If you’ve been in Japan long enough or ever took a stroll through Kabukicho, you’ve probably seen a few hostess clubs and soaplands. But what about snacks? Unlike the name suggests, snacks, short for snack bars, have nothing to do with edamame or dried squid.
Usually found in your nearest seedy neighborhood, a snack is basically the toned down version of a hostess club. They are smaller and easier on the wallet. Snacks are mostly frequented by chain-smoking salarymen in crumpled suits, looking for a bit of female company. Unlike strip clubs, there is no nudity involved and no sex – at least officially.
Being female, Japan’s red-light district has always been mostly off limits to me. If some establishments have self-explanatory names, oppai pubs for instance, snacks are a lot more mysterious. I always wondered what was really going on in there, but I never expected I would end up spending an evening in one.
If some establishments have self-explanatory names, oppai pubs for instance, snacks are a lot more mysterious.
A few years ago, my friend Raymond, who was new to Japan, told me about this really fun place his friend was working at, a bar called Antoinette. We agreed to go the next evening. The place looked like a small cigar bar. There was a long mahogany counter where a dozen clients could sit comfortably and a leather couch. The only thing that seemed out of place was a young woman behind the counter. She was dressed in a long emerald gown that would have been more appropriate at a fancy cocktail party. The plunging neckline was also something I had never expected to see a Japanese woman wear. It was then that it finally hit me. Antoinette was not just any bar. It was a snack! And my friend was completely oblivious to the situation! I’m not sure what must have crossed Mama-san’s mind, the head hostess, when she saw me come in, but to her credit, she took it in stride. “Oh, you brought a date today!” she said to my friend, laughing.
We were introduced to Miki, the girl in the fancy dress. She was a university student and was working at Antoinette part-time. Her job was to pour drinks, light cigarettes and make conversation. She was not as confident as the head hostess, a mature woman in her late forties. As I learned later, snacks are usually run by slightly older and former hostesses called “Mama-san”. Their looks may be fading, but they know how to run the business and keep their clients happy. She was really good at telling stories and when we asked her what she did during the day, she said she woke up late and watched adult videos all afternoon while her husband was at work.
I didn’t expect to, but I actually had a great evening. We did karaoke and Raymond’s friend, usually confined to the kitchen, was assigned to make conversation to me. We stayed about three hours, but the tab wasn’t as hefty as I thought it would be. We paid around ¥6,000 each. As we left the place, I glanced one last time at Miki. She was flirting with a customer old enough to be her father, laughing shyly at his jokes. There was no way she was having a good time and I wondered if the money was really worth it. She was probably making a lot more than her classmates, but at what cost?
Recently I was lucky enough to meet a woman who used to work at a snack when she was in college. She accepted to answer a few questions about her former job.
How much money did you make on average?
Sayaka: I would make around ¥400,000 a month, but I would work almost every day after school. Nowadays, I don’t think the job is well paid anymore. These places are also often owned by the yakuza, so I would not encourage anyone to work there.
What was the hardest thing about your job?
Sayaka: I had to drink a lot. Every girl has a role to play: the cute girl, the tough girl, the nice girl, etc. I was the clown. I always had to be genki and fun. The Mama-san wanted the clients to spend a lot of money, so when she’d wink at me, I knew I had to finish a client’s bottle, so he would have to buy another.
I know officially girls don’t sleep with clients, but how strictly enforced are these rules?
Sayaka: Clients often offer to take girls on dates outside work. We were not forced to accept, but our Mama-san would strongly encourage us to go. But, she would always tell us to never sleep with them, so they would keep coming back. I never slept with a client, but I guess it can happen.
Have you actually ever felt attracted to or liked a client?
Sayaka: Never. It’s just business. We just pretend to like them so they keep coming. All our clients were old and they wanted to feel important and show-off. Snacks are expensive, but some men would bring hostesses from other bars to our snack on a date, just because they wanted to look important.
Why do you think guys come to these places?
Sayaka: I’d say they come because they hope to sleep with the girls. Most of our regular clients knew our Mama-san well and would come to spend time with her. If they brought customers to our snack, she would go on dates with them. They were mostly salarymen working in finance and real estate, so they would often bring clients and their company would even pick up the tab.
What kind of topics would you talk about with the clients?
Sayaka: Some would try to show off by talking about art, but they mostly wanted to talk about sex and ask embarrassing questions. Some were really mean as well. They would complain about our looks all the time. Once, one guy tried to look down my dress by pulling down my neckline and said I had breasts like grapes.
Does working in a place like this make it hard to have a regular boyfriend?
Sayaka: Yeah, it does. It’s hard to keep a boyfriend. Most guys don’t want their girlfriends to do this kind of work and it’s not something you can keep secret very long because of the working hours. Not many “regular” guys would accept that.
What did you learn about human behavior from working there?
Sayaka: You have to be really cunning to survive in that kind of world and you have to outsmart the system. I went to college and could get a good job after, but some of the girls didn’t have that luck. Snacks are not the worst place where you can end up. Some hostesses end up prostituting themselves.
*All names and locations have been changed.