For the Osaka otaku with cash burning a hole in their pocket, Nipponbashi is the place to be. Also known as Den-Den Town, this shopping district specializes in whatever nerdy obsession you have from vintage 1985 video games to knives that look like they came from a Klingon’s rec room.
The highest concentration of these shops can be found next to the main street in a lane known as Ota-Road (otaku road). Here among the crowded shops you can find extra treats like street performers (I once saw a one-man death metal band perform) and girls in maid outfits handing out flyers for the 30 plus maid cafés packed around this 300-meter strip of asphalt.
While these young women may help the wonderfully absurd ambiance of Ota-Road they may also be violating Japan’s Businesses Affecting Public Morals Regulation Law (mercifully shortened to the less redundant Fueiho), the law regulating the sex industry in the country.
■ What’s a Maid Café?
Your standard maid café is in essence the same as a normal café, the only difference being the waitresses are all young women in maid costumes. They also often address customers like a maid would; using respectful language like gojushinsama (my lord).
Maid Cafés started in Akihabara, Tokyo around the turn of the millennium. Their popularity quickly soared as did their numbers. There are around 60 maid cafés operating around Akihabara today.
By around the end of 2004, Osaka’s counterpart to Akihabara, Nipponbashi, got their own maid café.
However, among the Nipponbashi maid cafés are a group of businesses that tend to use high-pressure tactics targeting the more weak-willed otaku shoppers. Like lions on the Serengeti these maids scan the herd of for the shyest young man who is least likely to refuse a pretty girl’s advances.
Then when they find their prey walking along with his copy of Dragon Quest X they pounce.
A reporter from Asahi News had gone undercover to Nipponbashi to try-out a couple maid cafés and see what really went on.
While walking up the street he was approached by a 20 year-old college student handing out pamphlets in a black short skirted maid costume. Just as the reporter was asking about prices a pink maid (19) suddenly appeared to help to back her up.
The girls explained that there’s a 500 yen (US$6) door charge and drinks are 500 yen each. The reporter agreed and went inside. While sitting down the two maids were aggressively trying to sit close him and talk.
This was because of the additional “talk time” fee of 5,000 yen (US$58) per 30 minutes. Since he was doing research, the reporter accepted. The conversation was intense but centered on light topics like college life and mobile phones.
When his time was up he was hit with a 10,000 yen (US$116) bill for talking with two maids and included the 1,000 yen (US$12) drink and cover charge as complimentary.
Talking the elevator down from this fifth-floor café, the reporter came across another café on the second floor of the building. This one charged 3,000 yen (US$35) per half hour of “talk time” and offered complimentary shoulder rubs.
This surly 19 year-old lit up a cigarette and said that she also worked in a “cabaret club” which is a more mature, nightclub version of a maid café. As she went for the shoulder rub the reporter was hurt by the intense massage and put and quick end to it.
He then ordered a beer for 3,000 yen (US$35). There were also optional photographs with the girls for 1,000 yen (US$12) a pop. For another 2,000 yen (US$23) you could get the tsundere (TSUN-DAY-RAY) experience.
Tsundere is plot device common to anime and manga in the form of a girl who begins as being very cold hearted to the protagonist but ultimately comes to love them. In the same way, if you fork over 2,000 yen, the maid will start off kind of jerky but then gradually begin to see what a great guy you are.
When it was time to go he paid his 7,800 yen (US$90) bill and got the hell out of Nipponbashi.
■ Is This Legal?
Fueiho is the law which regulates the sex industry in Japan, but it also acts as a type of liquor license as well. In this way it dictates where, when, and how certain businesses can operate based on their intended purpose.
Regular made cafés would be classified as eatery style businesses which don’t offer entertainment. They’re simply cafés and their uniforms are maid outfits.
The problem with the maid cafés previously mentioned is the “talk time.” Exchanging money for conversation would put these cafés into another category of a food/entertainment business – exorbitantly priced entertainment at that. Such a category requires a license with stricter conditions.
In addition, the Asahi reporter also claims that the maids had not told him about “talk time” until he entered the establishment. Even when he declined the maids continued to press him saying “you don’t want to sit here all by yourself” and “come on, it’ll only be ten minutes.”
Where legal or not, other area shops including legitimate maid cafés are up in arms over these practices. One maid café owner revealed that a usual bill is between 2,000 to 3,000 yen (US$23-$35) per visit, but he frequently hears customers complain of other cafés’ charges running up to 40,000 yen (US$465).
“There is the point that maid cafés help to attract younger people to the area which benefits us all. On the other hand, the problem of these malicious shops is giving all Nipponbashi a bad name.” said an area business association official.
■ Choose Your Maid Wisely
Having been to Nipponbashi countless times I’m rarely approached by the maids. And watching the other pedestrians it’s easy to see the types of guys they jump on.
Attitude is really the key to avoiding these types of maids. Walking like most urbanites do with a mildly pissed-off expression will get you at worst an occasional flyer.
However, if you’re looking for a maid café experience, I’d advise you to walk up and down ota-road a few times. It’s not that big, and you’ll quickly get a sense of the suspiciously aggressive maids and the regular ones.
However, that’s not even a full-proof method and you might still get mixed up in the wrong kind of café. In such a case, the best defense just being able to say flat out “no” to a pretty face.
Just image you’re George Clooney… out shopping for K-On! figures.
Source: Asahi Shinbun Digital (Japanese)
▼ Maids blend in remarkably well during the winter, can you spot them?
▼ There’s two!
▼ And one more!
▼ These two also look like regular girls until you get close.