Pomeranian opened its doors in 2008, after the big maid boom had crested, and cafés with weaker characters and themes were closing shop. But theirs is not—Pomeranian is “The Chubby Maid Café,” where guests can expect their friendly companions to be portly. No one is quite sure how it all came to this.
Maid cafés first appeared in 1998 at sales events for the dating simulation game Welcome to Pia Carrot. The first permanent space, Cure Maid Café, was founded by cosplay outfitter Cospa in Akihabara in 2001. The concept was to provide a rest stop for otaku, places where they could forget the costumed maids were real-life women and relax.
Maids in the original sense are not sex workers, though this is perhaps not always the case at the 200-plus cafés around the country. Costumed staff greet visitors with “Welcome home, master!” and then provide conversation. The food and drink consists of the same simple and cheap fare found on kids’ menus; for an additional cost, customers can get extras like messages written in ketchup. Since about 2005, many cafés have offered board, card, video or even hand-to-hand games (¥500 for three minutes), plus personalized cheki instant photos with a maid (¥500 per shot).
The pillar of a maid café is communication, be it when receiving service, playing games, writing in the café’s communal diary or in personal “communication time” (as much as ¥9,000 an hour). It turns out the appeal isn’t gender-specific, either—in 2007, some 35 percent of customers were women, or “mistresses.”
The boom in maids can be traced to 2003, when media responding to the Ministry of International Trade and Industry’s support for the contents industry descended on Akihabara. Maids were the most visually appealing facet of the area. In 2002, there were four maid cafés in the neighborhood, but by 2006 that number had ballooned to some 40 establishments. The phenomenon peaked in 2005, when the hit Fuji TV show Densha Otoko featured Akihabara’s Pinafore, introducing mainstream Japanese audiences to maids. A TV Christmas special about Pinafore’s rival, @home café, culminated in a 2005 NHK TV special that was aired in over 180 countries. The first professional tour to include a maid café, operated by Akiba Map, started in 2006, followed by government-sponsored JTB tours and a private H.I.S. offerings.
The waiting time to get into popular cafés can reach about two hours, and some have adopted time limits for visitors. Regulars—usually students, part-time workers and the unemployed—have taken to going daily rather than when they happen to be in the area.
Tetsuya Ono, owner of Candy Fruit Optical maid optometry shop, says he makes nearly ¥20 million a month between physical store and online sales; more typically, a café might make around ¥45 million a month. Entrepreneurs, former hostess-club owners, and even gangs are muscling into the business, as demonstrated by the rise in “maid escorts.” A glut of new cafés means they can only survive by diversifying and offering bizarre and niche characters, costumes and services.
There is still no shortage of good maids, however. About 300 hopefuls apply for every open position that comes open in Akihabara, even though the wage is only about ¥850 an hour. Most do it because they enjoy it, but a lucky few can become cosplay idols. In response to this, a group called Maid Cooperative has fashioned a standardized test to qualify maids.
Today, “maids” in the loosest sense of the word cut hair, massage, sing, dance, gamble, cross-dress and so on. Some of the more bizarre offers worth checking out include Nagomi “Little Sister” café, Mother café in Osaka, St. Grace’s Court (a sister nun cafe), B:Lily Rose (danso, or females dressing as “beautiful boys”) and Hibari-tei (joso, or males dressing as maids).