Weeaboo Wonderland

A trip to a maid café in Bloomsbury.

There is a quite unique shame involved in being a white man who’s into anime – if you have any self-­awareness, that is. If you don’t, life can be a magical, technicolour world of sexy cats, sexy robots, sexy fencers, sexy demons, and, unfortunately for some of the time, sexy children with big tits.

I am a vociferous exponent of Japan and Japanese culture. From my first visit, I became instantly enamoured with the food, the people, the misty peak of Fuji visible from certain high hills; the sushi restaurants with giant tanks filled with delicious, soon-to-be tortured marine life; the way every single person dressed impeccably well; the communal hot springs that banned tattoos; the bars that didn’t shut; the shops that didn’t shut; the restaurants that didn’t shut; the antiquated technology in the super modern train stations, the silence, the safety, the unmistakable vibe. I was in heaven.

That being said, I, mercifully, am not into anime at all – my interest in the genre ended with Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z circa 2004. In fact, I’m of the opinion that Western anime fans bring a great deal of shame to us cool guy Japan fans. Their circular silhouette bumbling through the narrow alleys of Tokyo, with their neckbeards and humming stink-lines filling every arcade with a miasma of virginity, completely ruining the immersion of a holiday and transporting you right back to CeX. It makes me sick.

When I’m in the adoptive motherland, the last thing I want to do is go anywhere that might be filled with ghastly otaku honkies. I stay in my cool guy lane of pokey recherché izakayas, streetwear shops that play old grime tapes, and Elvis-themed bars that have darts. I don’t want to see a Hello Kitty, I don’t want to see a well-endowed schoolgirl holding a giant blue sword, and I most certainly don’t want to see the sort of guy who indulges in these sorts of things.

So when the Usagi Maid Café opened in the shadow of the British Museum this year, I saw it as an opportunity to really stare into the heart of darkness. Maid cafés are a relatively recent phenomenon, with the first opening in 2001 in Akihabara, a place formerly known for its cut price electronics, now more famous for this kind of kawaii dress-up cosplay carry-on. The purpose of them is to let you experience a kind of hybridised sexual fantasy, part master-slave kink, part anime escapism. You go in, get assigned a maid, usually in a French maid uniform, who will serve you drinks, food, play games with you, talk to you about your favourite Kimi ni Todoke characters and generally be your mate for an hour.

Usagi Maid Café is not very big at all. It has about 12–14 covers, half of which were occupied when I arrived. To my surprise, the majority of patrons were women. The only other man there was a Sam Bankman-Fried lookalike, there with his Asian girlfriend. Of course.

While not being quite the most egregious archetype of the garden variety Japanophile, he did exhibit some of the symptoms, the primary one being affecting Japanese vocal quirks. In Japan, conversation between two people is often accompanied by a chorus of ‘aizuchi’, a regular noise by one person, often taking the shape of ‘mm’ or ‘ah’, or when surprising information is heard, an elongated ‘eeh?’. When in Japan, overhearing native chatter, this is a pleasing linguistic idiosyncrasy. But here in London, deployed by a westerner, it takes on a skin-crawling timbre, the sound of someone too far gone in the rabbit hole of their own cultural escapism.

My maid for the hour, Tani, who was, of course, beautiful and doll-like as I’m sure the job spec requires, came over to me upon entry to get me seated. The room was painted a soft pink and was decorated with maid outfits stuck high up on the walls. There was quite a substantial amount of tat you could buy, small things like stationery and keychain toys. The cutlery, an ornate fork and spoon, was arranged in a cross shape on the table. It smelled like a café, but not a particularly good one – that familiar aroma of something slightly sweet and cheap.

Tani asked me if she may refer to me as master, and I obliged if only to keep the gonzo element of this journalistic endeavour intact. She presented me with a menu, quite long for a café, that featured several desserts with names like ‘Jungle Power’ and the ‘Rabbit Waffle Set’, which includes a drawing made in chocolate by your maid. By far the most intriguing part of the menu, though, are the ‘Secret Rules’, which include, but are not limited to, ‘don’t touch our maid’s clothes or bodies’, ‘don’t communicate personally with our maids outside of service’, and ‘don’t do other inappropriate behaviours like stalking’.

Pre-lunch, and with a very strict personal no sweet before savoury rule, I opted for one of their ‘Magical Sodas’. The options were ‘Sky Blue’, ‘Forest Green’, ‘Sakura Pink’ and ‘Star Yellow’. I asked my maid what was in them, and she didn’t really want to tell me, as it was of course a magical soda and to relay the incredibly normal ingredients aloud to me would ruin the sorcery somewhat. So I just got ‘Forest Green’, a kind of odd milky minty float that was actually not even remotely green.

Its arrival brought the most upsetting portion of the visit. Depending on what you order, your maid will come and perform a magic spell on the drink, and you must repeat what they say. I made a heart shape with my hands and repeated the Japanese incantation after her, before pointing to the drink and imbuing it with… something.

Just after this dismally embarrassing event, the Bankman-Fried weeaboo and his missus left, and were replaced by two high fashion cosplay Asian girls, who somehow simultaneously looked completely out of place and right at home. At first glance their attire was pure Central Saint Martins but upon closer inspection was just a more refined version of the classic otaku uniform. I was now the only male presence in the café.

The girls next to me were chatting about Hinge dates and drawing anime. They’d just had their ‘cheki’ taken – a small polaroid picture taken with you and your maid (men are masters here, women are referred to as princesses), who then takes it away and decorates it with cutesy flourishes. They were given a box of headbands with different types of animal ears on for their big shot. It occurred to me that this maid café wasn’t quite the seedy, sticky perv hole I’d always assumed it would be, but was actually a rather feminine space. Funny drinks, silly magic spells, arts and crafts, cat ears – aside from the maids and the implorations not to stalk them, this was a place for girls. Sat there, alone, sweating buckets from the abject heat in the space and wearing a Chelsea shirt, I realised that I was now by far and away the weirdest person in the room. I had become the creep.

I decided with my last act at Usagi Maid Café to get a cheki of my own. The box of ears was presented to me, but I found it difficult to choose the right one. I asked the sweet nerdy girls next to me for help, and help they did.

‘Try and find one that matches your hair colour, that’s what I always do,’ said one, as her friend rifled through the box. She’d picked me the winner: some bear ears, just the right shade of brown for my bonce. I checked how I looked in the other girl’s front-facing camera, and I was ready.

Tani and I stood in front of a wall laden with anime stickers. The woman taking the photo, a kind of managerial presence, asked what pose I wanted to do. We could do one half of a small heart each, fingers and thumbs, connected in the middle, or a large heart with both arms. Or, even, as I’m wearing a bear headband, the roar and claws of an animal. I opted for the big heart, drew a big smile, and adhered to the rules about touching clothes and body parts. Phew.

My picture came out, decorated with whiskers and smiley faces. It was cute. The manager was now sat having a chinwag with the Asian girls and I felt a throb of jealousy. Part of being a ‘fan’ of anything – culture, country, TV show, comic book, music – is wanting to feel included. Patrons of the Usagi Maid Café feel a sense of inclusion on their own terms, inclusion with an idea of a culture as it appears to them, as it aligns with their interests.

And perhaps that makes more sense than the attitude I have; a certain haughtiness, perched atop my authentocratic ivory tower, spraying venom from my ducts at the kawaii kabuki-ists below. After all, the maid café did not originate in the West, it’s not a twisted perversion of Japanese culture fitted to suit the prurient palate of the smelly Japanophile. It is merely another half of the same coin, a half that I like to pretend doesn’t really exist.

What it maybe comes down to more than anything is the male ability to turn what could well be a relatively innocent thing into something sordid simply by being in the same room as it. Japan is well aware that exclusive female spaces are necessary – their women-only train carriages have been in operation for nearly 20 years. While the maid café may have started its life as a tawdry kink palace, it could very well experience a renaissance in which birds who are nerds can have a crap dessert, wear cat ears and do a spell on a drink.

I paid up and left Usagi Maid Café with my hatred for this side of the culture blunted. While my maid Tani did have a slightly haunted look in her eye, presumably from having to serve and look at me for an hour, the entire thing was so harmless it became difficult to justify being so openly cruel about it. In my voracious search for narrow authenticity, I had ignored something that was already authentic, just not the kind of authentic I believed in.

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