Dispatches from the Maid Cafe

by Latoya Peterson

On Saturday, I received this email from regular reader Allison:

I found this article: “For Anime Fansa: Maid For A Day” by Dan Zak. The article talks about American women (read: white women) being hired to work as “Japanese maids” for a DC-area Anime convention. Among other duties, their volunteer responsibilities include “call conventioneers ‘master’ and ‘mistress.’ They gratefully drop to their knees to draw a ketchup smiley face on a Japanese omelet.”

Isn’t it great when white women appropriate Japanese culture in order to sell omlettes to the so-called ‘master’? No race & gender conflicts there, right?

In my horror, I had to pass it along. If anything, it might be fodder for a blog post.

Hope you’re having a great weekend!!

Little did she know I was at that anime convention (it’s called Katsucon) over the weekend. I woke up, checked my email, and laughed. I wasn’t planning on attending the maid cafe, but the Washington Post article made us seems like such gloriously costumed freaks, I felt like I had to go represent. I convinced most of my roomies to come with me, and so we began a quickie investigation with three main goals.

We went downstairs to determine if:

1. The maid cafe idea is sexist.
2. The maid cafe idea is racist.
3. The implementation of the maid cafe at Katsucon was racist/sexist.

As a side note, I should mention that my friends and I didn’t have a great time this year. See, we always have the same discussion every year about how we’re getting a little too old for this, how we spend most of the time in our room, that all we do is drink and play video games, that the dealer’s room sucks, etc. etc. But that’s generally talk. We aren’t watching as much as we used to and we aren’t mapping our days out like we used to, but it is still normally a fun weekend.

But this Con was pretty bad. So bad that even the organizers didn’t seem that into it. I kept hearing references of how great things were going to be next year… on Friday, when the activities for this year started. So, I have to admit by the time we waited two hours in a line to be seated, policed by two overbearing teenagers who liked to scream and physically touch people to move them, I was seriously about to abandon mission and hit the hotel bar.

But we made it in. After coming downstairs at 9:30 to stand in line for a cafe that didn’t open until 10:00, we were finally seated just after 11:30. The concept itself was ridiculously popular – apparently, they had started taking reservations for the cafe the first time it opened, so we were a little ill prepared for all the enthusiasm. It was interesting to note that there was a Butler on staff. Some maids were plus sized. And there were a lot of signs warning that inappropriate behavior would get you beat up by all the maids, removed from the cafe, and possibly ejected from the Con.

Here’s how the cafe works. You purchase tickets to eat food and you are seated. Eventually, the maid comes over to your table and introduces herself in Japanese. (Normally, the maids used short phrases to say their names, hello, and nice to see you, and then switched over to English.) You order your food and drink and your maid makes small talk with you. You can also request to play games with your maid. Games are one dollar per person, and included things like Connect 4 and Hungry Hungry Hippos. (The Uno games mentioned in the article were nixed, because they were too time consuming.)

Our maid was named “Aiko,” a very sweet natured girl with blond hair and blue eyes. Hearing her open in Japanese was a bit jarring, because her costume and coloring was more The Sound of Music than Maid in Akihabara, but we just went with it. According to Aiko, she signed up for the maid cafe at Otakon,
another popular anime convention. She was called back for an interview and said that she was required to develop her persona in advance. The convention organizers informed her that she made the final cut, so she sent in a down payment on her costume and underwent a quickie training. Aiko already works in the food service industry, so she was familiar with waiting tables. She would work at a maid cafe in real life because the atmosphere is so different than your regular gig waiting tables. Aiko noted that the emphasis here is on service, and she is encouraged to take a seat and get to know the customers.

Aiko did not refer to any of us as “mistress” or “master” – perhaps this happened with other tables, just not us. And as far as we could see, the only thing happening in the maid cafe was endless rounds of Hungry Hungry Hippos.

The final scorecard:

Is the maid cafe idea sexist?

Somewhat, yes. There was a butler included at the cafe (presumably as the token male) but maid cafes are generally designed to cater to men. In Japan, there are some areas similar to this for women, namely host clubs, but most of these themed cafes are designed for a male customer base.

Is the maid cafe idea racist?

In a sense yes, and in a sense no. Our group was the most split on this question because it was grinds against an uncomfortable part of our reality as con-goers. If it is racist to have young white women (and a couple of young Asian women who may or may not have been of Japanese decent) pretending to be Japanese for the maid cafe, the entire con is racist as people generally dress up as Japanese characters or random Japanese people.

Every year, there is a parade of attendees dressed in kimonos and parasols, or makeshift school girl outfits. (Sailor suits, strangely, aren’t as popular as the generic blazer/pleat skirt/knee sock combo.) You will also see many cheongsams, though those are Chinese in origin, and people doing their own takes on Gothic Lolita fashion.

Part of this speaks to that hazy line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation, that we will start to discuss soon in another series. However, at a Con, using random Japanese phrases, playing dress up, looking for posters of J-Rock and Visual Kei bands and the like are all considered normal behavior. Along these lines, it would be extremely difficult to discuss the racist elements of the maid cafe without dissecting the racist elements at a convention.

The implementation of the maid cafe at Katsucon was racist/sexist.

With the above caveat in mind, we’re going to go with no. While there are definitely sexist overtones to the choice of hosting a maid cafe (and strangely, no mention of a host club, though there was an extremely popular anime surrounding host club culture), the actual implementation of it was fairly bland. At a convention where hentai is available in common rooms after midnight for those 18 and up, and most of the girls walking around in their cosplay outfits are showing acres of skin, the maid cafe itself was surprisingly chaste. The waitresses were fully covered, skirts were close to the knee, and there was no excessive kneeling that we could see. (Maybe they changed that tactic after the Post article dropped.) One of my friends remarked that this was closer to dinner theater than an actual maid cafe. And so it was. A slightly cheaper way to get hotel food than room service, the maid cafe served its purpose and raised a bunch of money for charity.

So, while I will parse out sexism and racism at conventions in another post, I’ll have to admit that none of us felt any strong emotions at the concept or execution of the maid cafe.

However, there was one thing we were all heavily offended by – the big block of dry ass rice that they tried to pass off as onigiri.