I ring the bell at my table. Seven dashing men in tails croon, in unison: "Yes, my princess?" I am in
, a restaurant in Tokyo that transports its female customers to a chandelier-lit 19
-century Europe. The Disney Victorian parlor setting, as the menu promises, has a "special atmosphere to heal your stressful and tired heart." Everything is said in English here. Some of the butlers don’t even speak good Japanese, because none of them are from Japan.
Several Butler Cafes have opened in the last few years in response to the maid cafes that have torn up Tokyo over the last decade, from four restaurants in 2002 to 217 today. Maid cafes cater to Japanese geeks ( otaku ) in their 20s and 30s. The female servers (all Japanese) are dressed in elaborately cartoonish maid outfits, take all orders on their knees, and welcome their customers with a high-pitched, "Welcome back, master." Most of the foreign press has dismissed these establishments as a "weird Japan" fad , but there is something about both maid and butler cafes that sticks in contemporary Japanese society.
Butlers Cafe takes a more elegant, and practical, approach to fantasy than just walking, talking, saucer-eyed anime. When the cafe's owner, Yuki Hirohata, interviewed 200 women about what they’d like out of female-oriented restaurant, many responded: a safe place to meet foreign men and practice English. Butlers Cafe provides language help cards, which tell you how to say basic phrases like, "May I see a menu?" and "What is your dream?" But for the extra cost of 4,000 yen (about $46), customers can write an English diary, which a butler corrects. Many women come to Butlers Cafe multiple times a week just for language training ... and to flirt with their charming foreign tutors.
Western men are so popular among Japanese girls that a now-classic comic, Charisma Man , parodies their inexplicable appeal. The main character-a geeky white dude, shunned by Western girls-comes to Tokyo to find himself suddenly irresistible to the most beautiful Japanese women. While the comic is now out of commision, the Western male remains an alluring object for many Japanese singles-a phenomenon Karen Kelsky explains in her book Women on the Verge: Japanese Women, Western Dreams .
According to Kelsky, Japanese women are drawn to Western guys as a critique of Japanese men, who are seen as disrespectful, narrow-minded, and unable to care for themselves. Japanese women date white men to enter an alternative system of values, she claims, and learn English to liberate themselves into an alternative system of thought.
"In the West, men will open doors for women and carry their bags," one Japanese man explained. "But in Japan, we think of women as less than men, so we don't do that." Western men are what Japanese men are not: gentlemen. Butlers Cafe takes this idea to a hyperbolic, hypermannered extreme. In the West, princessdom isn’t exactly a feminist ambition, and chivalry is a vestige of a sexist time. But in Japan, these are freeing, even subversive, female fantasies.
Photograph of Japanese maid cafe by Yoshikazu Tsuno/Getty Images.