Anne Allison is an associate professor
and chair of the Duke University cultural anthropology department.
She researches the ways in which desire seeps into, reconfirms,
or re-imagines socio-economic relations in various contexts
in postwar Japan.
Her first book, Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate
Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club (1994) is a study of
the Japanese corporate practice of entertaining white collar,
male workers in the sexualized atmosphere of hostess clubs.
Her second book, Permitted and Prohibited Desires: Mothers,
Comics, and Censorship in Japan (Westview-HarperCollins
1996, re-released by University of California Press 2000) examines
the intersection of motherhood, productivity, and mass-produced
fantasies in contemporary Japan through essays on lunch-boxes
(bento), comics, censorship, and stories of mother-son
incest. Her current research is on the recent popularization
of Japanese children's goods on the global marketplace and how
its trends in cuteness, character merchandise, and high-tech
play pals are remaking Japan's place in today's world of millennial
An American, Anne Allison has a BA from University of Illinois,
Chicago Circle, in 1975 and received a Ph.D. from the University
of Chicago in 1986. She is fluent in Japanese.
May 4, 2003
are always curious on why people decide to study Japan. Why
Japan? Was there specific set of problems and parameters that
initially interested you, or was there a more personal connection
As a 19 year old, I dropped out of college after one
year and traveled around the world with a rucksack on my back
for the next three years. This inspired my interest in other
cultures but didn't get to Japan this time (due to the expense).
Returning to go to college, I majored in anthropology. In
my senior year, when I'd finished all my anthropology requirements,
a professor told me about a great course offered in history
on the intellectual history of Tokugawa Japan. This is what
inspired my interest in Japan. The course was mind-blowing:
a society that foregrounded samurai yet prohibited them from
fighting—such a fascinating paradox. So I was intellectually
turned out by Japan—it has always been "good to think."
After that I entered University of Chicago to pursue anthropology
and quickly decided to specialize in contemporary Japan. Another
reason for my choice was that, at the time (and still true
today) few anthropologists study Japan so I figured the field
would be wide open.
Your book, Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate
Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club (1994), is an influential
work on modern Japanese society and is based upon your doctoral
work at the University of Chicago. Could you summarize your
main ideas and conclusions?
The mizu shobai is the entertainment domain in
Japan that sells various services including restaurants, bars,
and clubs. One sub-field here are hostess clubs that, along
with alcohol and often kara-oke, also feature female hostesses
expected to pour the drinks, light the cigarettes, and massage
the egos of their (primarily male) clientele. In the book
I study the interface between this realm of fantasy production
and what, in the 1980s at the time of the study, was one of
their main clients, Japanese businesses. Based on anthropological
fieldwork (including working as a hostess for four months
in a hostess club in Roppongi I call in the book "Bijo"),
I examine what businesses seek in entertaining their employees
and clients in such an eroticized environment as a hostess
club. In Bijo, about 90% of all tabs were paid for on company
expense and the aim of these outings, I argue, is the production
of trust among men and loyalty to one's company (or companies
with whom one is doing business). The medium for doing this
is getting men to relax, feel good about themselves as "men,"
and be sexually titillated by attractive, flattering women.
A heterosexual fantasy where women service men into imagining
they are potent is the service provided by hostess clubs and
purchased by Japanese businesses. A side-effect of such staged
and deferred sexuality is that the home and marital bond are
evacuated of adult men (of the class and occupation most likely
to be entertained nightly in hostess clubs).
Why did you ultimately decide to study hostess clubs?
At the time most work on Japan approached the "culture"
from certain perspectives and institutions: the family, traditional
arts, politics, etc. I was interested in something less normative,
so to speak, that also forefronted gender-what, at the time,
was a subject mainly ignored in the field of Japan Studies.
When I discovered that there were a lot of bars and clubs
in Tokyo that catered specifically to men (with female personnel
called hostesses), I thought this might be a good research
site. When I was told by professors and friends in Japan that
the mizu shoubai was "NOT about Japanese culture,"
I was even more intrigued.
One unique aspects of your study is that your fieldwork
included working at Bijo, a Roppongi (Tokyo) hostess bar,
for four months. What was that experience like? How did that
experience inform your study, that interviews or mere observations
This was a really hard experience for me. While I had
good rapport with the other hostesses, the Manager, the Mama
and with many of the customers, being a hostess meant I was
in the structural position of the one giving service-and a
service that entailed ego-boosting and sexual flirtation.
The service itself is staged in the sense that, any hostess
is expected to act interested in and attentive to any customer.
And, in my club at least, the understanding was that everything
stopped and started at the door: no sexual affairs, in other
words. Once I entered the door and started working, I often
could get into the play-acting mode. But the part of the job
that was hard was having to endure what were sometimes rude,
crude, and demeaning remarks and questions by customers (such
as "when did you lose your virginity?" or "can you come and
pee at the same time?"). Though the job could be draining,
I could not have written Nightwork within having this experience.
My interviews were important, but actually participating in,
observing, and talking with customers at the site of a hostess
club were invaluable sources of insight for me.
You mention in your book the many Japanese did not think
mizu shoubai was appropriate for an anthropology
study; that it did not reflect "true Japan." This seems antithetical
to the fact that the Japanese tax agency in the 1980s thought
that after work entertainment was so essential to economic
success that it was a tax-deductible expense. Given the billions
of yen and sheer number of man and woman hours spent in these
establishments, why do you think many of the Japanese you
spoke to felt it was "inappropriate" and marginal?
When I worked on this project, in the early 1980s, the
academic field in Japan was fairly parochial about dealing
with sexuality. Everyone knew that hostess clubs existed and
even that business here was protected and promoted by the
government itself. But justifying business entertainment is
one thing. Studying it seriously as a scholar was another,
and my professors at Rikkyo University called me the one who
was doing the study of "dirty" things.
You state that that hostess clubs were a domain of Japanese
life that was relatively unrecorded when you started Nightwork.
Has there been further academic study of hostess clubs? What
about pink salons and the "lower end" mizu shoubai?
There has been much more work on the mizu shoubai and sexuality
more generally since I did my study. I haven't kept on top
of much of this as I've moved onto other subjects. But, it
is my sense that younger scholars and journalists are taking
up such topics much more openly these days.
You note in your book that the economic slump in the 1990s
affected the entertainment/mizu shoubai industry. Now
ten years on, companies have continued to trim settai
(entertainment) budgets. One unofficial statistic is that
the average hourly charge has fallen to half that of 1980s
levels. Do you think that this has affected the construction
of modern Japanese masculinity?
Great question. I'm sure the ebbing of jaunts into such
masculinized spaces as hostess clubs IS affecting the construction
of (post)modern Japanese masculinity. Not having the same
institutionalized means of propping up egos probably means
that masculinity is less secure or anchored to such spaces
as work and hostess clubs. Of course, I think this is basically
a good thing and not only for Japanese women but for Japanese
men as well.
Women are being more prevalent in the work space. Also,
given the economic instability, there seems to be a prevailing
trend away from the company as a basis of individual identity.
How has the construction of masculinity changed, if at all,
in Japan in the last ten years?
I'm working on children's culture these days so, again,
am not as versed in current issues pertaining to gender as
I once was. But my sense is that this is a time of flux and
change and that, while suicide is up, so are cases of men
and women who are rethinking and remaking what once were fairly
rigidly-defined gendered identities. More and more women are
hesitating to marry and have children. This in itself has
an impact on the construction of masculinity. Men will be
forced to think more about how to behave both before and after
marriage if they want a wife. But perhaps the whole institution
of marriage and family will start to change as well and, accompanying
this, will be changes in the way men and women define themselves
as gendered selves.
You note that: "So as far as genital release is concerned,
hostess clubs are sexless. When a man wants release, he goes
to places that explicitly offer it." Do hostess clubs share
a cultural or historical root with geisha, whose services
were largely (with exception to their "danna") sexless.
One also wonders why geisha activity was so well recorded,
while hostess clubs are seemingly marginal—any thoughts?
Certainly, hostess clubs and geisha houses do share roots.
But the social and economic conditions that have sustained
them are quite different in the two cases. Why was geisha
activity more recorded? I think it has been more respectable
given its cultural roots in dance, music, and the arts. Some
hostesses are similarly proficient in a variety of skills,
including the so-called traditional arts. But many are not
and the "service" they are selling is different.
Your recent work appears to be on the construction of popular
cartoon and game figures such as Sailor Moon and Pokemon.
Could you tell us a little about your current research interests
My current research is on the globalization of Japanese kid's
products and the amazing success this has had since the early
1990's. The book I am finishing this summer (tentatively called
Millenial Monsters), examines four waves of such products—The
Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Sailor Moon, tamagotchi,
and Pokemon. Concentrating on two specific sites—Japan
and the US (where Saturday morning TV now sports a sizable
number of Japanese cartoons), I examine what the global appeal
is of Japanese "monsters" today, how they are rooted in specific
conditions of postwar Japan, and what political role they
are playing in challenging the hegemony once held by Hollywood
in the global imaginary.
How does (if at all) your current work connect to your
work in examining Japanese corporate masculinity in hostess
In all my work I have looked at the interconnection between
fantasy and material relations. The same is true today in
my study of children's cyborgs, monsters, and transformers
as they circulate the commodity routes of today's pop culture.
Nightwork counters the Reischauer-esque ideas that
many people have about Japan: a well-ordered family-oriented
society with no ostensible "underworld." What books, or set
of books, do you feel accurately depict the complexities contained
within Japanese society?
This is a hard question. Can I take a pass?
This is the question that almost everyone cops out on;
what works do you feel are the worst books on Japan? There
must be a few worthy of mention. Which ones have piqued your
Well, books that orientalize Japan and Japanese. There are
tons that fall in this category.
What are you reading right now? What do you generally like
A colleague and I are planning a Martial Arts/Global Flows
conference to be held at Duke next year so I plan to start
reading for that. A book entitled Queer Globalizations
has been one of my most recent and enjoyable reads and it
helped me think, oddly enough, about Pokemon! I love Gerald
Figal's, Civilization and Monsters: Spirits of Modernity
in Meiji Japan and also Eric Cazdyn's recent, The Flash
of Capital: Film and Geopolitics in Japan. Though I've
just started it, Brian Massumi's recent book on virtuality
is also wonderful.
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