On May 4, 2000, Lucie Blackman, wearing high heels and a silver and black ensemble coordinated to match her Samsonite luggage, disembarked from a 13-hour Virgin Atlantic flight from London to Tokyo and stepped into Japan's national nightmare. A former British Airways stewardess who prided herself on being, "chic, sophisticated and smart," Lucie sometimes did her hair even before going to the gym for a workout. So it made sense she would have her hair freshly coiffed now, the natural blond mane cut straight and falling across her striking, almost patrician English features like a curtain of glass beads. Concealing her blue eyes were a pair of oversize, Gucci-style sunglasses. Her nails were perfect little half-ellipses, the cuticles neatly trimmed.
Lucie's face, more than any other, would eventually become synonymous with millennial Tokyo's anxieties, aspirations and insecurities. When she vanished two months later into the Tokyo night, the subject of speculation, rumor and salacious gossip, she became the poster child, literally, of a nation that was suddenly unsure of where it was going and of what was happening to it.
Tokyo that spring was a city mired in its ninth consecutive year of economic stagnation. Even Lucie had heard tales of Japan's fiscal woes the depressed real estate market, the companies slashing expense accounts but the city she saw was an entirely different spectacle. As she settled down in a "gaijin house" in central Tokyo and looked for work in some of Roppongi district's hostess clubs, Lucie, 21, saw a city that was almost carnal in its appetites and bacchanalian in its spirit. She would never have guessed this was a city in decline, capital of an empire that had supposedly seen better days. Instead the atmosphere, or kibun, on the streets and in the bars was a sort of greedy get-it-while-you-can consumerism. What she was still too new to sense was that this rapaciousness was born not of optimism but desperation. The economic pie was shrinking, so everyone was reaching for the biggest slice while there was still something left to grab.
Roppongi, where she eventually found work at a hostess bar called Casablanca, is the neon-lit playground of this civilization in decline, where Japanese Neros go to fiddle while their economy burns, where saked-up salarymen nuzzle Russian strippers and tea-haired twenty-somethings look to score designer drugs. The district is home to scores of dives, cafés, strip clubs, casinos and after-hours clubs catering to foreigners and to Japanese who like to hang out with them. The crowd American bond-traders in Brooks Brothers suits, visiting models, second-rate rock stars, African bouncers, Israeli street vendors, drunken U.S. Marines, Pakistani pimps and assorted polyglot freaks reinforced the notion of Roppongi as ground zero for Tokyo's gilded, fecund nightlife.
Lucie had come because she had heard there was a fortune to be made in this glittering district simply by pouring drinks and making small talk with Japanese businessmen. To Western girls with a streak of adventure, this Japan has a curious appeal. They find out about hostessing while touring Asia, perhaps, and encountering women returning from Japan who tell stories about the big money. Some answer employment agency ads in overseas newspapers to work in Japan as "dancers" or "entertainers" only to find themselves hostessing. Others are just passing through Tokyo, perhaps as the first stop on an Asian itinerary, and see there is easy money to be made rapping to inebriated Japanese. It was a friend's older sister in London who first told Lucie about the opportunities for an attractive young woman in Japan.
Very loosely descended from the geisha house tradition, hostess bars hire out women by the hour to act as companions for customers. Hostesses are not prostitutes; they are more like paid, platonic girlfriends. They may choose to sleep with a client, they may not. Although there are no official numbers on how many women work in hostess bars, it's estimated that hundreds of thousands labor throughout Japan in what is surely a multibillion-dollar industry. For the salaryman customers, hostess bars, with their posh atmosphere, beautiful women and steady flow of drinks, are a choice venue in which to try to impress a client or close a business deal. Most hostess clubs employ Japanese and other Asian women, but beginning in the early 1980s, more and more began to stock Western women. Of all the hostesses in Japan, the highest paid tend to be pretty, English-speaking, Caucasian, blond. Lucie met every requirement.
The first few weeks for a novice hostess can be disorienting. First of all there are the hours. You become a purely nocturnal creature, showing up for work at about 9 p.m., finishing at around 2 a.m., and then unwinding until dawn at bars like Gas Panic or higher-priced clubs like Lexington Queen. The girls earn $150 to $400 a night in salary, in addition to the perquisites and gifts that adoring customers shower on them. But in this saturnalian spectacle there are even more opportunities to burn the money. In addition to the booze, clubs and clothes, there are the drugs ecstasy, pot, cocaine in which too many girls indulge. The cycle didn't make sense at first to Lucie work in a bar for five hours and then go out to more bars and clubs to unwind but after spending whole nights pretending to laugh at idiotic jokes or feigning understanding of some drunken salaryman's broken English, it didn't hurt to blow off some steam.
Equally confusing to Lucie were the peculiarities of the business. For example, every evening between 9:00 and 10:00 when the clubs were just opening up, a steady stream of Nissan Cimas and Jaguar S-TYPEs pulled to the curbs in front of the six- and seven-story buildings housing the hostess bars to drop off foreign girls in their knocked-off finest. The girls, nearly always Caucasian and usually in their early 20s, insouciantly climbed out through doors held open by men who were always Japanese and usually twice their age. The girls cut through the Roppongi sidewalk with a disinterested air, telegraphing sexiness and unobtainability with each click of their high heels on the pavement. This curbside ritual was part of a hostess club custom called the dohan. The men dropping them off were loyal customers of hostess clubs who paid additional fees to take the hostess to dinner and then deliver her to work.