Manabu Numata: Chronicling Tokyo's host clubs

Manabu Numata: Chronicling Tokyo's host clubs

This Tokyo-based photographer has spent five years snapping Tokyo's famous paid Lotharios so we sat him down for the inside story
Japanese host clubs
A host's birthday party, Manabu Numata, "Shimei ari (『指名あり』)" series, 2009.

Manabu Numata is a photographer living in Tokyo, Japan. His portfolio covers everything from basic commercial photography to live concert reportage to artistic work.

In 2009, Numata held an exhibition called "Shimei ari" at the Shinjuku Opthamologist Gallery, which featured group portraits of 'host club' workers from red light districts across Tokyo. At a host club, female customers pay top dollar to have the male 'host' dote on them, light their cigarettes and drink copious amounts of alcohol in their honor.

We sat down with Numata about why he spent five years taking portraits of hosts, and in the process, learned more about this mysterious profession and hidden side of Japanese society.

CNNGo: Are you from Tokyo originally?

Manabu Numata: No, I'm from a city called Kushiro in Hokkaido. It's very cold -- close to Russia.

CNNGo: What made you want to be a photographer?

Numata: There wasn't any one thing especially. I moved to Tokyo originally to study economics in college. My grandfather was a photographer, but I was not interested in it. I loved music instead. I just listened to music all day. But I really liked the photos for record jackets, and my friend at the time was assistant for photographer Daido Moriyama. I went to see a Moriyama exhibition, and he had taken lots of totally normal objects in black and white. And I thought, hey I could do that and started shooting.

CNNGo: Much later you ended up following around the The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion on their U.S. tour for two months to take concert stills. How did that happen?

Numata: When I started shooting professionally, the work was very routine, just doing shots for things like "Tokyo Walker" or "Hanako." I got really sick of it. I loved Jon Spencer, and even though I couldn't speak English, I heard that they were doing a tour, and I just went. I decided to go with about a week before their start date and shot them every day for two weeks. I don't think they expected a Japanese guy to tag along.

CNNGo: How did you start taking the portraits of host clubs?

Numata: I was working freelance and was looking at work. I had an old friend who worked in the editorial office of a magazine that puts out information on host clubs. He said they never had enough photographers to cover this 'night work.' So I said I'd do it. But I was totally uninterested. I just did it for the money. I took both close-up pics of each host and then group portraits of the hosts -- mostly to introduce to the clubs to readers.

Manabu Numata, "Shimei ari (『指名あり』)" series, 2009.

CNNGo: Did you ever think you would exhibit these photos in a gallery?

Numata: Not at all. After doing a few, I got used to being at the places. And once I had a lot of these group portraits, I started to see how they were interesting. At first, I was like, these are weird, but after 50 or so, I thought, I'd love to put these out.

CNNGo: Host clubs are mostly located in districts with big 'mizu shobai' red-light areas. Host clubs have this image in the media of being for 'rich housewives,' but their main customers are girls who work in the sex industry, right?

Numata: Yes, almost all of the customers are from the mizu shobai industry. There are a few establishments that cater to older women, but since the mainstream places are in red-light areas, they've generally moved towards being for young customers who are kyabajo, hostesses and fuzokujo sex workers. There are almost no older customers.

CNNGo: Why do you think those customers go to host clubs?

Numata: They want someone to talk to, I guess. And I think a lot of them are not psychologically stable. They are also always having to serve men, so they want the reverse. I guess it balances it out (laughs). And they also have a lot more money than normal girls.

Manabu Numata, "Shimei ari (『指名あり』)" series, 2009.

CNNGo: Did the hosts like having their pictures taken?

Numata: In general, they all want to become the 'number one' of their clubs, so they want to get as much exposure as possible.

CNNGo: Are the hosts on good terms with each other?

Numata: They are very competitive. There is of course a hierarchy, and the more you 'sell,' the higher you go on the ladder. In the pictures, the 'number one' guy is always in the front middle. In a lot of cases, the older guys would make the younger new guys do something crazy in the pics.

CNNGo: What is the average background of a host?

Numata: They are different types, but there are a lot of guys who want to be attractive to women. Also a lot of ex-yankii who are like, oh my sempai is in Tokyo so I will follow him there. Maybe about half are from the countryside, and I found that they tend to stick out a lot more.

Most of the top guys at the clubs are 26, 27. After that they retire and don't show up in the club much but work behind the scenes.

CNNGo: What do they do after they work as hosts?

Numata: The top guys are very smart. They earn money and then figure out how to invest it.

For example, there was a host who owns a bunch of clubs, and he wanted to start a business. He had a lot of customers, and realized they always have out big flowers when it's a host's birthday. But there were no cool flowers with good design. So he made a company that makes really well-designed flower arrangements, and he makes his customers buy from that place when it's his birthday. And his flowers always look much better than everyone else's, and from that he gets a lot of promotion.

Manabu Numata, "Shimei ari (『指名あり』)" series, 2009.

CNNGo: Did the host job look difficult to you?

Numata: It's really hard. You have to constantly be drinking. But if you get too drunk, you can't deal with your customers properly.

CNNGo: Where does that specific host style come from -- with the feathered hair, dark skin, etc.?

Numata: I think they are imitating popular male idols like those from Johnny's Jimusho. There is a lot of crossover with gyaru-o style. And I think they try to match their customers' style which is very gyaru. When I started taking pictures though, the hosts didn't look very gyaru-o. They just wore suits and didn't have that crazy feathered hair. There are still a lot of old-school hosts who look like enka singers. The guys before the gyaru-o came in looked like Takuya Kimura. The mainstream hosts now don't really have that fake tanned skin anymore though. It depends on the place, but there are many guys who look like Visual-kei bands too.

CNNGo: Everyone kind of looks the same. Why do you keep wanting to take hosts' pictures?

Numata: I just really love taking group portraits. At first, I thought they all looked the same, but since I also take their pictures as individuals, I have developed an affinity for them. I printed the photos on A0 size, so you could really see each face. I wanted my audience to see them as individuals.

Manabu Numata, "Shimei ari (『指名あり』)" series, 2009.

CNNGo: What makes the top hosts so good at their jobs?

Numata: They are not always the best-looking guys. But they are just very serious about listening to and dealing with customers. I think if they worked as salarymen in a sales position, they would be equally good at their jobs.

CNNGo: What do you think is the thing most misunderstood about hosts?

Numata: They aren't just all philandering good-for-nothings. They are very serious and do their jobs well. The guys who sell have their own 'know-how' which they have researched -- everything from the way they speak to their hair to their fashion. They have put in a huge effort. I think it's too bad if people just think of them as, "You guys are doing something bad."

My exhibition was meant to correct the bias that everyone has that they all look the same. But that's because no one has the chance to really see hosts -- other than when they are out on the streets trying to recruit girls. So I wanted my photos to provide an opportunity to really see what these guys look like.

Manabu Numata, "Shimei ari (『指名あり』)" series, 2009.

W. David Marx was CNNGo's initial Tokyo City Editor. His writing has also appeared in magazines such as GQ, Brutus, Weekly Diamond, and Nylon, as well as his web joural Néojaponisme.

Read more about W. David Marx