The true, and truly weird, story of the time our hostess-bar-loving reporter went out for a drink, and couldn’t come back.

Let’s get one thing right straight right off the bat. Hostess bars are not brothels. Customers pay for the privilege of sitting, drinking, and chatting with attractive women, with nothing else built into the transaction.

That said, as a sector of the economy that’s almost entirely dependent on adult titillation, hostess bars exist in sort of a shadowy part of Japanese society, and so you can run into some very unexpected kinds of trouble at them, as our Japanese-language reporter Hirazi knows all too well.

Before we dive into his shocking tale, we should explain the exact type of establishment Hirazi likes to drink with pretty girls at. Called “aiseki lounges,” they’re a little different from a standard hostess bar. At a standard hostess bar, the hostesses are all employees, and paid to drink with the male customers. At an aiseki lounge, though, the women are customers too, but they get to drink for free, in exchange for sitting with male customers, who not only have to pay for their own drinks, but also a cover charge and a continually increasing bill the longer they sit with the same female customer.

“Aiseki” literally means “mixed seating,” and the lounge staff are the ones who arrange the seating assignments, directing female customers to open seats at the same table as unaccompanied men. Ostensibly, aiseki lounges are supposed to be a place for singles to meet, and if two people hit it off, they’re free to pay their bill and head out for a private date whenever they want (there are rumors that a lot of the female “customers” are actually ringers employed by the bar, but that’s a topic for another time).

As a sociable guy with a taste for booze and hunger for female companionship, Hirazi is a big aiseki lounge fan, and when he’s really cutting loose, he’ll hit up several in the same night. So on a Saturday evening a while back, he and another social butterfly friend were flittering from one aiseki lounge to another in Tokyo. As they walked down the street of a bar district, laughing happily and discussing their next destination, they passed by an aiseki lounge they’d been in earlier that night, and that’s when things started to get shady.

“Excuse me,” called out a 40-something employee with neatly trimmed graying hair who was standing outside the lounge’s entrance. “The two of you were drinking here earlier, right? Can you come inside? There’s something I want to talk to you about.”

Hirazi was a regular at this aiseki lounge, and so he cheerfully agreed. Maybe the owner was going to personally thank him for his continued patronage, or maybe, even better, they were going to show him to a seat with some cute girls!

But instead, the man lead Hirazi and his friend to a private room, asked them to sit down, and then left them alone for a while. As he left, he made a point of closing the door almost, but not entirely, all the way. Hirazi found this unsettling, as though the man were saying “For legal purposes, I’m not locking you in, but don’t even think about trying to leave.”

Eventually, the man returned, looked Hirazi right in the eye, and told him:

“You stole the call button. Can you give it back?”

Hirazi was baffled. As mentioned above, at aiseki lounges, the staff controls the seating assignments. However, if the customers aren’t hitting it off, they can press a call button on the table, after which the staff will arrange for a different woman to come and sit with the male customer.

However, and obviously, the button only grants one the power to summon women when it’s pressed on the premises of the lounge itself. It’s not like taking the button with you when you leave, then pressing it when you’re feeling lonely at home, in the office, or elsewhere will compel the aiseki lounge staff to escort an eligible bachelorette to your present location.

“We didn’t take it,” Hirazi immediately explained, but the employee wasn’t buying it, though his deductive method was highly unorthodox. “No, no. You stole it. When you were walking past the entrance and I called out to you, you reacted.”

Hirazi was now even more confused. Would he have had to completely ignore the man in order to convince him of his innocence? “We didn’t steal it,” he repeated. “What possible merit would there be for us in taking it?” he asked.

Once again, though, the employee displayed an unusual line of thinking. “Maybe you were mad that you didn’t get to sit with girls you thought were cute, and you took it as a form of revenge against us?”

Hirazi was now grinding his teeth in frustration, but the man’s next words quickly switched the mood from infuriating to frightening, as he told our reporter:

“Anyway, give the button back. Then you can go home. Until you give it back, you’re not leaving this room!”

As a last resort, Hirazi and his friend placed their bags on the table and, item by item, removed everything that was in them. Surely now the man would believe them, right?

But no sooner did they have everything laid out on the table did the man say:

“OK. So where’s the button?”

“I DON’T KNOW, BECAUSE WE DIDN’T TAKE IT!” Hirazi wanted to scream in the man’s face, but he somehow managed to keep his cool. Since he couldn’t produce a call button out of thin air, he decided to rely on the only other thing that he could see ending the conflict: a police officer. “What you’re doing is imprisonment,” Hirazi told the man as he pulled out his phone. “I’m gonna call the police,” he added, figuring that this would put an end to what he was beginning to suspect must be a shakedown.

Instead, the employee responded with:

“Go right ahead! Call ‘em!”

So Hirazi did just that, calling 110 (Japan’s emergency police response number) and telling the operator “We’re being imprisoned in a bar called [redacted]. They won’t let us leave. Can you send someone right away?”

A few minutes later, one of Tokyo’s finest arrived on the scene and joined the discussion. Thankfully, he seemed to have a much higher capacity for logical reasoning than the lounge employee. “If they don’t have the button on them or in their bag, there’s no reason to believe they stole it,” the officer told the employee. “And since you sort of ruined their weekend, maybe you should refund their bill from earlier in the night?” he added.

Unfortunately, in the end Hirazi and his friend didn’t get a refund, and instead got a curt “I apologize” from the employee. They also got to go home, though, which is all they’d really wanted in the first place.

▼ Plus it was nice to have the Tokyo cops freeing us from confinement this time, as opposed to that time when they detained us themselves (though they kind of had a good reason).

Even today, Hirazi can’t quite figure out what happened. The lounge employee’s unshaken confidence when he told our reporter to go ahead and call the cops suggests that the whole thing wasn’t some attempt to scam him and his friend out of a phony “replacement fee” for a stolen call button. Maybe one really did go missing, either getting misplaced by a worker or accidentally knocked off a table by another customer, but in any case, Hirazi didn’t take it.

Despite the sour taste that particular evening ended on, Hirazi doesn’t bear the lounge itself, or the rest of the staff, any ill will, since he’d been there several times before and had nothing but fun. Still, it’s a reminder that if you’re going out for a drink in one of Japan’s hostess/pseudo-hostess bars you’ll want to keep your wits about you and your phone charged.

Top image: Pakutaso
Insert images: Pakutaso, SoraNews24
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