Full-time butlers are pretty hard to come by these days, so when we had the chance to meet one such professional in Japan, we leapt on the chance to ask him a bunch of questions to ask about his role—like how come they don’t wear coattails anymore?
The job of butler seems fairly out of reach for most of us. They seem to only exist in the world of the ultra-rich. Sure, there are plenty of anime and manga that feature these humble members of staff, so we may feel like we already know the profession well, but a real-life butler’s job probably is nothing like the fantasy versions that we read about…or is it?
To find out, we talked to Naoyuki Arai, the author of Shitsuji Dake ga Shitteiru Sekai no Daifugo 53 no Okane no Tetsugaku (The 53 Facts on the Philosophies of Money that Multimillionaires Are Practicing that only a Butler Would Know) and butler of eight years who also runs a company that provides butler services. If anyone can answer our questions about this mysterious and prestigious profession, it is going to be Mr. Arai.
SoraNews24: What was the reason you became a butler?
Arai: Originally, I was a salesman for a manufacturing company, but I started working as a butler for two reasons. First was that I wanted to work in a job that would serve a client for their entire life, and if possible the second generation and the third generation and so on. The second reason was that, when I thought about what the highest form of service you could provide to an individual customer was, the profession of butler popped into my head.
SN24: You started your current butler company in 2008, so please tell us a bit about how that came to be.
Arai: When I started the business, I had no requests for butlers for about half a year. I didn’t have any experience as a butler, so I trained in skills necessary for a service industry. Once, a person who graduated from an overseas butler school and also had experience in being a butler came to me looking for a job. I had no work for him, so I asked, “Would you teach me necessary things to become a butler?”
As I learned the skills of a butler, our company was hired to manage the villa of a wealthy European when they were not in Japan, and to serve them when they stayed there. The client, who was one of the top 10 richest people in the world, introduced us to other clients, and the business grew.
Back in 2008, when this business started, the general public in Japan didn’t know much about butlers, but thanks to dramas such as Mei-chan no Shitsuji (Mei’s Butler) and other such anime, the public grew more and more familiar with them. My company had more enquiries from people saying things like, “I want to try having a butler,” and “I want to become a butler.” But the requests from people who seemed like they just wanted a butler for fun—my apologies, but—I turned those clients down. (laughs)
SN24: What kind of people work for you at your company and what sort of requests do you get?
Arai: We have seven butlers as full-time staff and we also have maids, drivers and chefs that are on-call when we get a specific request. We currently have between 20 and 30 clients under contract with us. Most of our contracts are yearly ones but occasionally we get requests such as, “My son is studying abroad in Japan for half a year, so please take care of him,” and, “My daughter will be in Tokyo for the day, so for that time, please look after her.”
SN24: What kind of jobs do butlers actually do?
Arai: Butlers generally control the general affairs of a client’s household, and when they arrive in Japan, we also attend to the client. In anime, butlers serve food, pour wine and other services related to meals. We definitely do those things, but in reality, butlers also make sure that the maids and chefs do their duties, arrange for the payment of all expenses, which includes paying the other staff, paying household utilities and paying for repairs. Therefore much of my company’s work as a butler is the general undertaking of administrative affairs.
SN24: On the job, you wear a suit, but not the traditional tailcoat…
Arai: That’s right; generally we wear suits. We don’t wear tailcoats because they stand out too much. Wealthy people usually don’t want to see any behaviors or actions that draw attention to themselves—if you are wearing a tailcoat while standing next to someone, you are broadcasting to the people all around that the client is some sort of VIP, which puts them at risk of blackmail or kidnapping.
For those reasons, the cars that our clients ride around in aren’t luxury vehicles but are often standard family cars, and the clients, depending on the situation, usually open and close the car doors themselves. We don’t wear a suit when we take a client’s child to school, we wear casual clothes like a polo shirt and slacks. When you become the president of a big company, you can unwittingly incur someone’s hatred without knowing it, so it’s safer to act in a way that doesn’t stand out.
SN24: When do butlers have time off from their work?
Arai: Generally, butlers don’t have days off or breaks, but if there is a period of time the client isn’t in Japan or is away from their homes, then we could have time off. So there aren’t any weekends or pre-determined days off in the week.
SN24: What kind of clients do you usually have?
Arai: Most of our customers are wealthy people, and half of those are overseas clients. The yearly contract for a butler is on average 20 million yen (US$165,100), so we have many wealthy clients.
SN24: Is there a difference between wealthy people from Japan and wealthy people abroad?
Arai: Many wealthy Japanese clients strictly adhere to the master and servant relationship of a client and his butler. However, foreigners often connect with us in a friendlier manner, like we’re a member of their family.
SN24: How do you train butlers?
Arai: Because our company isn’t very large, we generally don’t train our employees, rather we hire people with good backgrounds like former hotel employees, former secretaries or former flight attendants. Actually, though, we are training one young person now and we teach him one-on-one.
SN24: If someone came to you and said, “Please train me to be a butler,” what would you do?
Arai: To become a butler you need the right character and enthusiasm, so we would look at that first and then make a decision. A butler is best at his job when he is supporting the client in the background and helping other people as well. You have to possess the quality to support them, and then you are happy when they are successful. Also, the young person we are training now came to me and said, “I don’t need a salary, so please take me on as your butler apprentice.” That strong will to become a butler is incredibly important.
SN24: What sort of requests have you had?
Arai: One time, a client from Europe wanted to watch European TV programs in real-time at his Japanese residence. So, we put up a huge parabolic antenna on the roof of his house, like the ones you see at TV stations. We were able to receive a very weak signal from a satellite and the client was able to watch his programs. However, when it rained, the signal completely cut out and he couldn’t watch them at all. (laughs)
Another time, a client wanted to build an onsen on the grounds of their villa in Izu. So we had to determine whether or not a special onsen excavation company could excavate there and, in the end, got them to do it.
There was also a request once from a client who owned a villa on the beach who couldn’t see the ocean from their home, so they asked us to cut down the trees in front so that they could see it. We were allowed to cut down the trees that grew on the client’s property without any issue, but some of the trees grew on other people’s property and government-owned land, so we had to get permission for each specific tree we wanted to cut down.
In connection with requests like these, our clients never say, “Please do it within X yen.” Rather, when the costs for the request are mostly understood, we tentatively check with the client to see if they are acceptable. In most cases, the client doesn’t have any issues with the budget.
SN24: What was your most difficult request?
Arai: One of our European clients really liked a specific strawberry-flavored chewing gum from a well-known Japanese company. Two hours before they left on a private jet from Narita, the client asked for 1,000 pieces of that gum and 500 bottles of Calpis Water. We called lots of people we knew and asked for their help. We scoured every grocery store and convenience store in the area in order to fulfill that request. We were able to get it all, but at the time it was really difficult.
Even with requests that seem trivial, we take them very seriously. Maybe it’s a souvenir for someone important back home and we cannot know the reasoning behind the request. So because of that, no matter what it is, we always tackle them with our best effort.
SN24: You’ve had a long career as a butler, so is there anything you have noticed about wealthy people?
Arai: The two things that wealthy people always want is time and health. If they regularly see a doctor, then they can maintain their health. The real problem is time. For a lot of them, it’s really difficult to make time for themselves. For example, when we send a wealthy foreign client from Narita Airport to the heart of Tokyo by car, normally it takes about 40 minutes, but when the traffic is heavy, it can take up to two hours. When that happens, we’re scolded by our clients, who say things like, “Why is it taking so long?” At those times, the right thing to do is to guide the client towards taking a helicopter instead. It costs 300,000 yen ($2,475) to go from Narita Airport to the center of Tokyo and takes about 20 minutes.
To you and me, that might seem like an overly extravagant solution, but for someone who has an annual income of 2 billion yen ($16 million), if you divide that by 365 days and 24 hours, they are making 230,000 yen ($1,900) an hour. Therefore, if they save an hour and 40 minutes by spending 300,000 yen ($2,475), the value of time outweighs the cost of the helicopter.
SN24: Since working as a butler, what is something important that you have learned?
Arai: You have to put yourself in the client’s shoes. For example, if the customer says, “I want to eat curry, could you prepare it for me?” you have to think about why they said that.
In that instance, you won’t instantly go and start preparing curry; you’d first interact with the client by asking, “Are you hungry and would like to eat something right now? If that’s the case, I can prepare something quick for you, like Cup Ramen.” The client may respond with, “Yes, I’m a little hungry, so if Cup Ramen is quick, then please make it,” or something like that. The simple sentence of, “I want to eat curry,” may have a deeper meaning than appears on the surface, so you always have to bear in mind the client’s true desires.
SN24: What was the moment that you felt the happiest working as a butler?
Arai: When a client thinks of us like family. After the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, clients who had returned to their home countries suggested to us, “Why don’t you and your family come with us? We will look after you and your family.” In the end we stayed in Japan, but we were extremely happy to be thought of like family.
SN24: Do you want your own personal butler?
Arai: I do. (laughs) Of course, when you have a butler, you can enjoy your time more. If a butler manages your daily schedule and arranges transportation, your day will become smoother and more efficient.
SN24: Do you have any advice to someone who wants to become a butler?
Arai: You might think of a butler as someone who provides a unique service, but there are some commonalities with jobs that everyone does. If you are a company employee, you work for a superior; a butler does the same. For someone who works in the service industry, they are serving a customer; a butler also serves his client. In other words, whether it is a boss or a customer, you have to think about what they want and what makes them happy. That is the same for butlers. While always regarding the satisfaction of our client in front of us, we can improve our fundamental skills as a butler as we are working.
One thing we noticed was that Mr. Arai always carries a travel bag with him. Inside he carries a computer and an extra battery so that he can always keep in touch with his clients. He also keeps a change of clothes on him in case a client suddenly calls. The life of a butler doesn’t seem to be too far off from what we’ve seen in anime and dramas, but it was still incredibly interesting to get a true account from a real professional.
We’d like to thank Mr. Arai for taking the time to answer all of our questions.
Photos © SoraNews24