In Akihabara, certain maids have come to enjoy quasi-celebrity status, with devoted fans returning to the same cafe week after week. One girl I met viewed being a Hooters Girl as the path to stardom. She imagined moving on to become one of the peace sign-flashing idols who populate variety shows and Japanese pop charts. (Japan's hottest group of idols, a 48-girl teenage pop army called AKB-48, dance in spiced-up schoolgirl uniforms.) Next year, a Japanese server from the new Tokyo restaurant will be chosen to compete in the Miss Hooters International beauty pageant.
When Tokyo Hooters finally launched at the end of October, an entirely male line of customers waited outside for hours before the 5 p.m. opening. As they filed inside one by one (after a ribbon cutting presided over by Miss Hooters International, LeAngela Davis), we lined up and cheered them to their tables. The inaugural customers weren't backslapping, beer-guzzling foreigners, or even raucous office workers out for a laugh. They were exceedingly polite young men, some of whom blushed at the big welcome. Many had an endearingly nerdy familiarity with the restaurant. "We've been waiting," a spectacled Japanese man told me in English, then unrolled a signed Hooters T-shirt he'd taken around the world and asked if I'd add my autograph.
Since the first day of training, we girls had undergone a transformation. We were blushed and powdered and lip-glossed, with newly applied eyelash and hair extensions. We were even walking differently—shoulders back, chest out, like our trainers. "YMCA" blared over the store's stereo, and the girls on either side of me stopped their conversation and sang with both rehearsed American pronunciation and gusto.
During training, the managers had talked about banning photos in Tokyo Hooters. (Most maid cafes don't allow them.) But none of the girls protested as the first wave of customers took out their cell-phone cameras to document goofy rituals like the "Cotton-Eyed Joe" country line dance, the birthday cheer, and the "first time at Hooters" chant, during which customers are told to stand up, hold a menu in each hand, and flap their arms like chickens.
The restaurant stayed full all evening. The average tab was beer-heavy and came to tens of thousands of yen. Outside, a crowd peered through the store's floor-to-ceiling windows, hoping to sneak in before closing. Toward the end of the night, a gentleman in a suit who'd spent most of the night staring at the screen of his handheld Nintendo DS at a table near my station beckoned me over. Would I mind taking a picture with his girlfriend? I agreed and asked if she would be coming soon. He turned around the screen of his device to show an animated computer image constructed through a dating simulation game, Love Plus.
His girlfriend's name was Nene, my customer explained. She'd like to meet a real Hooters girl. On the screen, an animated brunette wearing a modest yellow diner-waitress uniform, with a high collar and ¾ sleeves, blinked back at me expectantly. I struck a pose and said cheezu.
Click here to see a slide show about Hooters in Japan.