, a riveting personal account of the author’s first experience of host clubs, is the initial catch, but it is followed by an introduction, “Promise of the Future”, that is so stuffed full of references to theory that it is sometimes hard to keep reading. This is a common approach in US academic writing, however, and I encourage readers to press on, for by the end some nuggets of excellent new theory are developed. We also learn a lot about some of the women who patronise these clubs, and about some of the men (both hosts and managers) who find themselves working in them, and although we never really hear much about the final destination of the wealth that is accumulated, we get a good understanding of how the clubs operate.
There are two things I found particularly interesting in Takeyama’s account. One is the seeming reversal of traditional gender power differentials in women employing hosts to seduce them rather than men buying the services of women, but in a sad irony, these women also spend significant time and money making themselves attractive to the hosts, just as women have always done, I guess. Arguably, however, in my view and experience, women in Japan have always wielded a lot of behind-the-scenes power, and perhaps it is just the form that has changed. That brings me to my second area of particular interest, namely the role of “flattery” in such exchanges. My own study of polite and respectful language in Japan revealed a good deal of subtle manipulation, especially by women, which could easily be compared with the “seduction” that forms the heart of the matter here. Flattery plays a key role in this process, as most participants are aware and complicit – and how Japanese! Anyone who has learned even a few words of the language will recognise immediately the blatant flattery in the praise they receive from native Japanese speakers.
There is so much more of interest in Staged Seduction, which will appeal on a number of levels. Takeyama argues that host clubs are emblematic of a neoliberal, post-industrial Tokyo: see what you think. Her study certainly offers a fascinating insight into a recently greatly expanded part of its nightlife.
Joy Hendry is emeritus professor of anthropology, Oxford Brookes University, and author of Wrapping Culture: Politeness, Presentation and Power in Japan and Other Societies (1995).
Staged Seduction: Selling Dreams in a Tokyo Host Club
By Akiko Takeyama
Stanford University Press, 248pp, £61.00 and £17.99
ISBN 9780804791243, 98549 and 98556 (e-book)
Published 9 March 2016