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Letter From Tokyo: Where Japanese Women Rule

4 minute read
Bryan Walsh

The door to the Swallowtail opens and there stands Saionji, good man that he is, as skilled a butler who ever buttled. He takes our coats and bags and shimmers away, leading us down the corridor past gilded mirrors, Monet prints and bursting bouquets to our table in the Swallowtail’s elegant tearoom. As I move to sit at our table, a second butler, named Mikami, materializes to ease me into my chair. “Good day, princess,” he says to my dining companion–and not, I assume, to me. I order the Earl Grey tea and the Macbeth–a petite ham-and-cheese panini, the preferred snack of bloody-minded Scottish tyrants. Mikami leaves to prepare the tea but not before showing us a golden bell we can use to summon him. We hunger. We ring. He runs. Six seconds. Jeeves would be proud.

A little explanation: the Swallowtail is a “butler café,” a Tokyo restaurant staffed entirely by Japanese facsimiles of English manservants, down to the formal tails, white gloves and gracious manners. That’s the first cultural oddity. Here’s the second: Swallowtail is for women–specifically the burgeoning numbers drawn to manga and anime (Japanese comics and animation), a world that usually caters to slightly antisocial male obsessives. These women are known as otome (their male counterparts are called otaku), which roughly means “maidens,” and their tastes run to the medieval fantasies found in their favorite manga, which explains why some of them dress as if they shop at Grimm’s of Hollywood, in flowing gothic dresses of whitest white or blackest black. It’s all part of the costume play–“cosplay”–that figures heavily in otaku-otome culture.

For men, the desire to live like a manga character gave rise to “maid cafés,” staffed by waitresses dressed in extreme French-maid outfits. The possibility that women might want a tearoom of their own prompted a group led by Yoko Otsuka, 29, a pleasantly bookish young woman, to create Swallowtail, Tokyo’s first butler café. Since Swallowtail opened last March, customers have lined up for reservations. The café tripled its space in October, but tables are still booked solid. The most ardent customers come daily and might never leave if Otsuka hadn’t put an 80-minute limit on reservations. The restaurant’s success has spawned a wave of similar butler cafés elsewhere in Tokyo, including some that offer gaijin (foreign) butlers who help female patrons practice their English, but Swallowtail remains the gold standard.

It’s easy to see why. Otsuka has planned every detail of the café, from the two months of training would-be butlers undergo to the grandfather clock by the fireplace to the leather volumes of obscure poetry (by that famous Victorian bard, William Allingham) that adorn the shelves. “There’s no place like this, so we had to make it from our imagination,” says Otsuka. It doesn’t hurt that the food is surprisingly good, prepared with the help of Paul Okada, a hospitality consultant who spent 12 years as the food-and-beverage director at the Four Seasons Tokyo.

But while the cakes are delicious, the appeal for regular clients is clearly in the service. Swallowtail gives otome a chance to act out their fantasies–say, to be a princess with a footman for teatime–but there may be something even more basic behind its success. Tokyo is a hard town, and it can be even harder for women. Under pressure to conform and marry–which often means surrendering much of their independence–they face a daily battle against the sexism that still pervades Japan, where fewer than 10% of corporate managers are female. The butler café may be to otome what the local bar is to the old company man, a place to unwind from the pressures of the outside world–and where the only members of the opposite sex are literally at your service.

As for me, I could get used to having a footman on call. Not long after I finished my Macbeth (is this a cream scone I see before me?), Saionji appears. “Mademoiselle, your coach awaits,” he says to my dining companion–the signal that our 80 minutes are up. We step through the open door and flag down our coach on the Tokyo street.

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