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Sunday, Feb. 12, 2006

MEDIA MIX

Hosting is ghosting in as respectable profession


The reported improvement in the ratio of jobs to job seekers is good news for the nation's leaders, and not just because it indicates better economic health.

The youth of Japan suffers from a malaise that is partly blamed on a lack of prospects. Briefly, young people looked up to Takafumi Horie, the disgraced former head of Livedoor, as an example of the independent entrepreneur spirit that was considered desirable in the brave new meritocracy. But now, the media says the old fogeys were right. Horiemon was a sham; a soft-bodied, T-shirt-wearing charlatan who represented everything wrong about post-bubble Japan. With job recruiting up, maybe the kids will again look to the great corporations of Nippon.

Or maybe not. Horie gave voice to an attitude that has been prevalent if unacknowledged during the Liberal Democratic Party era, which is that money really does buy everything, including "people's hearts," as he so famously put it. Horie may be gone, but the truth of his example lives on, nowhere more blatantly than on the Friday night drama series, "Yaoh" (TBS; 10 p.m.).

Yaoh means "king of the night," and refers here to top employees of host clubs in the entertainment quarters of Tokyo's Kabukicho. These long-haired young men, decked out in expensive clothing and accessories, chat with and order drinks for women customers who shell out incredible amounts of money for the privilege of their company.

"Buying hearts" is one way to put it, and "prostitution" is another, since sex is sometimes involved. But, as with Livedoor's empty and illegal shell game of swapping stocks and creating value out of thin air, the host-club business is based on the illusion of desire coupled with the raw thrill of competition.

The protagonist of "Yaoh," which is based on a very popular manga series, is a former juvenile delinquent name Ryosuke, played by Masahiro Matsuoka.

Ryosuke works for a fictional Kabukicho host club called Romeo. At first, he doesn't seem to have what it takes, lacking the required mercenary mind-set. However, his stoical boss, in cahoots with the dying-from-cancer fashion designer Remi, who got Ryosuke the job in the first place, has set a challenge for the young man to become the No. 1 host in the club, understanding that he is earnest enough to do so but also too "pure of heart" to achieve the goal in the usual way.

Ryosuke's desire is to make his customers happy and "heal" them. It's implied that the women who patronize host clubs are in search of succor. The paradox is that Ryosuke wants to reach the top of the host pyramid by honestly addressing his customers' spiritual needs, but the only measure of success is how much money he can collect doing so.

His main nemesis is Seiya, the ultra-cool No. 1 host at Romeo, who plays by the rules, meaning he ruthlessly uses women to maintain his position. He represents everything negative about the occupation. Most of the episodes revolve around Ryosuke rescuing a customer from another host's diabolical machinations.

On Feb. 3, TBS broadcast a two-hour documentary special about host clubs that included promotional tie-ins to "Yaoh-hi." Focusing on a No. 1 host in Kabukicho and another in Osaka, the special revealed that the secret to success is getting well-to-do women to ask for you by name, and then talk them into paying through the nose for a bottle of something (vintage Romanee-Conti commands 2.5 million yen).

One would assume that charm, wit and sexual charisma are the main attributes of a successful host. Actually, what the biggest earners are good at is cajoling women into supporting their bid for dominance. Some of these women sleep with their hosts, but most act more like mothers, spending bricks of 10,000 yen bills so that their favorites prevail. At the same time, they insist on being served. In order to reach the top, a host must juggle multiple patronesses, which invariably causes jealousies and defections to other hosts.

The host-consumer dynamic is almost a parody of romantic relationships. Conversations amount to little more than discussing what to drink and how cute the host looks today. Customers don't necessarily want depth, but they do want at least the illusion of being in control, and control flows from money. In most cases, these women are self-employed or work in the "water trade" themselves. Some are sex workers. Many, in fact, are hostesses, whose methodology is different from that of the hosts. Hostesses traditionally fulfill their male customers' desires to escape the cares of work and family. It's all about him. The kind of ostentatious displays of cash that characterize host clubs are rare in hostess establishments.

Hosting is a tempting occupation for young men who have no skills and want to make huge pots of money in a short time -- No. 1 hosts earn more than 5 million yen a month. But as the TBS special pointed out, it isn't easy, and generally speaking it's still a job that's looked down upon.

"Yaoh" and the upcoming theatrical feature "Waters," a sentimental comedy about a club full of hapless hosts, may change that. Both sympathize with the hosts' lot and try to make a case that they fulfill some kind of social purpose. "Yaoh" star Matsuoka, it should be noted, is the drummer for TOKIO, one of the top acts of Johnny's Jimusho, the tarento agency that created the image of the eternally adolescent, sexually unthreatening, and mostly dim young man that has dominated Japanese pop culture since the 1970s. It's exactly the same image projected by hosts. Whether they aspire to Horiemon-like levels of income generation or TOKIO-like levels of female adoration, young men today have all the role models they need to get ahead.



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