'Butler cafes' enchant women
By Akiko Kondo
TOKYO — "Welcome home, my lady," says a man in a swallowtail coat, bowing in a reverent manner. Another man in the same costume kneels and asks, "What would you like to have for your afternoon tea?"
Even if you are not a royal family member or an aristocrat, the men in the tailcoats smile and welcome you warmly without exception, but only at their fake-mansion cafes with a reservation.
Such cafes, dubbed "butler cafes," are a type of theme restaurant, established to mainly entertain female customers by waiters pretending to be butlers, who treat the clientele as "honorable ladies."
Butler cafes were originally established to capture the interest of "otaku" women following the huge hit of "maid cafes," which are the opposite of butler cafes.
"Otaku," or geeks or nerds, are those who are obsessed with things like computers, anime and games. Female "otaku," usually ranging in age from teenagers to women in their 40s, tend to be crazy especially about anime and "dojinshi," or comics or other works self-published often by amateurs.
Just as "otaku" men, who are too shy to talk with women in the real world but enjoy imaginary romances with maid-costumed women with "submissive characters," "otaku" women also enjoy virtual love with their "loyal butlers."
Because their passion toward comics and anime is so strong, these women often take little interest in their outfits, makeup, fashion, hairstyle or body shape — things most women have a great interest in.
As a result, they have a hard time dating, making them even more obsessed with comics and anime, driving them into virtual love stories in the two-dimensional world.
"I feel good, really good," said a working woman in her late 20s emerging from a butler cafe named "Swallowtail" in Ikebukuro. "It's like I'm actually a real rich princess here."
"I guess every girl dreams about becoming a princess someday and this is the place where I can make my wish come true and get mentally healed," said the woman, who declined to give her name.
She does not look like a typical "otaku." She said she pretends as though she has no interest in anime when she is with her colleagues but shows her "other side" when she is with other females or at butler cafes.
Butler cafes hit the ground in the heart of Ikebukuro, a gathering spot for "otaku" women, while maid cafes originated in Akihabara, which is famous for their male counterparts.
The Swallowtail cafe is known as the first butler cafe. It was launched in March, aiming to attract the "otaku" women who frequent the numerous comic book and anime character goods shops in Ikebukuro.
Butlers at the Swallowtail cafe take manner lessons before they actually serve customers in an effort to create a sense of realness.
"We provide a space to dream and make customers believe that they are actually precious people," said Ayako Abe, senior managing director of K-Books Inc, a comic-book seller and the cafe's operator, adding that about 90% of its customers are female.
"We wanted to provide a place that is similar to maid cafes," Abe said, "but for women."
She said customers visit the cafe for three purposes — for tea and cakes, atmosphere, or their favorite butlers. The cafe's reservation list is full for a month ahead, Abe noted.
Shinichi Shinano, an economist at the Hamagin Research Institute, attributed the popularity to a concept of make-believe play that has caught the hearts of young Japanese women.
"The cafes fulfill a woman's underlying desire to be rich and lavish by providing a special atmosphere and offering a realistic but temporal relationship with butlers," he said.
Recently, however, the popularity of butler cafes is spreading among non-"otaku" women, with people increasingly accepting "otaku" culture.
According to a survey conducted by the Nomura Research Institute, the size of Japan's "otaku" market, consisting of 12 fields including anime, games and computers, came to about 411 billion yen in 2004.
The number of consumers for the market totaled 1.72 million, with 12% of the total likely to be the type of people who prefer to go to Akihabara or Ikebukuro, the survey showed.
Seeing the possible gold mine in "otaku" culture, many business operators are linking their services with "otaku," for instance "maid reflexology," "maid hair salons" and "maid nail salons."
"It's a new type of business industry capitalizing on 'otaku' culture," said Takuro Morinaga, an economist at Mitsubishi UFJ Research & Consulting Co.
According to Morinaga, more than 90% of customers visiting butler cafes are merely "tourists" and not "pure 'otaku.'"
One reason why people began to wander into this habitat is said to be the big splash made by a book based on an online love story — "Densha Otoko" (Train Man).
The story is about a shy young man who asked for online advice on how to ask out a girl he met on a train in Tokyo and consequently wins her heart with his pureness.
The story became a fad and was made into a movie and drama as well, overturning the "otaku's" previous negative image of "geekiness."
Reflecting such a move, butler cafes targeting all kinds of women are also emerging. For example, a new cafe with good-looking non-Japanese staff opened in the fashionable Shibuya area about six months ago.
Unlike the Swallowtail cafe, customers can visit the place without a reservation and can enjoy regular cafe menu food, including pizza and pasta, rather than just teas or finger foods.
"I like enjoying a casual butler cafe like this rather than ones that are too serious," said Ayako Sato, a 24-year-old working woman, who visited the Shibuya cafe with her friends. "I came here to chat with friends, not to become a princess."