When it comes to Japan, Akihabara is one place you’ll find on almost every tourist’s map. The name alone immediately brings to mind everything from games, manga, anime, figurines and AKB48 to Gundam, computers and electronics. Still one thing stands out as being particularly iconic: maid cafes.
Most visitors to Tokyo have stopped by one of these cafes at least once, and even if you haven’t, you’re probably familiar with the concept: cute, young women in fluffy “maid” skirts serving drinks and food while giggling with customers and, often, putting on shows. But have you wondered where these cafes came from?
Well, here’s a look at this cottage industry of cute based on the inauspiciously titled Sankei article “Why Are Maid Cafes Unprofitable? Over Half Have Closed in Akihabara in 10 Years.”
As the Sankei author explains, maid cafes got their start in 2001, but over the decade since the cafes first appeared, 282 opened in Akihabara…and 150 of them closed! Which means that, yes, there were still 132 of them open in 2011.
But why have so many failed?
Basic economics. A maid cafe is still a cafe, which means paying for cooks, ingredients, rent, and so on. Unfortunately, maid cafes have the additional cost of a larger staff, which really takes a giant bite out of your ice cream sandwich of profits (maids don’t work for free!). Typical strategies for dealing with the extra overhead include entrance fees, time limits, and photos with the maids. But why are people willing to pay so much for curry and rice?
In a word: moe.
You’ve definitely come across the word if you’re even passingly familiar with otaku culture. Yet, defining moe is nearly impossible. The author of the article says that the concept of moe can be compared to that of the classical Japanese idea of mono no aware, which is usually defined as “an awareness of impermanence that is inexpressible in words,” a frustratingly accurate, yet entirely unhelpful definition. It is this moe that has made maid cafes so special. Customers find themselves experiencing something utterly out of the ordinary, one hour at a time. From the moment they enter to greetings of “Welcome home, master!” to the nearly constant playful fawning of kawaii servers, patrons are immersed in a world light years away from their everyday lives.
But while moe may be a selling point, it’s also a stumbling block. The author notes that from the very beginning, there were accusations of, shall we say “questionable acts” being performed at maid cafes. Over a decade later, this image persists, even though maid cafes basically offer food, moe and nothing more. Although, apparently, there are some establishments catering to those with baser desires.
Regarding the future of maid cafes, another comparison to traditional Japanese culture is helpful: the maiko of Kyoto. An older but equally common image of Japan is that of young women in elegant kimonos with perfect black hair and snow-white makeup. Just as many maid cafes have staff out on the street trying to pull customers in, the maiko would line up outside of their restaurants in showy clothes and perform dances to pique the interest of travelers. Both maiko and the maids are offering customers more than food and drink, they are offering an escape from daily life.
The difference, as it stands now, is that the maiko have polished their image and art, creating something of deep cultural significance. Maids, on the other hand, are still struggling not only financially, but also to find their place in the broader culture. The author points out that the more maids we see on the street pulling customers in, the more common and typical they become and the less special moe is.
The author leaves us with this question: What will become of the maid cafes and moe? Is this all just another fad that will disappear in a few decades like so much 80s hairspray? Or will it rise above its lowbrow roots and become an integral part of Japanese culture?
It’s hard to say, but, for better or for worse, we can’t imagine an Akihabara without maids.