Student English Newspaper

Maid cafe as a Japanese new culture

The number of foreign tourists visiting Japan is rapidly increasing. Particularly, Akihabara has been attracting many tourists as it’s considered the mecca of Japanese subculture. One of the representative cultures there is the “maid cafe,” where staff dressed as maids serve customers, pretending they are their “masters,” in a café setting.

This time, we interviewed Infinia Co.,Ltd., which operates the long-established maid café “At-Home Cafe” in Akihabara. We spoke with Koki Fukuzawa, who has been serving as a CEO of Infinia Co.,Ltd., since 2012, Hitomi, an active maid at “At-Home Cafe” and also serves as the Chief Brand Officer (CBO) of Infinia Co.,Ltd., Hitomi has been promoting maid culture as a Legend Maid and was appointed as Akihabara Tourism Goodwill Ambassador since 2017. Murat Yulzurum joined the Marketing Department in 2024 and mainly focuses on expanding the reach of “At-Home Cafe” overseas with a global perspective.

 Hitomi-san(left), Fukazawa-san(middle), Murat-san(right)

The Birth of “At-Home Cafe”

“At-Home Cafe” was born in 2004. At that time, maid cafes were confined in narrow buildings, creating a somewhat secluded space where “Otaku” who loved anime, games, and cosplay would gather. The management team of “At-Home Cafe” aimed to popularize a unique and entertaining maid cafe experience. They opened the first branch within Don Quijote in Akihabara, creating “At-Home Cafe,” a place where women and families could also enjoy themselves.

“At-Home Cafe’s” main offering is not just food but rather, “a fun time.”

“At-Home Cafe” has always pursued to provide services that cater to all demographics. For instance, they enhanced the entertainment aspect of existing maid cafes. Nowadays, taking photos with maids has become a mainstream service in maid cafes. However, in the past, it was unthinkable for customers to take photos with maids as many felt that having only the maid in the photo was sufficient. “At-Home Cafe” changed this perception by making taking photos with maids the main attraction. This not only leaves customers with physical photos but also creates lasting memories during the photoshoot experience.

Efforts have also been made to accommodate foreign tourists who may struggle with the Japanese language. English and Chinese translations have been added to the menu, and maids are required to undergo 10 sessions of English conversation lessons. Many maids used to avoid interacting with foreign visitors due to language barriers. To alleviate the fear of communication, lessons were initiated with the goal of fostering an eagerness to engage, surpassing mere improvement in English proficiency. Additionally, a handbook covering basic English explanations and information about tourist destinations in various countries is provided to interested maids. Rather than perfect service, emphasis is placed on showing genuine interest in the visitor’s country and making sincere communication efforts.

At-home Cafe official English handbook for maids

Mr. Fukuzawa states that the main offering of “At-Home Cafe” is not food and drinks but rather, “a fun time.” He emphasizes the importance of time in today’s era, where time is considered more valuable than money. Understanding the value of the precious time entrusted to them, the cafe endeavors to transform it into an enjoyable experience.

The Journey to the Current “At-Home Cafe”

“At-Home Cafe” has garnered fans from all walks of life. However, the path leading up to the present was fraught with challenges. Initially, maid cafes were much more stigmatized than they are now. The media portrayed them as places where cute girls in maid outfits served otaku customers. Hitomi, who has been working as a maid for years, reflects on those times: “When I was working as a maid, there were people who mocked us, whispered behind our backs, or intentionally dressed up as otaku to ridicule those who enjoyed ” At-Home Cafe” We didn’t want to be seen that way, and we tried to improve our image.”

For Hitomi, “At-Home Cafe” is a place where she feels “the kindness and warmth of people.” It’s a significant place where she can both delight customers through thoughtful gestures and feel the importance of being needed by others. Various initiatives were undertaken to preserve this atmosphere. Firstly, menus and prices were clearly displayed. Despite often being portrayed in a humorous or sensational manner in the media, they made sure to convey their true intentions without souring the atmosphere, often using humor to redirect the conversation. It’s through these consistent efforts that the current “At-Home Cafe” has been built.

Is the “Maid Cafe” a culture?

Opinions are divided on whether the maid cafe can be considered a representative culture of Japan. From an international perspective, Murat expressed that the maid cafe embodies a sense of “Japaneseness.” He stated, “The consideration, service, and the desire to continue doing the same thing for a long time are all very Japanese. I think a service with the same level of consideration couldn’t have been born anywhere else except Japan.”

While acknowledging the need for further development before it can be called a culture, Mr. Fukuzawa spoke of the potential within the maid culture. He said, “Although maids are characters, they are also real people, which is quite rare. Unlike anime characters, their personalities and traits are not fixed, and they can evolve based on individual will, making them unique and valuable beings.” Combining Japaneseness with unique characteristics not found elsewhere, the maid cafe holds the potential to become a representative culture of Japan.

The Future of “At-Home Cafe”

“At-Home Cafe” is currently adapting to the new era by implementing various initiatives. For instance, they have started a Virtual Maid Cafe where customers can experience the fun of a maid cafe online. To expand the “entertainment” aspect of maids, they also offer a service where maids serve at weddings upon request from the bride and groom.

They are committed to continuing to attract new customers, both domestically and internationally. However, they also value their long-standing regular customers. “At-Home Cafe” is seen as a third place, neither home nor work, where people can be themselves without feeling out of place discussing otaku topics or expressing aspects of themselves they can’t show at work. They want to preserve this third place atmosphere. Points on membership cards accumulate based on the number of visits to the cafe. There are seven ranks based on cumulative points, with the card turning black after 2000 visits and super black after 5000 visits. Nationwide, there are approximately 300 black card holders and 80 super black card holders. This indicates the desire of customers to repeatedly visit “At-Home Cafe.” To make this third place more accessible, Mr. Fukuzawa expressed his desire to establish “At-Home Cafe” in all 47 prefectures.

Currently, maid cafes have gained recognition both domestically and internationally. Every day, many customers visit, creating a lively atmosphere. There is a monthly influx of about 200 applications to Infinia Co.,Ltd. from individuals aspiring to work as maids. Compared to the past when the profession was met with prejudice and aversion, the image of maid culture has greatly changed. It is because there are people who take pride in the maid culture and make a significant effort to provide a wonderful experience to their “masters/mistresses.” And maid cafes will continue to evolve in the future. Mr. Fukuzawa expresses his desire to deepen the concept of maids even further, stating that there is still more fun and potential aspect to explore. Hitomi confidently stated that “At-Home Cafe is a place worth dedicating her life to.” With dreams of making maid a representative culture of Japan, Infinia Co.,Ltd. continues to move forward.

Written by Mahiro Nojiri, Rento Kawakami, Wei-Han Lin

The interview at headquarter Infinia, Akihabara (June, 7th, 2024)

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