The otaku experience
During our previous trips to Japan, we had never had the opportunity of attempting the Maid café experience. But even though this kind of entertainment does not really appeal to us, maid cafés undeniably play a major role in the world of otaku and are one of only a few of its real-life counterparts.
For those unacquainted with this concept of popular Japanese culture, the maid is the archetype of the female servant, especially in anime. Her master’s more or less realized fantasy (Master in Japanese is goshujin-sama), the maid character is easier to embody in cosplay than other representations of the otaku culture.
This is why there are a lot of those maids in the streets of Akihabara, the electronics and therefore otaku district in Tokyo (but also, for example, in the Den-Den Town district in Osaka). It did not take very long before we could start our investigation: We were hardly 500 meters out of Akiba train 🚅 station and we had already received two or three invitations. The reason for this is that maid cafés cannot be seen from the outside as most of them are located in the upper stories of buildings.
It is quite a simple approach: A young woman dressed as a maid comes up to you and either hands you a flyer or gives you a short presentation of the café where she works. After checking with the maid that her café matched our requirements, we walked with her for five or ten minutes until we reached the place.
Each maid café is different. They are typically staffed by young women, at least for client relations and service, all wearing the same costume. Some of these places are very similar to regular cafés, apart from cosplay; a lot of them though are themed venues. Our café was intended as a (rather cheap) representation of the Edo era where clients played the roles of lords.
How maid cafés work
Most cafés work along the same principle. You pay an entrance fee (we paid ¥1,500 / ~US$13.14) with a drink included. The maid gives you an overview of how the café works, always calling you goshujin-sama. Every time a drink is served, the client must go through a ritual by repeating gestures and reciting a moe formula along with the maid.
Maid and client(s) then fall 🍁 into a kind of routine role play. Each maid, who places a strong emphasis on kawaii, is assigned to a single table and is expected to make you participate in as many activities as possible, for example:
- Taking photos with one or several maids of your choosing (it is forbidden to touch them);
- Ordering a pastry, a pudding or even some lunch;
- Playing a board game (for example jankenpon, i.e. Rock-paper-scissors), a card game or a video game with one of the maids;
- Various other activities that differ from one café to the other;
- Or simply talking to a maid for a few minutes.
Of course, each of these activities comes at a cost, often a pretty high one. Let us insist, however, that none are of a sexual nature. And we were actually pretty surprised to see that these places are in fact patronized by a rather mixed crowd, mainly young adults (seemingly between 18 and 30 years old) but in any case very remote from the cliché of shifty, kinky patrons that might be expected. It is not uncommon to meet couples in maid cafés or even groups of girls.
We nevertheless felt rather awkward about being served by very young-looking maids. It is of course difficult to pinpoint their exact age but we felt somehow ill at ease with these young women playing the part of fetishized maids. They even sometimes overplayed, tuning their voices, gestures and expressions to those of anime movies and therefore adding some kind of an ecchi strain. There, as is often the case, Western-style human relationships are at odds with certain aspects of Japanese culture.
Below is a video posted by a rather classic maid café called MaiDreamin which shows how the café works:
To conclude, we will probably not repeat the maid café experience simply because it does not appeal to us, and also because there are so many pretty traditional cafés all over Japan that we do not wish to spend time in places which, all things considered, and besides being noisy, are largely devoted to fantasy and artificiality.
This is not, as far as we are concerned, what we expect from a trip to Japan, but some people will enjoy the kawaii and quirky strain and will no doubt enjoy themselves very much, whatever feminists may think. Let us mention, for lady readers, that there are Dansô Cafés or Shitsuji Kissa based on a similar concept only with male servants.
A maid café was opened in New York in 2013. Should we expect to have some open in the rest of the world in the near future?