As far as pleasure-seeking adventures go, it was an odd experience, even for me. I was petting pussy in a cathouse in Tokyo, deep within the entertainment quarter of Shibuya. My left hand nursed a drink while my right hand caressed my professional companion in the act of socially sanctioned commercial intimacy. To my knowledge, this type of service is still relatively rare in North America. I’ll admit that I’m paying for what I get for free at home. I’m not needing this kind of attention now. I’m here tonight out of sheer curiosity — just because the whole concept is novel and weird to me.
Oh, all right, maybe I want this just teensy little. But let’s keep this our secret, ok?
The first time I went, I even told my mother, a widow of some time, where I went and what I did. Now she wants to go too. Between you and me, I know what she’s into, so I’m nervous that she will blow the little inheritance she may leave to me on these wily staff members.
He was so adorable that I was too smitten to bother to check the tiny silver ID tag hanging off his handsome red collar.
Sadly, I don’t remember the name of the boy I spent time with. He was so adorable that I was too smitten to bother to check the tiny silver ID tag hanging off his handsome red collar. He was a beautiful gray tabby with pale green eyes, probably about two years old. I’m a sucker for gray cats in the same way some men are for redheads.
Yes, cats. I’m talking about the four-legged fur-covered purr machines.
Welcome to the phenomenon of Cat Cafes in Japan. Cat cafes sprung up all over urban centers in Japan, starting around the mid-2000, drawing feline devotees desperate for some furry companionship. They are more than happy to dole out their precious Yen to lavish attention upon these often-fickle creatures. The desk clerk at Cat Café Hapineko told me that it all started in Taiwan and spread to Japan and Korea. Most clientele are women in their 20’s, followed by straight couples in their 20’s and 30’s. Parents bring their young children, though mostly in father-daughter pairs. During my visit, a bored looking dad watched over his pre-adolescent daughter, who was desperately trying to get a white Persian to play with her. The cat had perfected the ancient Samurai art of napping during the onslaught of attention from over-eager humans. Mother-daughter pairs tend to be adult daughters with middle-aged to older mothers. Sons of any age, apparently, have no interest in cats. Seventy to eighty percent of the customers are women, and many of them are frequent visitors.
If you are curious about the sex practices of Japan, the erotic entertainment industry, or to understand the sexual subcultures, the Cat Cafes are worth paying attention to. There’s a great deal in common between Cat Cafes and Hostess Bars, KyabaKura, host bars, and other venues offering paid human companionship in Japan.
To understand the Cat Cafés and hostess bars is to understand aspects of social and emotional structures of contemporary Japanese culture.
Hostess Bars and its younger hipper sister, the KyabaKura — short for “cabaret club,” are distinctly Japanese institutions, tracing a part of their bastard ancestry to the rarified teahouses and their geishas in Edo period Japan. Essentially, they’re drinking establishments where customers pay an expensive cover charge and exorbitant drink prices while attractive staff members sit with and keep them company. It’s not a brothel — there’s no sexual contact. It’s not even a topless or lap dance joint, so don’t expect to get your grind on. There are unspoken rules of conduct seemingly innately understood by the Japanese clientele. Grabbing and groping aren’t appreciated or allowed. There are separate establishments to serve all different interests, whether you’re a straight man, straight woman, gay or lesbian, into costume role-play, or BDSM. If, however, sex is what you want, you’ll have to go elsewhere. Many Westerners are confused by this and can’t figure out the point of the whole setup.
To understand the Cat Café is to understand the KyabaKura and its adult entertainment relatives. To understand the Cat Cafés and hostess bars is to understand aspects of social and emotional structures of contemporary Japanese culture.
They all have a “shisutemu” or System, usually posted at the entrance or on their website.
You are charged by the duration of your stay in increments of time with a minimum required drink order. The Hapineko Café charged 525 Yen (approximately US$5 at the time) by the half-hour with a one-drink minimum. KyabaKura charges are greater, at least by a factor of two to three more decimal points.
The cat café serves coffee, tea, and soda with cookies, while the host and hostess bars serve a full bar of high-quality liquors, crackers, and little nibbles.
The cats have guaranteed housing, food, and healthcare – which isn’t the case for their human counterparts.
Both cat cafes and KyabaKuras showcase their staff members’ portraits with chatty profile information on their websites and storefront marquee. Each venue has its specialty type of employees, whether purebreds or rescues, pretty boys or blingy party girls, classical kimonos, or clingy clubwear. Many cat cafes guarantee a minimum number of staff on hand. The same goes for the human clubs. The cats are referred to and treated as staff. The cats, however, have guaranteed housing, food, and healthcare – which isn’t the case for their human counterparts.
If you want attention from the staff, you’ll need to play with them according to their internal cat-brained rules or feed them kibble. The same applies to human staff, but they prefer alcohol to cat food. Since outside food and toys are forbidden, you’ll have to buy them from the in-store menu. A tablespoon-sized bag of cat treats costs US$2, while a cocktail will easily set you back US$30 or more.
Sometimes the cats are all over you, and sometimes they’ll ignore you, making you work to woo their attention. Sometimes the KyabaKura women and men seem totally into you. At the same time, some are famous for their fussy and theatrical aloofness, increasing the perceived value of any attention the customer earns through the ritualized wooing process.
Most cat and human staff are known for providing the illusion of unconditional affection and patience.
Most cat and human staff are known for providing the illusion of unconditional affection and patience, at least for the duration of your visit to their establishment.
Both provide the very real benefit of zero drama, zero strings attached, and no need for the messy reality of what it takes to maintain a full-time relationship. Devotees of cat cafes never have to change a litter box, care for an ill or dying animal, or discipline a couch shredder. Likewise, a host or hostess is always drama free, no fights, no emotional processing, and the patron does not need to understand their dreams, desires, life’s complexities, or vulnerabilities.
Tokyo’s urban congestion and small living quarters make home entertainment and cat ownership nearly impossible. Since most homes are too small to have house parties, most Tokyoites entertain outside of their homes. There’s a vast array of gathering spaces for hire, most of them G-rated, from rent-by-the-hour private karaoke rooms and private izakaya dining rooms. Hostess spaces provide not only the girlfriend-hang-out experience but assure hospitality to all, should you spend the evening with your friends, colleagues, and entourage. The same residential condition makes it common for no-pet policies in rental units. The cat café provides a place to get your cat fix and a homey space to entertain your friends.
In the end, it’s about the Japanese talent for creating pragmatic mercantile solutions to provide for the messy human need for companionship and intimacy while helping to maintain the giant, generally orderly, and buzzing hive that is Japan.
Please know that along with the good and ordinary sides, there are the dark and damaged places as well
If all of this seems well balanced, rational, and sensible, happily naughty in a consensually transactional way, please know that along with the good and ordinary sides, there are the dark and damaged places as well. Mistreatment of animals and people happens in Japan too. Consent and sexual violation continue to be a reality for women of all sectors of Japan. There are organized crime, substance abuse, trafficking, gender violence, credit card theft, and more. I’ll cover these another time.
If you’d like to visit a cat café, that will be easy and straightforward. However, if you are a foreigner who would like to enjoy hostess bars, there are some very real hurdles. Many places do not welcome people who are not Japanese or who speak Japanese. I believe this has become easier in recent years. There are also shady places. If you can, go with locals or well-established ex-pats to their favorite places.
Visiting a cat café was fun! And I still have fun at hostess bars – when I can afford them. For all the benefits of no-strings-attached professional feline and human companionship during my travels, at the end of each journey, it’s my friends, cats, and the spouse at home that I long for.
(This article was updated from the original essay I wrote in 2010. Since then, the societal function of hostess bars and cat cafes has not changed. But the pressures of the stagnating and fizzling Japanese economy, the rapidly aging population with a shrinking birthrate and workforce, the disappearance of the high-roller lifetime corporate jobs, and other factors have combined to push more people into full-time or part-time nightlife work, aka fūzoku. The COVID pandemic leading to venue closures and the brief ban on alcohol service made life even more difficult for the adult industry workers and entertainment laborers).