My husband and I exited the train at Akihabara, Tokyo's electronic and anime paradise, where disheveled gamers play video games in 7-story arcades while tourists shop for the latest tech gadgets. Walking down the street, we were engulfed by Akihabara's signature flickering lights, loud ringing from the pachinko pinball machines and unexpected blasts of air conditioning. Unexpectedly, a young girl dressed as a French maid approached me with a big smile. She flung her hands in the air and started singing and bouncing. She was happy, and she was cute. This made for a rather unusual display: a young girl in a maid costume singing to me on the sidewalk while my husband stood to the side and watched, amused.
We had no idea what she was saying, but she stood next to an elevator, and she desperately wanted us to get into it. In the spirit of adventure, we obeyed.
When the doors opened on the third floor, the maid café appeared.
A chorus of high-pitched voices erupted, singing "Welcome home, Master! Welcome home, Misses!" as at least a dozen maids skipped and twirled around a pink room. It had the innocence of a candy shop, with cartoons on the walls, baskets of cheap toys being handed out, and games of rock, paper, scissors. But it also, rather uncomfortably, resembled a very sexy, dimly lit boudoir. Through the low lights you could see a maid's jazz hands celebrating at one table, beers being delivered at another, and several maids hugging a drunk man for a photograph.
The first maid café opened in 2001 in Akihabara. Designed to cater to the fantasies of obsessive male fans of anime, manga and video games, the maid cafés employed girls who looked similar to the female characters in the games. Mika, an 18-year-old maid in a Tokyo café, describes her casting experience: "The criteria was that we had to be cheerful, pretty and must know how to act cute. I heard from the other girls that training seems to be fun. They teach you how to draw cute characters and speak simple Japanese!"
Because of this strategy, the crowd that night, and probably most nights, was mainly men who were mainly alone. But after we sat down, two women in their thirties entered and were seated right next to us. I was relieved. Their maid wore a bow the size of a basketball on her head and a fuzzy koala backpack. She arrived, joyously, at their table, dropped to her knees and delivered an omelette. Grabbing the ketchup bottle, she drew a cartoon cat face on the omelette, while singing and meowing. The two older women joined in, laughing while meowing and even holding their hands up to their faces to imitate cat whiskers.
At its best, this is what it's like in the maid café.
After the cafés opened, they quickly grew in popularity, and by 2004 became more outrageous in their efforts to outdo one another. Enter the butler café, where young men wait on you dressed in tuxedos with tails. And the princess cafés, where you wear a tiara, sit on a bedazzled throne and hear "Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?" Perhaps most bizarre of all is the Christon Café "for people who fantasize about breaking into a Catholic Church and drinking sacramental wine."
I couldn't help but wonder — what does it all mean? What's behind all of this? Is it fun? Or disturbing?
Just after we went to the maid café, I came across a Newsweek article about the growing popularity of Mao-themed "red restaurants" in China that "turn the cultural revolution into dinner theater." Waiters dress as Red Army soldiers and patrons eat dishes like "The Chairman's Favorite" while watching skits about evil landlords and class struggles.
It suddenly hit me that the maid café isn't alone. Our desire for role playing and fetishizing is deeply rooted. The maid café doesn't seem so odd when I think of the fitness bootcamp I signed up for, where I was costumed in camouflage and dog tags, while running and chanting military cadences with my fellow "soldiers" under the bullying supervision of an ex-marine. Or how about Renaissance fairs where everyone dresses like Mary Queen of Scots, roots for a knight and eats chicken without utensils? These experiences, just like the maid café, are silly and playful with an underlying layer of complication. Just think about all the gourmet American restaurants where waiters abuse the customers. How do you explain the psychology of that?
Rather than try to figure it all out, I ordered a parfait off of the pink maid café menu.
Our server (she asked us to call her ChiChi) brought us the dessert. Of course, it had a cartoon dog's face on top. ChiChi showed my husband how to make a heart shape with his hands and, with a huge smile across his face, I watched, delighted, as he and ChiChi serenaded our strawberry whipped cream confection.