Maid Cafes are a symbol of the crazier side of Japan, but are they really as sleazy as westerners tend to paint them?
Join me as I immerse myself in the surreal and surprising world of meidos and maid cafes to discover the answer for myself!
‘Otaku Culture’, as many fellow nerds will probably know, is a massive influence on the Japanese entertainment industry.
Otaku culture generally refers to the obsession with anime and manga (something I myself am also guilty of), and one prominent passion that has risen from the (predominately male) otaku culture is the concept of ‘moe’; a word which has no direct translation, but describes a overwhelming sense of cuteness, innocence and attraction felt towards a particular character or person.
And while the concept of innocence plays a big role in the idea of moe, there is certainly a more sexualised, fanservice-oreintated element to this obsession -and within the fictional worlds of manga and anime, the juxtaposition between ‘innocent’ and ‘sexy’ is no better portrayed than by one beloved object of the otaku fascination; ‘Meido’, or Maids.
And this has resulted in what is probably one of the most unusual and strangest genres of cafe in existance; Maid Cafes.
So just what are Maid Cafes? Allow me to enlighten you.
Maid cafes – or ‘meido cafes’ – are a place where customers can pay a fee for the privilege of being served food and lavished with attention from actual, real life maids.
Well, not quite ‘real’ maids, but rather pretty young women dressed in stylised, hyper-girly maid costumes, who call their patrons ‘Master’ or ‘Young Mistress’, and will sometimes perform songs or dance routines to entertain their guests.
While these may seem a bizarre novelty, maid cafes are actually an enourmous deal in Japan – with cafes dotted all over the country, and the concept now spreading to other parts of Asia too – and are immensely popular among men and women alike.
But on the flipside of this sugary sweet exterior, there lurks the rumoured dark side too.
To begin with there is the obvious; as a institution that was originally spawned from the meido obsession of the predominately male otaku culture, it is therefore not surprising that the large proportian of those frequenting maid cafes are men.
And this clientele does not just include young men or high schoolers, but many significantly older men as well.
The maids, on the other hand, are young; usually ranging from their early twenties to late teens, and typically sporting short skirts, frilly dresses and thigh high socks. Outfits which, while still retaining an element of innocene and cuteness, also undeniably radiate a subtle sense of sexiness as well. And this is where the controversy begins.
Maid cafes, therefore, can potentialy be seen as an environment where single – or sometimes married – older men can pay money, in order to dine in the attentive company of attractive teens dressed in alluring maid costumes.
And that idea is more than a little uncomfortable.
Combine this with some of the seedier and more nauseating ‘services’ available at certain cafes, such as Cos-cha: Back to School – where you can actually be spoon fed by a maid for an additional fee, and themed ‘school swimsuit’ days are regularly held – and its no surprise that Maid cafes have garnered a somewhat sordid reputation among western tourists.
But is this reputation actually fair? I had the opportunity to find the the answer for myself, when I visited Tokyo this year.
I will openly confess that I have always wanted to visit a maid cafe.
It just manages to do perfectly encapsulate three of my main passions in life: cute girls, good food, and the unbearably cute! Oh, and I’m completely infatuated with maid outfits too!
And if those facts combine to make me part of the ‘sleazy’ demographic of customer, then I will have to admit guilt on that part too.
The particular cafe that I stumbled upon by chance that baking hot afternoon, was the Shibuya branch of one Japan’s biggest Maid Cafes chains: Maidreamin.
If you look on Maidreamin’s website, it’s apparent that the cafes objective is to evoke a dreamy, magical environment, where guests can experience the sense of having stepped in to some sort of living fantasy.
I was especially excited about this specific cafe in it is probably the most famous of Maidreamin’s numerous of cafes; Maidreamin’s Shibuya Digitized Cafe and Dining Bar – which boasts video game inspired decor, kind of like a really girly Mario Bros. Which is seriously awesome!
The cafe was on the basement floor of a multi-story complex, and upon entering I was quickly greeted by a maid and led to a small table, but not before the maid had announced my presence to the other five maids in the room, who promptly replied with a standard phrase which, I can not for the life of me spell, but basically amounted in English to ‘Welcome back, young mistress!‘.
Certainly very different from any welcome I’ve ever recieved in the past.
Once seated, my assigned maid for the day came over to introduce herself; a good-looking young woman around my age, with long, black hair arranged in pigtails.
In a mixture of Japanese and English she asked me if I’d visited the cafe before, and when I replied no she dutifully explained how everything worked.
‘Here, you are princess! Customers are princess!’ she informed me brightly. Cue embaressed laughter on my part. Yet another first, and one I was not quite sure how to respond to to.
Next she produced a tiny plastic tealight from her apron pocket, and informed me that Maidreamin was a ‘magical’ place, and to start the magic I had to repeat a spell to light the candle.
I repeated the ‘spell’ (with what I am sure was dreadful pronounciation) and the candle was ‘magically’ lit, which was met with a round of applause from the various maids, and yet another hearty welcome to the cafe.
Once I had ordered my food, I was left alone for a short time to sip a melon soda and take in my surroundings.
The interior of the Shibuya Digitized cafe is fantastic to say the least.
The walls are covered in an assortment of pixilated clouds, hearts, coins, arrows and other video game paraphanlia. Tetris-cube shaped lights hang above your head, changing colour from pink to blue if you hit them.
And on little telivision screens dotted here and there in the walls, little animated maids potter cheerfully back and forth, stopping briefly to smile cordially at the customers, before wandering back out the frame.
I was surprisied to find the cafe rather quiet, I was joined by a mother and her adult daughter, a pair of fellow western tourists, and a lone guy in his 20s who was sat at a corner table drinking coffee and engrossed in his tablet.
The maids themselves were dressed very cutely; decked out in dark blue uniforms with short, flouncy skirts, which heavily padded out with numerous petticoats till they seemed more petticoat than skirt. Very moe.
Their ensemble also included white over-knee socks and small aprons bound round their waists with oversized bows, with the look neatly finished off by another oversized pink bow around their necks.
I also observed that the maids appeared to have customized their uniforms with an assortment of keyrings, small purses and other little personal items, adding a pleasing personal touch.
It was, altogether, really quite adorable.
Maids would come over every now and again to chat; talking about the cafe, asking me about myself….and inserting random ‘nyaaan’ cat imitations too. Which was a bit odd.
One asked where I was from, and another told me that I spoke good Japanese, which was not at all true, but was a sweet compliment.
I’ve got to say that I did find all of this sudden attention a bit of a shock however.
I hate to use the word ‘shy’ to describe myself, but I’m not great with eye contact and dislike being the centre of attention, so god only knows why I choose a cafe which is oriented around such full on staff/customer interaction.
That said, it is quite blatant that many customers positively relish this attention – a likely reason why these type of places have such a pull on the more socially awkward, nerdier proportion of Japanese males – and it wasn’t a bad sort of attention really.
The maids were not in any way pushy in their attentions; they avoided barraging me with questions, and seemed to pick up on moments when I or other customers were feeling particularly shy or awkward.
The one thing I was not expecting however was the maids wanting to ‘play’ with you. Nor their level of determination to get you to participate.
At one stage one of the maids – a bouncy, energetic youth who was easily the most enthusiastic of the maids – came over brandishing a wooden cup and ball, and after expertly demonstrating how it should be done, held it out to me with an expectant grin. Bad idea.
As someone who would probably be diagnosed as dyspraxic if I was a schoolchild now, my hopes for a successful outcome were rather grim. I really, really didn’t want to send the poor girl home with a black eye, nor did I much fancy the idea of returning to Britain with a criminal record for commiting GBH against a maid.
Despite my (very) reasonable misgivings I did give it ago, failed miserably as expected, but luckily without managing to injure anyone.
When my food arrived it marked the time for another spell, this one to make the food ‘oishii’ (delicious).
It’s worth noting that the food at Maidreamin is not cheap. Contrary to prior assumptions, Japan is actually quite cheap – providing that you eat sensibly – but Maidreamin is on a sort of Tokyo Disney-level of meal costs.
There are a variety of different meal options available at Maidreamin; I myself went for the food, drink and photo option, which, plus the 500 yen entrance fee, came to 3000 yen; a little over £20.
Slightly cheaper options do exist, but a trip to Maidreamin is never going to be easy on the wallet I’m afraid.
I decided on a strawberry bunny parfait and a chicken katsu curry topped with a little white bear face, with the added flourish of a little ketchup cat face, drawn by my commendably steady handed maid.
I’ve sometimes heard the food at maid cafes criticised as ‘nothing special’, but I actually found the food that I ate – the curry in especially – really quite tasty!
Plus, how often are you going to be able to eat polar bear curry, or enjoy a bunny sundae? They were so cute it almost felt a crime to eat them! Oh, and the deserts were huge too!
Once I’d polished off my meal, all that was left to do was to take my commematorive poloroid with a maid of my choice.
Photography, for completely understandable reasons, is banned in maid cafes, but you can pay for a polaroid picture with yourself and a maid of your choice.
I went for the maid who had been my waitress that visit, and was quite chuffed – as I walked out with the finished result. I’m sorry to say that I’ve since lost the photo, which I’m still hoping might magically reappear someday.
So, with my dip in the strange world of Maid Cafes over, the only thing that remains is return to my original question; are maid cafes sleazy?
My answer after having experienced one for myself?
I can honestly say that I did not find the experience sleazy in the least. There was nothing, as a women, and as a feminist, that made me feel that the environment was in any way derogatory or exploitative towards its female employees.
I did not feel that the girls working in the cafe were being dehumanised or even objectified in any sort of way, and I didn’t actually find the whole master/servant dynamic particularly infantilising either.
The girls are simply playing a role they have been hired to play; it’s well worth noting that it is common for the girls who work at these type of cafes to do so because they have ambitions to break in to the idol, music or acting industry.
These girls enjoy working with and entertaining people, and being a ‘meido’ can become good experience and sometimes even a stepping stone for a future career as an idol or actress.
As for the girls wellbeing, as already stated, photographing the maids is strictly banned, and there is also a strict ‘No Touching’ rule in place. Something which a) should go without saying, and b) should be a explicit rule in every cafe, along with ‘No shouting in my face because we’re out of soya’ and ‘Insult the staff if you want poor service’.
The cafe is clearly aware of the unwanted attention their staff could potentially suffer, and takes firm, clear measures to protect them from it.
And this type of firm action is not the behaviour that I’d expect of an organisation that seeks to exploit it’s female employees.
And far from being ‘sleazy’, I actually found the experience of visiting a maid cafe overwhelmingly……sweet.
From the friendliness of the maids, to the girl who was sweet enough to compliment my bad Japanese, the charming food, the relaxed, warm atmosphere and the lovably-embaressing souvineer photo, the whole experience was simply delightful.
Sure, there are places like Cos-cha which capitalise upon the sexual elements of maid culture and the young age of some of its employees in a deeply inapropiate manner – but that is one establishment out of hundreds.
You are always going to get workplaces that exploit, objectify and sexualize women for profit. But for the grand majority of Maid cafes, that is simply not the case. It’s a weird industry, but a fun and safe one.
And as I left Maidreamin and headed back to my hotel for the night, I simply couldn’t stop smiling.
The experience left me in a sort of giddy cloud of happiness, and even now it remains one of my fondest memories of my time spent in Tokyo.
It was embarrassing, it was baffling, it was awkward.
And I’d definitely do it all over again.
Has anyone else visited a Maid Cafe? What was your experience like? Do you have any recommendations? I’d love to hear in the comments!
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