Paid to drink and flirt with men (but not to sleep with them) Japan's bar hostesses are getting more respect in the economic downturn.

Though the job of flattering men in bars for a fee used to be stigmatized, a salary that can easily reach $100,000 a year is looking pretty good to Japan's young women — especially because they currently have few other options. "Even before the economic downturn," says Hiroko Tabuchi in today's Times, "almost 70 percent of women ages 20 to 24 worked jobs with few benefits and little job security," and things are even worse now. High school girls rated hostessing the 12th most popular profession, and a former hostess is now a member of the Japanese Parliament. Another hostess, 27-year-old Eri Momoka, is now a celebrity with her own fashion line and TV show. She says,

I often get fan mail from young girls in elementary school who say they want to be like me. To a little girl, a hostess is like a modern-day princess.

And popular hostesses do get parties thrown in their honor, free drinks, and lots of attention. Still, their job is to give attention, which can be exhausting. Though they aren't expected to have sex with clients, they do often go on after hours dates with them, and their jobs can require staying out drinking until dawn. Hostess Serina Hoshino says of her well-paid but exhausting job, "It's nice to be independent, but it's very stressful."

Although hostesses aren't prostitutes, the questions raised by their job are similar to those that surround sex work in the US. If a job entails currying favor with men, is it inherently antifeminist? What if it offers women economic independence that they wouldn't have otherwise? These questions represent something of a false choice. In any economy, there will probably be a demand for sex work, and hostessing in Japan isn't going anywhere anytime soon. But no woman should have to see either prostitution or hostessing as her only route to financial solvency. As hostess expert Atsushi Miura says, "Some people still say hostesses are wasting their life away. But rather than criticizing them, Japan should create more jobs for young women."

Young Japanese Women Vie For A Once-Scorned Job [NYT]