Forum — From the August 2013 issue

Sleeping Together

She bowed and introduced herself as Yukiko and I knew it was her real name. I’d heard about the games played by the women in Tokyo’s hostess bars, that they introduced themselves first with a fake name, then, after a few minutes, reintroduced themselves to their “special” customers with their real name, i.e., a different fake name. But I was and remain sure that the name she gave me, which was not Yukiko, was her real name. She was from Saitama prefecture, the New Jersey of Tokyo. I told her I was from New Jersey, the Saitama of New York. She was twenty and this was only her second time. She wore her own pajamas: a gray top with yellow flowers and puffy gray shorts with a ruffled hem.

For ¥3,000, or about thirty dollars, I had gotten a membership card at Tokyo’s first co-sleeping café, and then I paid another ¥3,000 for forty minutes of sleeping; it’s ordinarily ¥5,000, but as a first-timer I was eligible for a promotional rate. (A ten-hour package costs ¥50,000, a 20 percent discount off the hourly rate.) The café had a video explaining that all sexual overtures, regardless of financial incentivization, would be refused. But there were add-ons available: I chose staring into each other’s eyes (1 min, ¥1,000) and being patted on the head (1 min, ¥1,000). Other options included having the woman change her pajamas once, spooning, or sleeping with your head in her lap. As appealing as they were, those had all struck me as crossing some sort of line.

Yukiko and I lay down on our foam pallet and she covered us with a flimsy blanket. It had the overwashed nap of a child’s transitional object. She leaned toward the cubicle wall to set one of two pink egg timers she’d withdrawn, along with her phone, from a pink pencil case, then flopped onto her back. I followed her lead. We looked at the ceiling. Our bodies did not touch. There wasn’t even a pretense that we were actually going to sleep.

First of all, we were too nervous. Second, it was seven p.m. Third, she was going to be switched out for a second-round sleeper after twenty minutes. Furthermore, there was too much to talk about. Her English was surprisingly not bad — when she was fifteen she took a vacation to Australia, the only time she ever enjoyed to leave Japan — but she kept her phone nearby for assistance. It was a white iPhone 5. This was, she said again, only her second shift at the co-sleeping café.

“Did you sleep the first time?”

“No. I don’t think many people sleep here. I think only maybe real otaku sleep here. I only heard of some sleeping.” Otaku is, roughly, obsessive nerd culture — manga, cards, collectibles, schoolgirls.

“I thought so, yes, before I came — it is in Akihabara, electronics place, for otaku. But it is more celerymen. My first time, was celeryman.”

“Wait, what?”

“Ce-le-ry-man. Ce-re-ry-man.” I shook my head. “Se-ra-ry-man.”

“Salaryman!”

“Salaryman!”

“And, with this salaryman, you didn’t sleep?”

“Didn’t sleep, no.”

“Did you talk?” Yukiko nodded. “What did you talk about?”

“We talked about his work. He talked about his work at a company.”

“Do you mind if I write this stuff down?”

“Yes, okay to write down.” Yukiko smiled, seemed to loosen a little bit. Her teeth were small and even and spaced far apart. I reached for my notebook, which I’d hidden on the windowsill behind the heart lamp in the hope that, if I failed to fall asleep, I might record what it felt like to be here, not sleeping.

“What was his work?”

“It was . . . hokken.” She felt around beside her for her phone, decided she could just explain it. “Like, when I get sick, when I hurt myself, I get money.” She waved her arms in rapid swoons toward her chest, as though she were in one of those game-show flying-money wind chambers.

“Insurance?”

“Yes, insurance! Insurance. That’s right. He was insurance-salesman celeryman.”

“Did he get any of the options?”

“He wanted five-second hug option.”

“How much does that cost?”

Sen yen.” A thousand yen.

“What was it like?”

She mimed wrapping her arms around a thorn tree. She wincingly patted the thorny emptiness.

“Why do you think he came here, to the sleeping café?”

“He wanted five-second hug maybe because he had no one to hug. Japan is haji culture. Shame. Is shame culture. Or maybe also is shyness. I don’t know why. Tokyo people . . . very alone. And he does not have . . . ” She thought for a second, shrugged, reached for her phone. “Please hold moment.”

She held it close to her face, multitouched the screen not with thumb and forefinger but with tiny forefinger and middle finger. I could hear another customer whispering in Japanese in the silk-walled cubicle at our feet. His co-sleeper laughed loudly, then laughed softly. Yukiko tapped a button and shone the phone at my face. The screen said courage.

“You also got option.” She looked up at a laminated card posted over the bed. “Two option. First option, we watch.” She pointed to her eyes, which were small and black and wide-open. It looked as though she was wearing those contacts that make your pupils seem larger. She smoothed her hair, tucked it behind her ears, smoothed it again. She started the second pink plastic timer and we turned toward each other. A Pikachu looking like a blandly benevolent sack of flour peered down at me over her shoulder. We laughed and she covered her open mouth. She smoothed down her hair again. The timer beeped that our minute was up, but we didn’t look away right away.

“You’re pretty good at this, for only your second time.”

She laughed. “No.”

“Why do the customers come here, instead of a maid café, or a kyabakura?” These are all venues for what the Japanese call the mizu-shobai, the “water trade”; the origin of the term is debated, but it evokes flotation, impermanence, chance. Mizu-shobai is a finely graded thing: there’s a big difference between a hostess, who’s paid to entertain and flatter and drink with her clients — often wealthy businessmen — and who sees her work as being within the tradition of the geisha, and, on the other end of the spectrum, an actual prostitute. The kyabakura (a derivative of “cabaret”) are a step down from the hostess bars but a step up from the “soaplands,” which are barely more than brothels. At the kyabakura the women are garishly made up. They cater to the working classes.

Yukiko smoothed her hair, put her hand to her chin. “Customers think this is different from kyabakura. The options here aren’t . . . deep. No deep option. There’s just pat the back and watch the watch.” She pointed to her eyes, then mine. Watch the watch. “It’s very . . . soft . . . here. They cannot do the deep thing because they don’t have the courage. Don’t have the courage to cabaret club.” In other words, it’s easy here. Even a hostess club, or a cabaret club, has a ritual to it, a social component; the man is expected to play his part. Here the lone expectation is that he be present horizontally.

“In kyabakura you do not sleep. You cannot sleep. You cannot sleep with me. Here you do pure things.” I think she meant pure as in simple. Simple but also intimate. We were, after all, lying in bed, shabby as the bed may have been.

“What about the maid cafés?”

“Not like in maid café, where maids have to do lovely actions. I don’t want to do.”

“You mean sexual actions?”

“No, not sexy actions. Lovely. Loving.” She made a brittle heart in the air with her hands and grimaced. She quickly shook it off. In the maid cafés, the whole point is the performance of servile adorability.

“But here you just have to sleep.”

“Just have to sleep, yes. Pure thing.”

“But then you don’t actually sleep, you just end up talking most of the time.”

“This my only second time.”

“Sorry, you just ended up talking once.”

“Yes, once. He talk to me about work, and I have . . . Please hold moment.” She looked to her phone, which she’d been holding in her left hand. Before she could tap I ventured a guess.

“Sympathy?”

“Yes, sympathy. I have sympathy for their work. For any work. I am at work now. In Japan you have no . . . Please hold moment.” She blushed, whited out her face with her screen, tapped lightly. She held the phone out. It said paid vacation. “In France I hear you get one months. But Japan is no. Men come here want time, relax time. It’s like being in their room at their house. Bed is best relax item.”

“Bed is best relax item.”

“Bed is best relax item.”

“But here they are with you.”

“Here they are with me.” She turned to the ceiling for a few seconds, turned back to watch the watch again, this time off-clock.

“But you, you and I are same, not like men to relax.”

Invited to be same, I could feel the heat in my face. But everybody must be invited to be same, right?

“How are you and I the same?”

“We both at working.” One of the timers beeped. “Someone else come now to sleep. But we forget second option!”

She set the second timer, the option timer, put her little fist just above my ear, extended her fingers, and thumped my head with her palm, hard enough to say You’re better than this. Each one contained the pleasure and shame of a Facebook like.

After my one minute the timer went off.

“Do I seem relaxed now?”

“No.”

She rose to her knees, smoothed her pajama shorts, pulled at their ruffled hem, smoothed her hair, put her two pink timers and her white iPhone 5 into her pencil case, and bowed and said goodbye it was nice to meet you and bowed again. She withdrew behind the flutter of cheap silk.

I lay back next to a Pikachu.

On my way to the café, I’d stopped for a drink. Since the Japanese recession began, in the 1990s, there’s been a resurgence in enjoyment of a drink called Hoppy. Hoppy was first marketed after the war, when most people couldn’t afford to drink beer; beer was something you kept in your home for very special occasions. Hoppy is a nonalcoholic beer drink that comes in a clear bottle with a retro design. A Hoppy cocktail is a bottle of Hoppy served with a tall glass half full of cheap, tasteless shochu, Japanese grain alcohol, on the rocks. You pour the watery nonalcoholic beer drink over the cheap iced grain alcohol and come away with a counterfeit beer. But because it’s half grain alcohol, it’s extremely strong. You get drunk very fast. It’s fake, but powerful.

Three minutes passed. You couldn’t really sleep in here if you tried. Timers in cubicles kept beeping. I lay by the Pikachu in the orange light, watched the ceiling, and listened for sounds in the alley outside.

Yukiko parted the pink silk.

“I’m back again. Not someone else.” She tried to explain but I waved it off.

“I figured you’d come back again.” She pulled the thin cover over us and we returned to our backs and resumed neither sleeping nor touching.

“Does anyone ever sleep? You said the otakus sometimes slept.”

“Maybe sometimes. My friend, who worked here first, she is how I found out this place, she had a man sleep for eight hours. It costed forty thousand yen. Maybe he is rich.”

“Did your friend sleep, too, when the man was sleeping?”

“Maybe a little bit. I think she was bored.”

“What did they do? Options, I mean. Did the man have options?”

“They did only this.” She motioned for me to lift my head. She put her arm around my head in a tense, shallow spoon. I settled against it.

She yanked away her arm. “No, this is option!”

She laughed to cover the yanking and our embarrassment. I felt ashamed. I’d tried to get an option for nothing, even after she’d said I was like her. I was unlike her.

“Do any of the girls have boyfriends?” I asked.

“Some have.”

“Do they tell their boyfriends what they do?”

“Some of them tell and some of them lie. Very normal girls come here, they lie to their boyfriend and family.” We looked away from each other, toward the ceiling and then toward the little sliding window, and she pulled the transitional object up higher over us, to our necks. Our knees touched and, still hot from the shame of having tried for a free option, I was the first to move my body away. I wanted to ask the obvious question but didn’t want to overstep.

She blurted out the answer anyway. “I cannot tell my family.”

We turned to each other and watched the watch.

“If they knew they would be angry and sad.”

“What do you tell them?”

“I am student, at Japan Women’s University.”

“What do you study?”

“Culture. And society. But I want to be cosmetics and work skin care. I am student, so I have time but no money. I have other job too. I tell my parents am at other job. When I am here I tell my parents I am at tapioca-and-crêpe shop.”

I’d seen the places she was talking about; it was a chain. Or maybe there was more than one chain. They sold tapioca drinks and crêpes.

“I work here to save money for a trip. At maid café you make eight hundred fifty yen one hour. Here work is . . . Please hold moment.” paid commission. “I make more money with option.”

“Where do you want to go?”

“Belgium.”

“Belgium?”

“Belgium.”

“Why?”

“My friend, friend who also work here, friend who brought me to work here, has boyfriend from Belgium. He is very nice. He says nice things about Belgium. I want to go there, to Belgium. Have you been to Belgium?”

“Yeah, once, briefly. I’m actually going there next week.”

“Next week you go to Belgium?”

“Yes.”

“Next week you go to Belgium.” She paused, lay still. “I don’t think I go on with this job.”

We were quiet.

“It makes you feel bad.”

She pointed to herself, to her chest, to her heart. “Makes me feel bad. It doesn’t . . . suits. Please hold moment.” it doesn’t look good on me.

“It doesn’t suit you.”

“Yes! It doesn’t suit me.”

“Who’s in that picture on your phone?” Her wallpaper was a uniformed schoolgirl, a Westerner. She laughed.

“Here is Blair. Blair from Gossip Girls.

“You watch a lot of American TV?”

“Some. Gossip Girls. You are writer. Do you read Japanese books?”

“In English, yeah.”

“What Japanese books you like?”

“Do you know Tanizaki Junichiro?”

“I heard him.”

“He has this book I love. Can I have your phone?”

I called up the Wikipedia page for The Makioka Sisters. Serialized in Japan in the Forties, it takes place in the last few years before the Second World War. It is the story of the four daughters of an Osaka merchant family; the family’s declining fortunes have made it increasingly difficult to marry off the reticent, thwarted third daughter, and the bad behavior and Western inclinations of the youngest have brought them shame. They try to take comfort in the Japanese rituals celebrating impermanence, such as the annual viewing of the cherry blossoms. The apparently untranslatable Japanese title evokes both snow and blossoms.

I flicked my finger to the bottom of the Wikipedia entry, selected the tab for other languages, and brought up the Japanese version. I passed Yukiko the phone. Her timer began to beep. Our second twenty minutes were up.

She began to read, then turned the beeping timer off. “Please hold moment.”

She held the phone up to her face. I watched her, pale in the white phone light. She slowly drew the screen down through the entry. We lay there for four more minutes. She read down to the bottom.

“I think I really like this book.”

Single Page
Share
is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. His book A Sense of Direction is out now in paperback (Riverhead).

More from Gideon Lewis-Kraus:

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

  • Triptych

    Wow, that was really striking.

  • Henry Binklebauer

    Options of closeness that keep people farther apart. This shows perhaps that technology is not necessarily completely to blame for shallower modern relationships.

    • Steve Spirgis

      Personally, I think that in many cultures, the layers upon layers of unspoken rules and expectations have become so cumbersome that simple human connection is, for a lot of nervous, anxious, or overworked people, just too much effort. Paying for a simple touch or the chance to hear someone else breathe while you sleep seems a natural response to such an unnatural state.

      If we could divest ourselves of some of the worst of our social ritual surrounding courtship, we’d probably have a better time of it, but half the problem is that these rituals serve to protect women who are otherwise victimized by trusting too much. How do we simplify things without taking that protection away?

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2014

Israel and Palestine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Washington Is Burning

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On Free Will

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

They Were Awake

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content