The @Home Café, Akihabara, Tokyo, Japan
Meagher, Jennifer, Commedia dell’arte, Metropolitan Museum of Art, July 2007. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/comm/hd_comm.htm
The sexualizing and fetishizing of the maid figure has roots in the Commedia dell’arte, a “theatrical form characterized by improvised dialogue and a cast of colorful stock characters that emerged in northern Italy in the fifteenth century.” Commedia dell’arte transformed identity troupes into characters that could be replicated in any time or place through the use of a signature mask and costume.
The servants are “the most important—and certainly the most subversive—characters of the commedia, as their antics and intrigues decided the fate of frustrated lovers.” Perhaps the most well known female servant character is Columbina (also known as Arlecchina). Columbina is “a clever and coquettish maidservant” and is often dressed in a plumed skirt, small apron, and a bonnet reminiscent of the popular ‘French Maid’ costume. Meagher explains that the garb of Columbina was often patchwork to convey her poverty and working class status.
Wallis, Lucy, Servants: A Life Below Stairs, BBC News, 22 September 2012. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-19544309
In Victorian England maids wore a uniform comprised of a “black dress, white apron and white cap” in an effort by their wealthy employers to disguise the personal identities of the maids and maintain rank between homeowner and domestic servant. Wallis reports that in 1907 the number of “indoor domestic servants” employed in English households was 1.27 million.
Izawa, Eri, Gender and Gender Relations in Manga and Anime, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2000.
Izawa outlines how gender roles in Japanese culture has often focused on “idealizing male dominance and female submissiveness.” Historically as Japan “became war-oriented and feudal, women…were treated as they have been treated throughout history: as merchandise, or servants, and as heir-producing machines” while men were “expected to devote themselves to their tasks with great diligence and hard work.”
Traces of these social roles have lingered in modern Japan and can be seen in areas of pop culture such as anime and manga (Japanese animation and comics). Izawa explains that the many styles, series, and sub-genres of anime and manga are very clearly oriented towards either men or women. Although this is not always the case, most male oriented works are told from the perspective of a male and “focus more on competition or contests of will” whereas works for women are told from the perspective of a woman and “focus on human relationships more.” Visually, manga for women is “dreamier and softer” whereas it’s male converse is “brasher and flashier.”
Anime and manga for adult males has increased “nudity and sexual themes” and many genres are pornographic. He writes “the theme of ‘men ought to be stronger than women’ is a pervading theme that can sum up a lot of gender relations in manga and anime. The idea is that women, no matter how strong or independent they are, are actually looking for someone who they can depend on and who will protect them.”
Boer, Joop de, The Emerging Trend Of Japanese Maid Cafés, PopUpCity, 2 July 2011. http://popupcity.net/the-emerging-trend-of-japanese-maid-cafes/
Debor describes the growing phenomena of “Maid Cafes” where young women wear a maid’s uniform, sometimes with “rabbit or cat ears with their outfits in order to add more appeal”, and serve patrons as a domestic servant would their employer. In explaining rise and popularity of Maid Cafes in Japan, Debor writes, “Maid cafés were originally designed primarily to cater to the fantasies of male Otaku, obsessive fans of anime, manga, and video games. The image of the maid is one that has been popularized and fetishized in many manga and anime series.” While some see these cafes as perversions where men pay to objectify women, Debor proffers that Maid cafes are relatively wholesome in comparison to brothels and fetish establishments. Costumers at most maid cafes must follow a set of rules which include not touching the maid or asking her for any personal information— including her real name.
Eberspacher, Sarah, Everything You Need to Know About Japan’s Population crisis, The Week, 11 January 2014.
Since reaching 128 million people 2007, Japan’s population has declined at a rate of 1 million people per year. This rate is cause for alarm, says Eberspacher, because “without a dramatic change in either the birthrate or its restrictive immigration policies, Japan simply won't have enough workers to support its retirees, and will enter a demographic death spiral.”
One main reason for this decrease in procreation seems to be a decline in marriage rates. Eberspacher reports that since 2005, 60% of women under the age of 30 and 72% of men remain unmarried. Eberspacher attributes this rate to a number of cultural, economic, and political factors. Arranged marriages were still common into the 1970s and it seems that without the tradition of facilitation Japanese men “aren't sure how to find wives — and many are shying away from the hunt, because they simply can't afford it.” An inflation of prices in the housing market combined with a lackluster jobs market has made settling down financially difficult. This is compounded by the fact that once a married woman marries and has a child, it is common for the household to lose her portion of the income
Affective Labor: Maid Cafes and Social Change, JAPANsociology, June 28 2014
The maid cafes have also marked a shift in Japanese family culture. As more and more families are dining alone (for various reasons such as work increase and lower marriage rates) it is becoming far more popular to pay for a laid back dining experience which feels somewhat “homey” or “shokuraku kukan”.
Many visitors to these maid cafes find that the company of the servers is far less demanding than a personal relationship would be. Many Japanese people are beginning to lean towards the idea that “real relationships” are “mendō” (troublesome).