Tales From The Maid CafeS

The Maid Cafe returned to Katsucon (a local anime convention) over the weekend. Ever wonder what would make grown women dress up in cat ears and ruffles, and wait tables while taking breaks to play games like Operation? Read on.

The Katsucon Maid cafe is modeled after similar places in Japan. The Katsucon website explains:

Maid Cafés are a special kind of theme restaurant that first appeared in the Akihabara area of Tokyo and became popular around the turn of the century. Unlike your typical Western restaurant, Maid Cafés are staffed by highly attentive workers of a novelty Cafés that provided extra care to individuals that they serve. As the name suggests, Maid Café workers typically dress in maid outfits or other forms of cosplay. Below, you can meet the Maids that will be working at this years Katsucon Maid Café!

I've been attending conventions since 2004, and my normal Con crew is at lot more established than I am (they've been going for close to fifteen years, so they remember Otakon 2 and Katuscon 3). So we generally don't blink at discussions of strange activities on the convention floor, especially when there are people toting six foot cardboard swords, or in the process of acting out their favorite death scenes. After the minor flap surrounding last year's maid cafe (see this Washington Post article and my take on the whole situation), I decided to come prepared this year.

I dropped into the new and improved maid cafe with Flip camera in tow and sat down with some of the women who participated. Due to time constraints I couldn't catch everyone I wanted - there were a couple men dressed as butlers this year, as well as men who were dressed as maids - but I got a decent feel for why these women would pony up their hard-earned cash on costumes to volunteer.

(All the maids provided me with their real names, but widely preferred to be referred to as their stage names, with the exception of Lauren and Tyg.)

Magome, 23, discusses why she got involved with the Maid Cafe in the first place.

Magome Intro To The Maid Cafe from Latoya Peterson on Vimeo.

Magome - and many of the other participants I interviewed - referred to Dan Zak's piece in the Washington Post without prompting. Many of the maids felt disrespected and misrepresented by Zak's portrayal. For Magome, that meant dealing with the sting of being described as "at least two feet too tall to pretend to be a petite Japanese maid." For some of the other maids, that meant deailing with more scrutiny from those not familiar with the depth of fandom.

Soushi, age 20, took the time to explain why people being up in arms over the Maid Cafe were ultimately missing the point:

Soushi Discusses Sexism and Cosplay from Latoya Peterson on Vimeo.

Later, Soushi refers to a piece on Boing Boing by Lisa Katayama, where the author explains her growing discomfort with writing about interesting or weird occurrences in Japan:

But writing about my own country's quirks has its downside. I strive to tell each story objectively without condescension or sensationalism, but every time I write an article about, say, the engineer who has a body pillow girlfriend or the grad student who married a Nintendo DS character, I get hundreds of racially-charged comments from readers, long ranting responses from defenders of Japanese culture, and dozens of emails from people at big media outlets who want to find out more about these "strange" phenomena. [...]

Overriding all this Japanalysis, though, is the fact that none of this is meant to be taken seriously. One important premise of Japanese popular culture is the commitment to have fun and not take offense. Japanese humor works on many different levels and its nuances can be hard to explain to people who didn't grow up with it.

If you're one of those people who watched our wedding video between the man and his DS girlfriend and said things like: "He's such a loser" "He takes it too seriously LOL" and "God help this poor soul" - not to mention the racist comments about Japs and nukes and one-inch dicks - you just don't get it. You're not in on the joke. You're the one taking it too seriously, and you might be imposing your own biases and hang-ups on someone else's situation.

Being majime (too serious) is not cool in Japan; likewise it is important for voyeurs of Japanese culture to recognize that most everything pop-culture-y that is exported to the West comes at us with a wink. If you're all up in arms about it, then maybe the joke is on you.

Soushi believes that people taking this kind of fantasy play seriously are those outside of the culture, and that the boundaries set within Con space operate differently from the real world. As a con-going fan myself, I'm inclined to agree - I've tried to articulate my feelings around race, gender, and the culture of anime fandom for a few years now, but nothing I write feels quite adequate. It is a very unique space, where a lot of different factors coexist - so cultural respect and appreciation are within the same space as cultural appropriation, and sexist ideas and norms also follow a completely different set of rules and logic. It can be hard to parse, as two other maids reveal in their conversation.

Lauren is 23, and goes by her real name while dressed as a maid. An aspiring journalist, Lauren was also there to cover the maid cafe - prompted by Dan Zak's one sided portrayal - but opted to actually participate, in order to get a more complete perspective. Tyg, 31, is transgendered but does not specify a gender identity. While preferring feminine pronouns, Tyg referred to herself as both boy and girl during alternate parts of the interview. Tyg and Lauren disagreed often on questions of sexism at the maid cafe, by Tyg also added in a less-discussed appeal: one of gender play and identity acceptance.

Lauren and Tyg Talk Sexism and Transgenderism from Latoya Peterson on Vimeo.

Interestingly, the idea of creating a safe space those wishing to present a different type of gender identity never comes up when discussing the issues at play. However, given the increasing popularity of cross-play (dressing up as a different gender) this may be a major space to watch. Still, the lingering taste of sexism is hard to shake. While most of the maids agreed that they did not feel objectified by any of the con participants, they did mention that some of the hotel guests who were not attending Katsucon made rude remarks.

In addition to their stories, it was quite a bit of work to convince the guys in our group to come with us to eat at the cafe. One of our friends didn't want to be seen at the maid cafe, explaining he didn't want to be "that guy" - the pervy older guy who leers at the young girls at conventions. After witnessing a few last year, he felt as though he couldn't go to the maid cafe in good conscience.

Still, considering most of the action at the Maid Cafe looks like this...

Aiko and Yunmao Ayakawa Play Hungry Hungry Hippos from Latoya Peterson on Vimeo.

... it's easy to take the maids at their word.

(Image Credit: John B, aka GundamGuy0's flickr stream)

For Anime Fans: Maids For a Day [Washington Post]
Dispatches from the Maid Cafe [Racialicious]
The Maid Cafe [Katsucon 16]
Why it's time to lighten up about "weird" Japan [Boing Boing]
Official Site [Lauren Rae Orsini]