A week before the first Hooters restaurant opened in Tokyo late in October, five Japanese staff-in-training huddled in the bathroom to talk padding. They debated the merits of gel inserts, classic cushioned cups, and a range of inflatable bust-boosting doodads sold at Don Quijote, a Japanese chain that is sort of a mix of fetish shop and your local grocery store. One girl whispered that modeling her artificially amplified oomph prompted her own mother to ask, "What happened?" Earlier that week, as part of a lesson on proper uniforming, a visiting American manager ordered recruits to "Push UP," cupping her hands together and gesturing toward the ceiling.
For Americans, Hooters, with more than 460 restaurants nationwide, needs no introduction. Big burgers, cold beer, and top-heavy waitresses poured into short-shorts add up to the chain's slogan of "delightfully tacky, yet unrefined." In Japan, however, food portions are small, women's shoulders are modestly covered, and Pamela Anderson's breasts are not a certified national obsession. This makes Hooters' innuendo-heavy version of family dining an odd fit that the chain's Japan team had to coach into reality.
And so a team of managers and image trainers flew to Japan from Texas, Illinois, and Georgia to transform 30 Japanese recruits and 10 Tokyo-dwelling foreigners, including me, into American-style Hooters girls. I'd lobbed my résumé into a pile of nearly 400 reported applicants. After a brief interview (where I was asked, of all things, my shoe size), I was invited to attend to a weeklong Hooters boot camp. The good news came via e-mail that instructed me to wear a flesh-colored bra and thong underwear and promised, "everything else you need to know about the Hooters Girl image will be taught during training."
As we filed into the restaurant's newly constructed storefront on a Sunday morning in October, two executive Hooters girls greeted us at the door. They were glorious—professional waitresses, with perfect makeup and prom hair, who moved in their short-shorts and tanks without a trace of self-consciousness. We newbies, by comparison, were dressed in conservative layers. Many of the recruits were college students, making me, at 28, one of the oldest in the room. Sitting in groups, the girls traded cell-phone information, marveled at the advertised pay (1,500 yen, or around $18 an hour), and giggled nervously about the framed photos on the walls, which featured buxom blondes hoisting their chests over celebrities like Bill Gates.
"This is your bible," a blonde trainer from Lawrenceville, Ga., said as training commenced, holding up a pamphlet called "Hooters Girl Image: Get the Look." The cover featured a well-built brunette hoisting a hula hoop. The trainer flipped to the hygiene section and intoned, "You need to shower every day." For a Japanese audience, who use the same word for beautiful and clean, this edict was so obvious as to be puzzling.
Harder to impart was the delicate line between tongue-in-cheek titillation and overt sleaze. "This is correct," the blond trainer said, posing a foot from a countertop-level table with barstool seating while miming virtuous order-taking. "This is not." She leaned forward 90 degrees and performed a chest plant on the table while two male managers played the roles of customers getting an eyeful. Also, she said, "You don't touch customers, and they don't touch you."
"What if a customer wants to shake hands?" one girl asked.
After three days of training, we were deemed ready for uniforms. No one asked for sizing information; shorts and tanks in size XXS were distributed to all. We retreated to the bathrooms to wrestle ourselves into suntan-colored pantyhose and elastic tanks—assuring one another the look was cute, or kawaii—and lined up in front of the trainers. They inspected us for uncovered tattoos, forbidden nail jewelry, and proper shorts length.(As the trainer said, showing us do and don't photos from the Hooters Bible, Page 9: Shorts should never reveal any posterior cheek. They should just come very, very close.)
Our trainers never mentioned that Hooters is a frat-house term for breasts, and I didn't hear any of the Japanese recruits ask for a translation. Instead, they understood the restaurant to be "cheergirl" or cheerleader themed. This may be a tiptoe around vulgarity, but it's also an easier cultural fit: Themed dress-up, or cosplay, has a solid place in the Japanese sexual imagination that ogling big breasts does not. In her 2006 book Beauty Up: Exploring Contemporary Japanese Body Aesthetics, anthropologist Laura Miller points out that in traditional Japanese shunga (erotic artwork) the breasts aren't treated as erotic zones and get little to no action. Japanese even has a derogatory term, hatomune desshiri, or "pigeon's chest," for a person whose chest sticks out too much, disturbing the kimono's pillar shape.
Branding Hooters as a themed dress-up restaurant also works in Japan because of the prevalence of a close equivalent. In Tokyo's famous gadget district, Akihabara, young women stand on the street dressed as French maids, entreating customers into cafes. Inside, male visitors, mostly of the otaku or comic-book-loving type, are called "master." Their maid waitresses doodle ketchup hearts on their eggs and sometimes cut up their food for them.
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.