TOKYO (WOMENSENEWS)--An elegant butler in a black tailcoat greets a customer in the Swallowtail coffee house on a narrow street in Ikebukuro, a shopping district of Tokyo.
"Welcome home, madame," the diffident butler says.
Then the butler--one of 20 in the large dining room--guides her to a table in a room fit for an English manor. The furniture is custom-made and chandeliers hang from the ceilings; other women are seated all around, eating and sipping tea, coffee and soft drinks.
Swallowtail caters to female "otaku," the devoted fans of comic books and cartoon animations.
Since Swallowtail opened in March, Ayako Abe, who manages the cafe, says business has been booming, drawing more than 100 customers a day. Most of the clients are women in their 20s to 40s who come in pairs or small groups. While men are allowed, few patronize the cafe.
The idea for a cafe with comic-book-style butlers serving women was inspired by Internet postings from women looking for a role-reversing alternative to the dozen or so "maid cafes" that have been catering to men since they came into fashion in 2001, says Abe.
In maid cafes, female servers wear scanty, frilly uniforms inspired by a French maid character in an adult porn cartoon.
'Welcome Home, Master'
On a recent Saturday afternoon in Akihabara, a long line of men snaked down a set of stairs in a nondescript building with several floors of electronic shops. They were waiting--some said for up to two hours--for a table at Cute M cafe on the seventh floor, where young waitresses dressed as French chambermaids greet customers with "Welcome home, master." The interior is pink. Small tea cups are on display shelves and the walls are covered in cartoon drawings. The clientele was about 90 percent male.
Similar crowds of young men could be found waiting outside a dozen maid cafes in Akihabara, a neighborhood popular with otaku that is busiest on the weekend.
At Cute M, Mari Noguchi, in a black maid's outfit with a white apron, black net stockings and a white, lacey headband, welcomed Hiroyuki Ito, a freshman at Yokohama University, and his friend, Michihito Kikuchi, from Saitama University. After the two young men took their seats Noguchi got down on her knees and looked up to them to take their orders.
"The cafe is fun, and it's an escape for me," says Ito, who spends about four hours a day watching animation and reading his favorite comic books. "I also like to draw my own fantasy stories, featuring women wizards who are super heroes."
Otaku represent the new recreational majority among young people, says Sandra Shoji, instructor of humanities at Toyo Gakuen, a four-year college. Few students, she says, watch television or movies. Most are absorbed with anime, or animated films, inspired by Japanese comic books that usually feature short characters with large eyes embroiled in heavy action and adventure. The anime are based on a wildly popular form of comic books called manga, and are widely distributed on TV, videos and DVDs, and as video games.
There are about 2.4 million otaku in Japan, according to the Nomura Research Institute, who sustain a $2.5 billion-a-year market for comics, animated films, computer games, action figures, and all kinds of Disney-style spin-offs. Japan's biggest-selling manga comic circulates millions of weekly copies, and about 30 percent are now sold to women.
Costume Play at Subway Stops
Dressing up as manga and anime characters has its own subculture: costume play, or "cosplay" for short.
In Tokyo's Shibuya station, a center for the youth culture, rabbits or bears intermingle with businessmen and matrons. At Akihabara, young women dressed as 19th century maidens, often resembling Little Miss Bo Peep, board the trains. Cosplay clubs are found at universities and cosplay conventions draw large numbers of fans.
The costumes of maid and butler cafes, meanwhile, are beginning to crop up in other service sectors of otaku districts.
In some men's hair salons in Akihabara, for instance, the staff dress like maids while women in some salons in the Ikebukuro district can be coiffed by men dressed as butlers or wearing business suits. Now, a "princess restaurant" has opened in Ginza, a ritzy district in Tokyo. Young women are greeted by waitresses in pink maid costumes, escorted to a throne chair and given the royal treatment.
Otaku culture has changed the way men look at women, says Shoji. "Men want women to look like anime characters, who look perfect. They are not real and are like fairy tale characters."
Susan Napier, who taught anime classes at the University of Texas at Austin and is currently a Fulbright scholar in Japan, is working on a new book about the culture of anime.
"Originally otaku culture was based very clearly on gender distinctions and this is still true," says Napier. "Furthermore, the fascination with sexy dolls based on anime characters and the interest in robots, ship models and other anime-related paraphernalia seems to be a particularly male phenomenon."
Movies Broaden Female Appeal
Napier says that while otaku is still male-dominated its appeal has broadened to many more girls and women with the success of such romantic anime movies as last year's "Train Man," which made male otaku seem cute and sincere.
But none of this points to any new flexibility in gender roles, says Napier. "Maid and butler cafes, if anything, are reinforcing gender distinctions, but this time within otaku-dom itself."
Chinami Kasama, a gender studies professor at Kanagawa University in Yokohama City, near Tokyo, agrees.
"Some of the otaku culture is pornographic, showing women being devoted to men and looking like young, sexy objects," she says. "It is based on customs and everyday life where women are supposed to wait on men, and the maid cafes pander to it. Female otaku are not necessarily feminists."
One creator of the comic books says that practitioners of the manga craft rely on cultural archetypes for their work.
"Manga writers write what men and women dream about being and try to appeal to the majority of them," says Keiko Takemiya, a manga creator noted for adding girls as active participants in manga adventure plots.
Takemiya does not place great cultural significance on the maid and butler cafes. She says they are basically places where men and women can relax from hard-working lives and briefly enjoy the sensation of being treated like queens and kings.
But butler cafes may be adding some new seasoning to the culture, acknowledges Takemiya.
"It also allows Japanese women a chance to be served and escape their traditional role of serving men. Women here do not have equality or come first as in Western culture," she says.
Catherine Makino is a freelance writer in Tokyo. She has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Japan Times, the Asian Wall Street Journal and the China Morning Post.
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