Maids in Japan: From geisha to kawaii culture

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In Japan it’s not uncommon to visit maid cafés as a way to wind down after a long day. But where did this fascination start, and is it as sinister as it could seem? Marky Hobold investigates.

Maids in Japan

This may sound like a weird question to you, but imagine being considered an expert on Japan and being asked, “hey, what’s up with maids?” Some of you know exactly what I’m talking about because you’ve seen anime, read manga, or heard about maid cafés and maid bars. However, most of you are probably scratching your heads.

An attempt to answer this question would probably takes years of research resulting in a pretty useless PhD dissertation and sadly, I don’t have that kind of time. That said, I’m gonna take a stab at it, and I hope that along the way we’ll hit some interesting cultural touchstones.

Kawaii

Before we dive into the question of maids, we need to talk about the Japanese concept of kawaii. This is usually translated as “cute,” but what’s cute to an Italian may not be the same as that to a Mexican or Vietnamese person.

I’m not going to draw you a Venn Diagram because I’m sure you know that there are outliers and a lot of overlaps in what cultures and individuals consider “cute.” The Japanese term sometimes carries a connotation of vulnerability and childlike playfulness that doesn’t align with the English term.

Pre-modern kawaii and the geisha

geisha in Kyoto

“Childlike playfulness” could be off-putting but allow me to contextualise this a bit. Let’s jump back to the 1700s.

Imagine you’re an overworked government bureaucrat in a highly stratified, hierarchical culture whose got his first day off in weeks. The work ethic of the day assumes you’re never off duty, but you were just lucky enough to be able to sleep in or do whatever you want for a few days because your boss liked your work. Maybe he even gave you some extra money as a bonus. What would any samurai official do after work that night? He’d probably visit a teahouse where he could enjoy conversation, musical performances, and dancing with geisha.

Teahouses, even the modern ones, were an exclusive place. In Edo (modern day Tōkyō), the party rooms were built behind gates and gardens to ensure privacy from passersby. The reason for this was twofold.

One, the customers and the performers immediately understood they were walking into a magical space, separate from the mundane world. Two, at some point, you were probably going to play some very silly, childish games with the geisha. If you’re a high-ranking government official, the last thing you want to do is be seen playing a kid’s game.


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At the same time, what happens in the teahouse stays in the teahouse. It’s all good fun.

Modern kawaii

Hello Kitty land

Fast forward to modern times. Japanese manga and anime have carried on and evolved the cultural aesthetic of kawaii. A visit to Nakano or Akihabara in Tōkyō will make clear that the aesthetics of cute things is not just alive, but booming.

Sure, video games and comic books are popular, but figures, models and all manner of things that can be described as children’s toys are sought out buy grown adults. A large portion of these products fall into the kawaii column, but I think the attitude is what’s most important. Today, we might say this is geek culture (otaku culture in Japan), but it’s the childlike playfulness that is important to remember.

Harajuku Fashion

While visiting a teahouse to party with geisha is possible today, it’s terribly cost-prohibitive. Also, kawaii characters from anime and manga are more familiar with people under forty.

Many young girls see the opportunity to wear a kawaii uniform and act kawaii in a setting that is also kawaii as a pretty fun part-time job. They’re not cooking and cleaning like real maids, they’re entertaining the customers. They’ll even play goofy, childish games with you. I’m not saying they’re modern geisha, but there’s definitely an historical precedent and the concept of creating a magical space for everyone to be silly has a proud legacy.


Visit a maid café in Tokyo


Know your Japanese at the maid café

Finally, I’d like to teach you a little Japanese. If you visit a maid café or maid bar in Tōkyō, most likely you’ll hear two words: Moe and kyun. Moe is the feeling that swells up inside you when you see something kawaii. This could be anything from seeing Princess Leia at the end of Rogue One to a new poster depicting the VR idol, Hatsune Miku. Kyun, the tightening of your upper chest – like a fabulous heart attack – when you see something kawaii. The implication is “this is so cute I could die.”

Two other words you may come across are nyan and po. Without getting into the specifics of Japanese grammar, maids may end sentences with nyan (meow) to mimic the playfulness of a kitten or po (the sound a pigeon makes) to appear more kawaii. As a cat lover, I totally get the nyan thing, but pigeons kinda bug me.

Still, it’s all just fun and games, and what happens in the maid café stays in the maid café. That is… until you recommend one to your friends.


Fancy exploring all things kawaii? Take a look at our HYPERJAPAN J-Pop & Go small group tour, or contact our team to find out more.

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