Sakura aren’t always such a pure and pretty part of life in Japan.

Just about anyone with a passing interest in Japan knows that sakura is the Japanese word for “cherry blossom.” Sakura, though also has a second meaning: plant, not of the flower variety, but a person getting paid by a company to pretend to be a customer and sucker in other paying customers.

Sakura first got this shady secondary meaning in the kabuki world, where venues or performers would give someone a free ticket on the condition that they promise to cheer loudly and noticeably regardless of the actual quality of the show. In the modern era, sakura are common in the dating service industry, and our Japanese-language reporter Seiji Nakazawa recently sat down with two former sakura to hear about how they got involved in that line of work.

First Seiji spoke with a woman we’ll call A-san, who worked at an aiseki pub. Aiseki is the Japanese word for “shared table,” and an aiseki pub is a kind of bar where strangers are seated together, ostensibly allowing single men and women to get acquainted and, if they’re compatible, continue their date at another place or a later date. What separates it from ordinary singles bars, though, is that at an aiseki pub women don’t pay anything – the male customers foot the bill for both their and their tablemate’s food and drinks.

Seiji: How did you come to start working as a sakura at an aiseki pub?

A-san: In the beginning, I was a customer at the pub. Haha, well, I’m not really sure if I could call myself a ‘customer,’ since I was eating and drinking for free. After going to the pub several times, I got to know the staff. One day they contacted me and said “We’ll pay you, so will you come to the pub today?”, and that’s how I got started.

Seiji: So why did you stop working as their sakura?

A-san: After a while, the pub started asking more and more of me. They’d say things like “You’ve been shooting too many guys down, so go on a date with one of them.” That got to be a pain, so I quit [and I ignored the texts they sent me to try to get me to come back].”

Next, Seiji talked with B-san, who worked as a sakura at a dating website, getting paid to pretend that she was a user looking for a boyfriend. The company employed a huge team of sakura, about 30 women in total. The oldest were in their late 20s, and most of them seemed like quiet types who wouldn’t have stood out socially at school. On the other hand, the people running the company were guys who wore flash clothes, had gone to prestigious universities, or otherwise had Type A personality traits.

Seiji: How’d you get started at the job?

B-san: Before I started working there, I was doing various temping and customer service jobs. It was tough, though, and I just wanted some kind of job, any kind of job, where I didn’t have to meet quotas or talk with other people. But I didn’t have any special qualifications or skills, and I couldn’t get hired at those kinds of jobs when I interviewed for them.

Then, when I was looking at a job-hunting site, I found a listing for an “email writing” position. They hired me, and when I showed up for work, the job was being a dating site sakura.

Seiji: So you didn’t know it was a sakura job until your first day at work?

B-san: Technically, they told me it was a sakura job during the interview, but I didn’t have any other options. Then I started working there, and the other sakura had ended up there for similar circumstances. It wasn’t like I didn’t feel any guilt working there, but we encouraged each other, and it made work rewarding, so I wanted to be good at it.

Seiji: And why did you quit?

B-san: One day, I showed up at the office for work, and the company had vanished. The computers, the furniture, everything was gone – the room was empty. We tried calling the managers’ phones, but the numbers weren’t in service anymore. I was stunned.

Though she didn’t mention it specifically, it’s a safe bet that B-san and her fellow sakura never got their last paychecks either. So remember kids, when it comes to sakura, stick to the flower-type, not the job-type, since when someone is paying you to trick other people, there’s not much chance that they won’t try to trick you too.

Top image: Pakutaso
Insert images: Pakutaso (1, 2)
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[ Read in Japanese ]