Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
In the face of all those arguing that contemporary-pop culture is much shallower than its classic counterpart, the word-concept “moe” (萌え) defies any easy definition; in fact, and judging from the countless articles having been written by various analysts, Japanese and non-Japanese alike, id defies even the more complex definitions. One point were most seem to agree is that it is a kind of love or tenderness aimed at some manga, anime or video game character but with time the word has expanded to also describe the characters created to trigger such sentiments to their public (according to conventional wisdom, the word “public” in this context refers to the more fanatic subset of the group of consumers of such products, those who are usually called -by others as well as by themselves- “otaku”/おたく). And often as a method of address among these people -a walk around Akihabara provide ample proof to that.
The entrepreneurial spirit that has been strong in the Japanese since the Edo times, saw in moe (and in the real need of an emotionally immature part of society for affection) a very good opportunity; as often happens in Japan, when it comes to the services industry, the line between making a profit and sincerely giving is blurred. And this is how the “meido-kisa” or “meido-café” (メイド喫茶/メイドカフェ) in which young girls, dressed in 19th century French maid uniforms, serve their (mostly male) customers acting in a way that goes far beyond simple delivering their orders, started in the early 2000s. Even though things rarely cross into areas that would be widely described as “improper”, the erotic element is evident; the difference is that, as is always the case with moe, its expression is much closer to romance than sex. And justifiably so since a big part of the meido-café clientele faces great difficulties in managing the complexity of an actual erotic relationship.
Most Western women I know are astonished to see every day at sundown the streets of Akihabara swarm with meido trying to sweet-talk and smile passersby into the café they work; more often than not, their astonishment soon becomes umbrage against the exploitation of women to satisfy the base instincts of male clients. And speaking from a Western viewpoint, they aren’t wrong but they forget that despite its Western-style development, Japan is not a Western country. Costumes of all kinds go way back in Japan and so does role-playing and “company” and “entertainment” services provided to men by women without these services being necessarily about sex or assuming debasement of the latter by the former; the most telling example are of course the geisha which most critics overlook, perhaps because they are considered a part of “classic” or “traditional” Japan. Will the meido last enough to someday become equally “classic”? I don’t know but to the extent Japanese society keeps its basic structure and way of thinking, I wouldn’t wager on the opposite.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes on the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.