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  • Akihabara has hit “peak maid cafe”

    Posted on May 8th, 2013 keving 1 comment
    Inside a maid cafe in Den-Den Town, Osaka (Vitalie Ciubotaru)

    Inside a maid cafe in Den-Den Town, Osaka (Vitalie Ciubotaru)

    I know many people think that Japanese nerds are all perverts who see women as desirable yet inherently inferior to themselves, but the full story is a bit more intricate than that. I say this because Sankei Biz reported a couple days back that less than half of all the maid cafes that set up shop in Akihabara over the past ten years still exist.

     

    Maid cafes aren’t an easy to make money with because they work with a completely different cost structure from normal cafes. They have to cover the inventory costs for food, rent, utilities and so on, but also must devote a larger chunk of their budget to employee wages. To a maid cafe, the “maids” are a vital business resource, and the cafe needs to retain at least a certain amount of them at all times. As a result, wages are always difficult to keep in check, and running the cafe like a regular one results in reduced profits and even losses. Once cafes begin to have trouble keeping up with expenses and fail to pay their staff, rumors begin to spread quickly and the business never lasts long afterwards.

    As more than 2ch commenter noted in response to this article, part of the issue is that Japan doesn’t have the tradition of tipping at restaurants. It’s not something you run into at all. As a result, Japanese guidebooks to the United States have to explicitly explain the concept to readers, reminding them that while a tip is “a symbol of your appreciation for the service provided” (the way a free Japanese-language Seattle tourism brochure I have bumping around puts it), it’s not something to be considered optional, either. As a result — for better or for worse (I know a lot of food-service folks here who’d say “better” by a longshot) — the maids get their full wages paid by the company, and the company’s only recourse for the higher fees popular maids may ask for is to try and make it up in prices and get customers in and out of there as quickly as possible. Hence why your average cup of coffee in general isn’t cheap at traditional, non-Starbucks kissaten and never, ever goes below 500 yen at maid cafes.

    The most surprising part of the article to me: Even though maid cafes are on the decline, there’s apparently still 132 of them in Akihabara as of the start of 2012. I don’t know where they all fit. (Ko Ransom on Twitter informs me that the number is likely for all maid-oriented joints, like massage / “refresh” places, not just traditional cafes.)

    A related article from Searchina that came out at the same time covered American tourists’ responses to cat cafes on travel review sites. The article’s conclusion: While they had good things to say about the courtesy and kindness of the staff in letting them in and dealing with the language barrier, visitors “wondered if the cats there were really happy”. As a 2ch poster put it: “The cats in places like that are like the girls at cabaret clubs, right? None of those girls are happy while they’re on the clock either, so…”


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