The “Water Business” in Japan


By Boyé Lafayette De Mente


TOKYO–The entertainment trades in Japan were traditionally referred as the mizu shobai (me-zoo show-by) or the “water business.” There is no agreement on how the term mizu shobai came into use, but it is fairly obvious that the extraordinary number of natural hot springs in the country and the ancient Japanese practice of bathing in them for pleasure as opposed to cleanliness led to the association of pleasure and water.


The term mizu shobai apparently came into use during the early decades Japan’s last shogunate dynasty (1603-1867)—a period that saw the rise of huge bathhouses that catered specifically to men seeking pleasures of the flesh, a great network of roadside inns around the country that featured both hot baths and sexual services, and the expansion of geisha districts and courtesan quarters in every city.

During this period mizu shobai referred to all of the entertainment trades, including the theater, but in time it came to be the most closely associated with the large red-light districts that flourished throughout the country, the thousands of roadside inns that provided hot baths and sake (sah-kay), and a huge number of nomiya (no-me-yah) or “drinking places.”

While organized prostitution was subject to the control of the shogunate government and the 200-plus daimyo (die-m’yoh) provincial lords in their own fiefs, it was a sanctioned enterprise that was not under a cloud of moral righteousness. The Japanese did not associate sex with sin or the marriage contract, thus sparing themselves the suffering imposed on Christian and Muslim people by their religious leaders over the millennia.


Drinking for ceremonial as well as recreational purposes has been an established custom in Japan since mythological times, with sake (sah-kay) having been sanctified by the gods of Shinto as well as temporal leaders.

The Japanese are now among the champion drinkers of the world, imbibing sake, beer, whiskey, vodka and other drinks with equal enthusiasm. Drinking plays a significant ritualistic role in the lives of most Japanese businessmen and many professionals. (The Japanese have traditionally believed that you could not get to really know a person until the person got drunk and ignored etiquette and role-playing.)


The most common feature of Japan’s mizu shobai today is the hundreds of thousands of nomiya (no-me-yah) or “drinking places.”  There are several different varieties and classes of drinking establishments, including what are typically referred to as bars, lounges, nightclubs and cabarets, along with beer halls, pubs and places that specialize in sake.

There is a great deal of overlapping in the use of these terms but there are basic differences in them, including some that are prescribed by law. One of the most important of these legal differences is that, regardless of what they are called, a nomiya must be licensed as a cabaret to employ hostesses who sit with, dance with, and otherwise personally entertain patrons. Another legal factor is that a place must be licensed as a restaurant to stay open after midnight.

In cabarets, patrons are automatically assigned hostesses as soon as they come in and are seated, and are charged a hostess fee that is more or less based on time as well as on the class and standards of the individual cabaret. If a patron has a favorite hostess, he may request her for an additional fee.

Big spenders may allow more than one hostess per guest to join them at their tables or booths. They may also allow the girls to rotate, giving more girls the opportunity to earn fees. (Some places automatically rotate the hostesses in order to run up the bills of their customers; a ploy that yakuza controlled places routinely use on naive customers, including foreigners.)

Cabarets posing as night clubs generally allow patrons to choose whether or not they want the company of hostesses — a concept introduced into the mizu shobai by the founders of the first postwar night clubs in the late 1940s, most of whom were foreigners, including some Americans.


One type of drinking establishment that originated during the Edo period (1603-1867) and was modernized in the 1970s is known as izakaya (ee-zah-kah-yah), the Japanese equivalent of an Irish pub or American tavern.

There are many izakaya chains, with Yoro no Taki (Yoe-roe no Tah-kee) being the largest (and rapidly spreading to the American West Coast). Yoro no Taki has some 1,800 branches in Japan, most of which are franchises.

Another of the izakaya chains is Tsuhachi (T’sue-hah-chee), with some 400 outlets.  The Murasaki chain, with nearly 650 outlets, combines the atmosphere of a cafe-bar with a furusato izakaya (fuu-rue-sah-toe ee-zah-kah-yah), or “hometown tavern.”

The big attraction of the izakaya are the low prices for the basic alcoholic beverages (sake, beer and shochu), good solid food and the fact that they cater to women as well as men.

 <b>”SINGING BARS”</b>

As most people know, one of the most popular types of bars in Japan today is the karaoke (kah-rah-oh-kay) bar, or bars that provide microphones, sound equipment and tape-decks for patrons who want to sing to the company of orchestra-like music. Karaoke means “empty orchestra,” and refers to the illusion that the singer is performing with a live orchestra.

Many Japanese practice singing several songs in private (often for years) so they won’t be embarrassed when they are called on to perform in public.

Singing in a karaoke bar means more to most Japanese businessmen than just having a good time. Besides relieving stress and providing personal satisfaction, such performances are seen by many as important to one’s overall character and personality.

In explaining the importance of the karaoke bars to foreign guests, Japanese businessman will often say that you must understand karaoke in order to understand the Japanese, and that if you truly want to communicate with them you must learn how to sing along with them as well as perform on your own. There is a great deal of validity to this firmly held and often expressed belief which obviously accounts for the number and popularity of such bars.

The fact that very few Westerners, especially Americans, can carry a tune much less sing decently, is a social handicap when they are in Japan visiting or on business. My advice is to learn at least one song, even if it is as simple as “Old Grey Mare” or “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”

Notwithstanding all of the new and different kinds of drinking and carousing establishments Japan, cabarets remain the favorite of middle-aged and older men who can afford the cost because they combine drinking with the attention of very attractive young women who are either available or work very hard to give that impression.

Even though cabaret customers may not end up trysting with their favorite hostesses, they go back time and again for the sexual lift they get— and end up drinking an awful lot of alcohol. For nowhere in the world have the purveyors of male-oriented “recreation” become more skilled at “selling sex in a glass”* than the operators of Japan’s cabarets and their cadre of hostesses.

Copyright © 2008 by Boyé Lafayette De Mente



Boyé Lafayette De Mente has been involved with Asia since the late 1940s as a member of a U.S. intelligence agency, journalist and editor. He is a graduate of Jōchi University in Tokyo, Japan and Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Arizona, USA. In addition to books on the business practices, social behavior and languages of China, Japan, Korea and Mexico he has written extensively about the moral collapse of the U.S. along with books on his home state of Arizona. To see a full list of his books go to: Recent books include: CHINA Understanding & Dealing with the Chinese Way of Doing Business; JAPAN Understanding & Dealing with the NEW Japanese Way of Doing Business; AMERICA’S FAMOUS HOPI INDIANS; ARIZONA’S LORDS OF THE LAND [the Navajos] and SPEAK JAPANESE TODAY – A Little Language Goes a Long Way!


*The phrase “Selling Sex in a Glass” was coined in the 1970s by Larry Flynt, now the publisher of Hustler Magazine, and then the owner-operator of a chain of go-go clubs in Ohio. I served as his publishing consultant when he inaugurated the magazine… initially to promote the clubs.  I resigned the position when he decided to go porno with the magazine.


“Key Words” Provide Short-Cut To Understanding Foreign Cultures

How Languagues Program & Control Human Beings

Boyé Lafayette De Mente

Defining people by their race while virtually ignoring their ethnicity has always been both dumb and dangerous, but now, finally, the importance of understanding cultures is rapidly becoming a new mantra for business leaders as well as diplomats and politicians.

For most people, however, understanding the cultures of others is a process that requires long periods of living in and personally experiencing their attitudes and behavior—often preceded or combined with extensive studies of research by anthropologists and sociologists.

But there is an easier and faster way of getting into and understanding the mindset of people. While working in Asia as a trade journalist in the 1950s and 60s I learned that the attitudes and behavior of the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans were summed up in a relatively small number of key words in their languages—words that explained why they thought and behaved the way they did.

I first became aware of the role that key words play in the mindset and behavior of the Japanese in my attempts to explain their way of thinking and doing things to American importers who began flocking to Japan in the early 1950s.

I made use of this key-word approach in my first book, “Japanese Etiquette & Ethics in Business,” published in 1959 [and still in print at McGraw-Hill], introducing the international business community to such terms as wa (harmony), nemawashi (behind the scenes consensus-building), tatemae (a facade or front in conversations and negotiations) and honne (the real intentions, the real meaning of the speaker).

The more I got into the Japanese, Korean and Chinese way of thinking and doing things the more obvious it became that they were culturally programmed and controlled by key words in their languages, and that these words provided a short-cut to understanding them.

Further experiences in Mexico and other countries confirmed that the beliefs and behavior of people in all societies—especially older societies—are primarily programmed by their native language and that learning the meaning and everyday use of key words in the language reveals in precise detail what they have been conditioned to believe and why they behave the way they do.

This led me in the 1980s and 90s to write a series of “cultural code word” books on China, Japan, Korea and Mexico in which I identified and defined—in all of their cultural nuances—several hundred key words in the languages concerned.

The fact that you must be intimately familiar with key terms in the native language of a people in order to fully understand their thinking and behavior is of incredible importance, but it is not yet common knowledge even among scholars and educators, much less diplomats, politicians and the international business community.

This failure to perceive and understand the role of languages in human behavior is one of the primary reasons why the world is continuously roiled by misunderstandings, friction and violence. We cannot communicate fully and effectively across the cultural barriers built into languages.

Languages—Not Things—Preserve and Transmit Culture!
Most people still today mistakenly regard the arts and crafts of individual societies as their “culture.” Arts and crafts reflect culture but they do not create it and they do not transmit it. You can view and collect Chinese artifacts or Eskimo artifacts all your life and you will not become fully conversant with the cultures that created them.

Languages are, in fact, the repository as well as the transmitter of cultures. They contain the essence, the tone, the flavor and the spirit of cultures, and serve as doorways to understanding them—and this critical role of language in the attitudes and behavior of people provides irrefutable evidence that to become American in the fullest sense one must learn English.

It is fairly simple to interpret or translate technical subjects from one language into another, but translating cultural attitudes and values into another language ranges from difficult to impossible. The translations may be perfectly correct as far as the words are concerned, but they seldom if ever include all of the cultural nuances that are bound up in the words and are the essence of the original language.

This often results in people talking at each other instead of to each other—and generally neither side understands why they are seldom if ever in perfect agreement…why they cannot get along.
Among the advanced nations, we Americans are the least sensitive to the cultural differences that separate people, and therefore continue to make mistakes when interacting with other cultures.

This problem will continue until the study of other cultures becomes a fundamental part of the education we all receive in our youth. I propose that the role of languages in the values and behavior of people be made a mandatory course in all schools.
Copyright © 2008 by Boyé Lafayette De Mente
Paradise Valley, Arizona resident Boyé Lafayette De Mente, a graduate of Jōchi University in Tokyo and THUNDERBIRD—The School of Global Management, in Glendale, Arizona, is the author of more than 50 books on the business practices, cultures and languages of China, Japan, Korea and Mexico. See:

The Extraordinary Merits of Japan’s Modern-Day Karate

Improving the Cultures of the World

By Boyé Lafayette De Mente

Most countries in the world today remain awash in irrational and violent behavior because their cultures are incapable of instilling in people the mindset that is necessary to build and sustain rational, positive, humane, and constructive societies.

I believe that the physical, emotional and philosophical discipline offered by Japan’s modern-day version of karate (kah-rah-tay) training could go a long way toward reducing many of the evils that continue to afflict mankind—if not eliminating some of them altogether—and I advocate making training in this former martial art mandatory in all elementary and high schools around the world.

As simplistic and perhaps as other-worldly as it may sound, this is one training program that all children could be enrolled in at an early age that would go a long way toward instilling in them many of the cultural attributes that are the most desirable and admirable in human beings—and the only thing their parents would have to do is enroll them in this program and keep them in it from around the age of five to fifteen or older.

The story of karate as a Japanese fighting art began on the historically independent island kingdom of Okinawa after it was conquered by a Japanese warlord in 1609, and the residents were forbidden to have weapons of any kind.

Bereft of weapons, Okinawan warriors soon developed the ancient Chinese version of karate [“empty hand”] into a more formidable martial art, making it possible for them to inflict serious injury or death on a person using only their hands.

During the following decades of Japan’s Tokugawa shogunate era [1603-1867] karate was gradually subsumed into the training of the samurai who ruled Japan and Okinawa. Later, after the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1867 and dissolution of the samurai class in 1870, karate became a part of the training of Japan’s imperial army and police forces.

By the early 1900s a few farsighted martial arts masters who were not associated with training the military or police forces began to teach karate as a sport aimed at developing the character of the individual, with special emphasis on respect for others, concentration, self-confidence, diligence, a sense of order, perseverance, honesty and courage.

But this type of enlightened training did not become widespread in Japanese society because of the militaristic nature of the post-samurai government—a situation that did not begin to change until some two decades after the establishment of a democratic form of government in 1945/46.

Today most people around the world are familiar with the word karate as a result of movies, video games and comic books which continue to present it as a fighting technique, but in real life most training in karate is aimed at building the kind of character and behavior that all parents would like to see in their children.

The popularity of training in modern karate is now growing in Japan, and the number of karate training centers around the world is increasing [there are over 3,000 in the U.S. alone] as more parents come to understand that its remarkable benefits include improving the character, personality and behavior of their children.

The World of Martial Arts Information Center lists these benefits as: learning the value of time, the importance of perseverance in achieving success, the dignity of simplicity, the value of character, the power of kindness, the influence of example, the obligation of duty, the wisdom of economy, the virtue of patience, the improvement of talents and the importance of respect.

Since ordinary people now have the opportunity to influence beliefs and events on a scale that was not even imaginable until the advent of the Internet, I suggest that this amazing power be utilized to introduce millions of people around the planet to the extraordinary benefits of modern-day karate with the goal of getting it incorporated into a universal Earth culture.
Boyé Lafayette De Mente is a graduate of Jōchi University in Tokyo and Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Ariz. He lives in Paradise Valley, Ariz., and is the author of more than 50 books on the business practices, cultures and languages of China, Japan, Korea and Mexico. Learn more at

Published in: on September 23, 2008 at 9:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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