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.