The Yakuza Night World, Business and Pleasure

-by Tyler McPeek

Drinking out in Japan’s Nightlight Wonderland

The Yakuza Night World, Business and Pleasure:
Levels, Systems, Workers, and Management of Japanese “Mizushobai,” a First Look

This is the sixth article in my yakuza series.  These works should be considered as "fictional memoir" in nature.  Please read disclaimers in the first and subsequent articles for more information on the fictional nature of the characters described in this series.  Due to previous mention of the industry and details here and there, and especially after my last article on “Yakuza Women,” I’ve been asked to attempt a comprehensive explanation and taxonomy of the Japanese mizushobai, or “water trade.”  I can tell you this is a herculean task.  The system is so layered, so complex, and so massive that I fear it requires a series of articles.  Anyhow, I’ll try my best to simplify it into a manageable strata, in one post, without repeating information outlined in earlier posts on the yakuza’s many money making and social activities—which weave in and out of the night drinking world, sometimes inseparably so.  I’ve worked at a number of “bars” (though the word doesn’t do the diaspora justice), owned and managed my own place, known countless owners of various establishments, seen the world through at the side of yakuza partiers and businessmen/protection racketeers, and drank my way across the country in all variety of different watering holes.  Take my word for it, I’ve drank in many countries, and Japan has the most complex array of different places to drink in the world, bar none.  In this article, I’ll cover: shot bars, restaurants, izakaya, hostess bars (standard, kabakura, high end, etc—this is the biggest category), host clubs, Russian/Eastern European show pubs, foreigner bars, dance clubs, theme bars, public drinking party events, karaoke bars and boxes, soft prostitution clubs, geisha clubs, and ryokan.  Some of these are broad categories, but taken as a whole, this is a fairly good representation of the drinking options available in Japan.  Due to the bulk, I’ll have to explain each of them briefly.

Let’s start with the more innocent places.  “Shot bars” (as the Japanese are prone to call them—ショットバー) and cocktail lounges are the places that most closely resemble the bars that Westerners are accustomed to.  They resemble western bars in both atmosphere, clientele, and pricing.  The only people “working” in a shot bar are those behind the counter.  They may wear T-shirts with the name of the establishment on them, wear fashionable clothing typical of their age group, which is usually young, or, at a upscale establishment, wear black bar aprons from the waste down with black and white bow-tied waiter outfits, with perhaps a vest—as you can now see at high class hotel bars in western cities or as you used to see at your average NYC bar in the pre-60’s era.  These types of cocktail bars may have award winning or even internationally renowned bar tenders and cocktail professionals working the bar.  The more common shot bar would have competent bar tenders who serve cocktails formerly known to western clients, but still popular in Japan (especially for women), including such old favorites as a spumoni, gin back, red eye, gin lime, and milk-based cocktails.  They measure their cocktails precisely, take great pride in the quality of their alchemy, and handle a stainless steel cocktail shaker expertly, putting on a decent show of the cocktail making at even a low end establishment.  If the bar tender is in a T-shirt or street clothing, the bar typically is inexpensive and has a small or no entrance fee or “seating charge” (cover).  Some of these bars can even be “one coin bars,” where all drinks, whether they be draft beer or a cocktail are 500 yen (just over 5 dollars US), which in Japan is the largest denomination of coin, thus can be paid using one coin for each drink.  There is no tipping at Japanese bars, as is the case with nearly every type of Japanese service establishment, including restaurants, hotels, and even prostitutes in most cases.  So, if you sometimes find yourself paying a little more at a Japanese watering hole or restaurant, you usually more than make up for the difference when you save on the tip.  Having said that, the level of service is nearly always well above what we are used to in the west, in terms of quality of the product, competence of the staff, friendliness, politeness, and professionalism.  A Japanese business simply can’t survive in the market without providing the standard of service that the Japanese customer is accustomed to, thus it’s practically second nature to anyone working in the Japanese service industry to use the appropriate honorifics and exude uniform professionalism while at work.  The only downside might be that it can sometimes feel a bit automated for American tastes, but only a little and only sometimes.  Shot bars are typically populated by young customers of mixed sex, and customers mingle, hook up with the other sex, and generally have fun as a mixed group in a way that we are familiar with in the west and would readily recognize and feel comfortable participating in.  This communal atmosphere does not pervade all levels of the Japanese drinking strata.  Shot bars may have yakuza involvement at the investor level or pay protection money, but they are not typically gangster or syndicate owned.  They may be approached by lower level yakuza for protection money, being privately owned, non mafia affiliated—and thus easy to bully, but there isn’t much money to be made as the owners are usually independent, operating day to day by alcoholic owners, and generally operating on a show string.  Some of these bars just have one local celebrity type male owner who serves drinks to a group of regular patrons over casual conversation.   Others serve local kids and mixed crowds cheap drinks, occasionally holding special all-you-can-drink party events with themes or even with live music or special guests of some kind.  A lot of these independent owners will do anything for a laugh including humiliating and abusing their staff for customer enjoyment or wearing wacky costumes, performing bar tricks, and making colorful jokes.  The old time drink server as entertainer and geisha culture of ancient Japan persists even today and even at the lowest levels of watering holes.
The other drinking option for the non cover charge paying crowd, is to drink while you dine or snack on local cuisine.  This is the realm of restaurant and “izakaya” drinking.  A restaurant is what it sounds like, except to note that like Japanese shot bars, the thing that would most strike westerners as being different from restaurants and bars in the western world is that they are usually much smaller, seating as few as 10-15 people.  I’ve been in shot bars that seat only 4-5, with a walk in hallway-like appearance, entrance at one end and bathroom at the other.  Izakayas can also be big though.  An izakaya is essentially a bar/restaurant, without the separate seating under one roof that you’d find in the west.  You sit, drink (usually beer or shochu), and snack on several small common dishes with friends.  It’s a comfortable and cheap way to drink and fill up before heading to a more serious and specialized drinking place; before heading home after work for younger workers; or for couples on a date or group data (gokon).  Some of the late night stall/street food type places can also serve as a final meal place for drunk customers who have finished their night of drinking at other places and are headed home, but need one last beer and a hot bowl of ramen to lull them into the taxi, where they’re likely to fall asleep in the back on the way home.

Most foreigners won’t get beyond what I’ve outlined above on an average night out, especially if they’re drinking with other foreigners.  They might not find anything else, at least nothing they can recognize at street level in the busy districts or with pictures on the menu and big signs out front.  One exception is foreigner bars, which can be either bars owned  by expats or bars that cater to an international crowd by choice of the owner, who may have lived overseas or just enjoys time with foreigners.  These places, ironically, are often unknown or intimidating to the average Japanese customer and often have an underground sort of feel.  The only Japanese found at these places are usually Japanese who have foreign friends, speak English, or have studied abroad—far from the average Japanese on all counts.  These places may be haunted by women with such glamorous slang monikers as “eigo bitches” (“English bitches”) or gaijin-zuki (foreigner lovers).  Likewise, the Japanese men hanging out here often know that they have little chance with the women there, who are typically there to meet foreign men, so are likewise there to hang out with the foreign men and women—though they understand that they also have little chance with the foreign women, who are usually also there to meet foreign men.  By “foreigners,” we are usually talking about American, British, Australian, Canadian, and New Zealanders, though various other western Europeans are also in the mix.  Eastern Europeans, South East Asians, Brazilians, Africans, Indians, Arabs, Persians, Chinese, and Koreans (all of whom there may be “many” of in a given area) typically don’t have the disposable income or inclination/access to hang out in these places, though there are exceptions.  These places can be a lot of fun for the foreign young man, especially those who don’t speak Japanese well or at all, thus don’t have any access to other avenues of drinking intrigue in Japan.  The foreign women can be “easy” by virtue of having to compete with the tough rivals of beautiful local women for foreign men’s attention, and typically have little interest in Japanese men, for reasons of media stereotypes, cultural gap, and lack of sexual prowess on the part of Japanese men towards “powerful” and scary western women, though exceptions to the rule exist.  So, between the Japanese “yellow cabs” (slutty Japanese women who love foreigners), foreign women with suddenly lowered standards and barriers, and regular Japanese girls who might find themselves in a foreigner bar through chance and adventurism on a given night, foreign men have it pretty good in a place like this.  Sex in bathrooms, parking lot sexual encounters against walls outside small clubs and bars, and one night stands at nearby apartments and love hotels are all more common than rare.  But as I said, this is a world unknown to the average Japanese drinker, existing in random alleyway bars, the very existence of which may be only vaguely known to the average local Japanese resident, even in smaller cities and towns.  The exception is big cities like Tokyo and Osaka, where Roppongi and “amerika-mura” or “American Town” are areas of the city well-known to be popular places for foreigners and Japanese to drink side by side in westernized drinking locales.  The best or sometimes only dance clubs in town are likely to be found in these types of city districts, if they exist at all.

So where do the Japanese drink when it’s time for serious and traditional drinking bouts?  Like everywhere else in the world, this nightly migration usually starts with couples or groups of men, roving about looking to drink with and have sexual or flirtatious encounters with women as part of the adventure of the night, and, to a lesser extent, thus creating a deficit, groups of girls looking for a similar, converse experience with men.  Young women drinking together are more likely to end up at the shot bars or cocktail bars, but they occasionally end up at host bars, where professional men offer companionship and conversation, or even snacks.  Hostess bars and “snack bars” are the dominant bulk of the drinking establishments by number in Japan and are geared toward male customers.  However, it’s worth noting that they are predominately staffed by women who not only want to make money, but are often young and enjoy the work, drinking with young or older men late into the night.  So, if you are a young fun-loving, hard drinking female, getting paid to drink with men, for all the possible unpleasantness and hassles that come with the job, is not altogether a bad deal.  But once you’re in, it might be hard to get out.  A young woman with a decent family and fair prospects at a normal life as a student or day worker, might find herself crossing blurred lines of moral turpitude and shame, and not ever find her ways fully back to the daytime world, where she can meet a man through work or friends and marry through traditional channels.  Marrying a customer met at a hostess bar is usually quite a different playing field to walk the isle from than a traditional courtship would be.  You can see some of my earlier posts for more on the plight of women who find themselves working in a world with rules often created by gangster-affiliated managers who see the lines between moral and immoral, normal and deviant as being quite subjective and irrelevant.  Female companionship is a commodity at this level that rivals and surpasses the actual alcohol that is being sold.  Which is why alcohol is frequently not, in fact, the thing being actually sold.  Instead alcohol is a free amenity offered together with what the customer is actually charged for—time.  Paying by the hour for drinking and companionship is the norm above the lowest level of hostess club (often called “snack bar”), where you might still pay by drink, or more likely bottle “keep,” but always pay some type of seating or entrance fee in addition to the booze.  These places subsist through the patronage of regular customers who see the same girls regularly for drinking and conversation, thus they can sell the booze by the bottle, then keep the bottle with the name tag of the customer on it.  When the bottle is empty, the customer can buy a new one, and the mixer and ice can be a euphemistically termed “ice” charge for each time the customer enters the establishment to drink with his favorite girl, who can be behind the counter or sitting next to the customer, depending on the style and design of the place.  At the lower, non-time based charging snack, this is usually understood to not include any informal, or certainly formal, prostitution options and is a generally acceptable place for men to drink, i.e., able to admit that they drink there publicly and be seen going in and out by people they know.  Coworkers and business acquaintances can go to a place like this, perhaps to one or the other’s regular place to drink from the others bottle keep, allowing one friend to treat another and play host to his coworker or friend in his home away from home, since inviting a coworker back to your actual home for a drink would be very rare and too intimate and uncomfortable of a situation.  Two or more men with some formal or institutional relationship between them can drink in this way without shame or secrecy, but still enjoy female companionship and get a bit fresh with usually younger women and enjoy a night worth talking about later and remembering.  It need not go further, and, while they might not always discuss it with their wives, they needn’t keep it a secret from their wife either.  When going out with coworkers, they can easily blame a late night out on work obligations.  Though in fact, many men take their wife to their favorite snack once or twice, to put her mind at ease as to where her husband is spending time drinking after work or with friends.  Of course, on those occasions, the workers are on their best behavior, showing great deference and flattery to the wife and acting very professional, while the husband and wife sing a few favorite tunes together on the in-house karaoke system and play it wholesome for a night, with only a few secret smiles between husband and favorite bar girl, as the girl recognizes the songs as being those song to her, and not the wife, with a little drunken dancing on this or that past night.

After this, we are talking about places that charge by the hour, generally don’t depend on regulars, though they have them, may be more actively and directly managed by the yakuza, cost much more money, and are frequented almost exclusively by men.  We’re still only really at the midpoint of the stratification of drinking, though by customer number, we’re in the top 2/10s or so of the total establishments—but that is still in the hundreds for a small city and the thousands for a larger city.  We are now talking about kabakura, straight hostesses, theme clubs, grope joints, geisha clubs, and on down the line.  These places, like lots of hostess clubs of the lower order (non-time based charging) are found in tall office type buildings with a million lit up signs at the ground level near the elevators.  Little can be told by the names, and the services are usually not explicitly stated, nor are the prices.  However, sometimes they are, brazenly displaying pictures of women wearing clothing indicative of what type of service they might offer and hourly pricing written right on the sign.  Anything from 10 to 500 dollars an hour is imaginable, and the alcohol is all the same, thus the term “water selling” or “mizushobia.”  How much is a glass of water or beer worth?  Well, that depends on who serves it and how it’s served.  Do you prefer a young blonde in a China dress to sit next to you and make small talk over brandy, an experienced geisha to perform for you on a tanpopo drum while dancing, then serve you fine sake in a tatami mat room with a view of a Japanese zen garden, or a wiling supple companion, who in the dimly lit room might allow all sorts of groping, flirting, and loosely regulated touching under and above the table while shochu and whiskey are consumed mutually and liberally?  There is a price for all of these services, and they aren’t at all ranked by how much a man might or might not touch his companion.  Please see some of my earlier posts, including “Yakuza Women” for more details.  With the exception of clubs staffed by foreign women (primarily Eastern Europeans and Southeast Asians), the Japanese women working these clubs are usually well paid and working there entirely of their own volition.  This is not at all to say that there is no human trafficking in Japan, but it’s usually foreign women and hard to tease apart from the more common voluntary work.  I’ve spent a lot of time talking and drinking with the foreign and domestic women working the more shady side of the night drinking spectrum in Japan when they would come to drink at my bar after work or when I would visit their establishments as the guest of different Japanese business colleagues, and I’ve even known owners of foreign Eastern European and other types of clubs well, as they first set up these business in the Japanese countryside, following business models established by similar businesses in the major cities.  Many of these women have come back to the country several times, fully-informed on the type of work they will be doing in each instance.  Others, have had rather sad stories on why they are doing what they are doing, whether it be emotional issues or financial ones—one not necessarily being any more common than the other in my experience.  Even the Eastern Europeans who come to Japan on “entertainment” visas for 3 month stints, come willingly and seem to enjoy themselves while there, improving their Japanese language skills more and more with each stint, though in most cases having serious restrictions placed on their movements by their visa sponsors and bosses.  They are confined to certain housing, and not supposed to date men without permission.  They are also unofficially prohibited from marrying while in Japan, which is further re-enforced at the governmental level by the extremely short 3 month visas—not generally enough time to form meaningful romantic relationships, even in the cases where they are able to sneak out late at night and in the afternoon for dates or paid encounters with local men while in Japan.  Their boss may well stop by his stable-like apartment building at random times to check on the foreign girls and ask roommates as to the whereabouts of anyone who seems to be missing from the apartment.  Of course, legally and in practice, they are allowed to leave their apartment for shopping and any other purposes, but a countryside town doesn’t necessarily like to be reminded of their residency during daytime hours in public, not at all the same way that they welcome a spotting of the local foreign English teacher in the supermarket—an event that locals would actually relish in many cases as an opportunity to check out their shopping items, clothing choices, and general demeanor in an innocent, but eager way.  Drawing daytime attention to young Russian girls that a boss of some sort is employing for his night drinking pub by having them spotted out shopping in the daytime draws unwanted attention to the boss’s business practices, the loose morals of the exploitive local night drinking scene in town, and even pressure on local husbands, when the wife begins asking uncomfortable questions about whether he has ever been to such a place.  It’s in everybody’s best interest to keep them indoors, and that’s generally how it’s done.
The end of this story is to point out that there are many private drinking events in Japan, which can be more or less open to the public depending on the situation.   These events might even be advertised by a conglomeration of bar owners in a given town to their regulars by flyers and so forth.  The event might be a BBQ at a local beach in summer, a bus tour to the local ski slopes in winter, or a rave in the local national forest in the fall with live music.  In all cases, there will be a pre-set price which likely includes some kind of all you can drink option as well as entrance to the event that covers live music, transportation, and so on.  In some cases, these types of events have open drug use, far away from civilization, and I’ve witnessed some wild ones to say the least.  Like many matters of Japanese culture, omotte/ura (public/private, front/back persona) contrast exists not only at the individual level, but even in communities of partiers, and when they are away from their usual bars and out in the woods, the ura shines strong, sometime resulting in naked forest orgies of sexual activity and hallucinogenic mayhem.  Smaller, more tame drinking parties that blend friends and strangers, like group dates and so on are also quite common, but are almost never held at home.  Even when they aren’t held at an izakaya or bar, they will likely be at a public park or beach.  House parties are rare, vastly more common in the foreigner scene in Japan than they are among Japanese.  Even drinking at someone’s home for nightcaps among neighbors is not at all common.  The home is a sanctuary for the immediate family, even with couples who have no children.  Even having friends over for dinner strikes me as uncommon between Japanese, though they might well be keen on inviting a gaijin over for the night, as a way of offering a seemingly family-less and lonely outsider a small taste of family life and Japanese domestic culture.

I guess that’s it for now, remember when drinking in Japan that entering a bar at random, in a large building full of bars can be risky.  One never knows what pricing system or atmosphere lies within.  You may well find yourself in a bar that no one without a personalized introduction has ever entered before, though no such sign identifying it as a private drinking club is posted (picture the music stops and everyone looks at you when you walk in).  Or, you might find yourself drinking with a polite and very friendly group of beautiful young women, at the end of which you are presented with a tiny slip of paper, with tiny numbers showing the amount of 500 dollars for a couple hours drinking.  If you don’t pay the bill, you might find a nice man with tattoos and black suit escorting you to an international ATM to make good in cash, on the spot.  Even if you sit, look at the menu, and walk out, you might be asked to pay a 50 dollar seating charge before leaving.  It might feel like a shakedown, and it might in fact be a shakedown, but they surely have more than the soft mama-san behind the counter nearby to persuasively make the case for you to make good on the bill.  Stick to what you see at street level, with the prices and pictures posted out front, places with glass windows and doors providing an open view of the inside, unless you know what you’re doing, know someone who does, or know how to talk the language of the night and handle yourself if you pick the wrong place.  If you want a more undergroundy type place that caters to gaijn and those who love them, then ask around to expats and go that route.  More to come in future posts, as I weave my way back to the yakuza world that manages, underpins, and oils the wheels of the nightlight wonderland that is visible rising from the concrete!

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