The past, present and future of maid cafes

By Preston Phro

When it comes to Japan, Akihabara is one place you’ll find on almost every tourist’s map. The name alone immediately brings to mind everything from games, manga, anime, figurines and AKB48 to Gundam, computers and electronics. Still one thing stands out as being particularly iconic: maid cafes.

Most visitors to Tokyo have stopped by one of these cafes at least once, and even if you haven’t, you’re probably familiar with the concept: cute, young women in fluffy “maid” skirts serving drinks and food while giggling with customers and, often, putting on shows. But have you wondered where these cafes came from?

Well, here’s a look at this cottage industry of cute based on the inauspiciously titled Sankei article “Why Are Maid Cafes Unprofitable? Over Half Have Closed in Akihabara in 10 Years.”

Maid cafes got their start in 2001, but over the decade since the cafes first appeared, 282 opened in Akihabara ... and 150 of them closed. Which means that, yes, there were still 132 of them open in 2011.

But why have so many failed?

Basic economics. A maid cafe is still a cafe, which means paying for cooks, ingredients, rent, and so on. Unfortunately, maid cafes have the additional cost of a larger staff, which really takes a giant bite out of your ice cream sandwich of profits (maids don’t work for free!). Typical strategies for dealing with the extra overhead include entrance fees, time limits, and photos with the maids. But why are people willing to pay so much for curry and rice?

In a word: "moe."

You’ve definitely come across the word if you’re even passingly familiar with otaku culture. Yet, defining "moe" is nearly impossible. The author of the article says that the concept of "moe" can be compared to that of the classical Japanese idea of "mono no aware," which is usually defined as “an awareness of impermanence that is inexpressible in words,” a frustratingly accurate, yet entirely unhelpful definition. It is this "moe" that has made maid cafes so special. Customers find themselves experiencing something utterly out of the ordinary, one hour at a time. From the moment they enter to greetings of “Welcome home, master!” to the nearly constant playful fawning of "kawaii" servers, patrons are immersed in a world light years away from their everyday lives.

But while "moe" may be a selling point, it’s also a stumbling block. The author notes that from the very beginning, there were accusations of, shall we say “questionable acts” being performed at maid cafes. Over a decade later, this image persists, even though maid cafes basically offer food, "moe" and nothing more. Although, apparently, there are some establishments catering to those with baser desires.

Regarding the future of maid cafes, another comparison to traditional Japanese culture is helpful: the maiko of Kyoto. An older but equally common image of Japan is that of young women in elegant kimonos with perfect black hair and snow-white makeup. Just as many maid cafes have staff out on the street trying to pull customers in, the maiko would line up outside of their restaurants in showy clothes and perform dances to pique the interest of travelers. Both maiko and the maids are offering customers more than food and drink, they are offering an escape from daily life.

The difference, as it stands now, is that the maiko have polished their image and art, creating something of deep cultural significance. Maids, on the other hand, are still struggling not only financially, but also to find their place in the broader culture. The author points out that the more maids we see on the street pulling customers in, the more common and typical they become and the less special "moe" is.

The author leaves us with this question: What will become of the maid cafes and "moe?" Is this all just another fad that will disappear in a few decades like so much '80s hairspray? Or will it rise above its lowbrow roots and become an integral part of Japanese culture?

It’s hard to say, but, for better or for worse, we can’t imagine an Akihabara without maids.

Source: SankeiBiz

Read more stories from RocketNews24. -- Moscow’s First Maid Cafe is Russian-Made, Japan-Approved -- Shady Maid Cafés Found in Osaka Ask; “May I Clean Out Your Wallet, Sir?” -- Zombie Maid Café Serves Up Terror in Tokyo Before Halloween

© RocketNews24

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

Login to comment

Girl in picture cute, I like the maid cafes. Hope they stay as the cute innocent places. Can not stand the idea of the "baser" sexual cafes that have popped up. Goes against what a maid cafe is in my opinion.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

But why have so many failed?

The flavor of the month has changed, and like so many other things in Japan that come and go the time of maid cafe's has past.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I remember Akihabara before all of the anime/manga/kibakei stuff. I liked it much more as a place of electronics and computer geekvana. A lot of that is still there, but it's not like the old days with all of the specialized cubby-hole shops that seem to be fewer and fewer each time I visit.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Often surprised at how plain many of the "maids" are. Been to cafe twice and both times came away bemused at the whole experience. Many of the patrons really seemed taken with it though.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I'm waiting for the lovechild of Gundam Cafe and a maid cafe. If it exists, I must be there. Robots and Maids...what a win!

I think there will always be a small market for something like this, but the biggest thing that I think would kill it is the overwhelmingly mundane foods being offered. When a parfait that's mostly cornflakes runs you 1000 yen, you're not likely to want to go back no matter how cute your server is.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

My God, what went wrong with this country? She could stand out there all day and she would not entice me in.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Like all fads, the Maid Cafe phenomenon has its peaks and valleys. The article makes a good point about the economics involved. When you're expected to have your establishment in a limited area (Akiba), the area will quickly become saturated with that type of establishment. In order to bring in customers to your business instead of having them go to a competitor, you pay more in wages to attract cuter staff, and/or reduce prices to make your fare more attractive to the customers. Both tactics reduce your profit margin and if you are too aggressive you can price yourself out of business. We've seen the surge of cafes and we've seen the reduction of cafes. I predict we'll see progressively smaller surges and reductions until the number of cafes stabilizes at something Akiba can continually support.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I'm from the west and when me and my friends entered a maid cafe in Akihabara we really weren't sure what kind of place this was, because in the west a place like this would seem very suspicious. But thankfully it was all innocent. Japan has a whole other culture and the kawaii phenomenon was fun to experience.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

There are quite a few Maid Cafes in the USA now too, in Los Angeles, Washington DC, Las Vegas; ran a simple search of the Internet. From what I can tell, they do about the same things, and primarily cater to the same demographic. Anywhere anime culture has taken root, they seem to host at least one; Europe and other parts of Asia too.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

There are quite a few Maid Cafes in the USA now too, in Los Angeles, Washington DC, Las Vegas; ran a simple search of the Internet. From what I can tell, they do about the same things, and primarily cater to the same demographic. Anywhere anime culture has taken root, they seem to host at least one; Europe and other parts of Asia too.

There's a big Asian Culture convention called "Otakon" in Baltimore every year (mostly anime, of course) and one of the discussions leading up to this year's convention is an established Japanese restaurant in Baltimore advertising for Maid Cafe waitresses. It seems they are going to try doing the Maid Cafe thing on the weekends - probably (if they're smart) to coincide with Otakon in August. While I have no doubt the place will be swamped during the convention, I wonder how long it will last afterwards?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

There are no Maid Cafes in Washington DC. As Fadamor points out, the cafes are only at Anime Conventions and only last during the convention.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I just want to order curry and rice without additional fee. The most important is the taste of dishes. Needless to say, I don't need the cute maids during eating. What is the cultual significance of Maid cafe? I can't understand entirely, sorry.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The future of maid cafes?! Good one. They'll go the same way as square dancing and planking. Into obscurity.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Login to leave a comment

Facebook users

Use your Facebook account to login or register with JapanToday. By doing so, you will also receive an email inviting you to receive our news alerts.

Facebook Connect

Login with your JapanToday account

User registration

Articles, Offers & Useful Resources

A mix of what's trending on our other sites