publisher colophon
  • Maid Meets Mammal:The 'Animalized' Body of the Cosplay Maid Character in Japan

The true enjoyment of maid cafés is seeing the fictional characters of manga and anime come to real life.

—Hayakawa Kiyoshi1

This article examines corporeality and the ubiquitous maid persona in Japan, paying particular attention to the phenomenon of "animalizing" her body in comic book simulacra, and the subsequent reification of this hybrid form inside maid cafés. In his discussion of the otaku2 subculture where he argues that the "grand narratives" of Japanese society have degenerated due to consumerism, critical theorist Azuma Hiroki draws heavily on the work of French philosopher Alexandre Kojève (Otaku 25-38). Azuma describes "animalization" as the process of humans rejecting their intersubjective desires and embracing the animal "need," which can be satisfied independently and is not contingent on the "other" (87). In a capitalist society this translates to the consumer need being fulfilled instantaneously, in a mechanical fashion, and devoid of high levels of social interaction. This communication deficiency is exemplified by fast food restaurants and sex workers accommodating the needs of everyday meals and sexual partners respectively, which, prior to the advent of the consumer society, were undertakings laden with inconvenient social exchanges. My use of the word "animalization" in this paper is far less metaphoric and allegorical than this construal, and refers to the addition of typically mammalian appendages to the body of the maid (such as tails and furry ears) to create a quasi-animal character. As we shall see, this type of animalization is discordant with Kojève's theory, and is in fact greatly dependent on the "other," particularly when it comes to the domain of the maid café and the interaction that takes place between patrons and quasi-animal maids inside them. I argue that animalizing the body of the maid in these establishments is an attempt to elicit both moe ("pseudo-romance," pronounced "mo-ay") and kawaii ("cuteness"). I also suggest that the principal objective of these responses is to mediate momentary escapism and to promote ease of communication between maid and customer. After providing a historical overview of the maid persona in Japan and considering the unadulterated human form of her body in erotic comic books, I introduce animal cosplay, moe, and kawaii, before discussing the body vis-à-vis the maid café.

It should be noted that despite the maid character's being a salient icon of Japanese popular culture, she has been largely ignored by scholarly circles both at home and abroad. While the reasons for this neglect are not conclusive, the current state of affairs [End Page 60] of academia in Japan suggests several possibilities. Tomoko Aoyama claims the marginalization of women and children in Japan has resulted in an academic disinterest of them as research subjects (285), while Mark McLelland asserts there is a lingering reticence amongst Japanese scholars to regard sexuality as a serious topic (61). According to him, sex (which would indubitably imbue any discourse on maids) is a particularly ungainly subject in Japan, and its status as a type of asobi (play) renders it a topic that respectable people should refrain from openly discussing. The reserve of Japanese academics to approach the otaku subculture (on which characters such as the maid rest heavily) is also a likely cause of her neglect. While in recent years there has been a tremendous surge in studies examining the otaku phenomenon (perhaps due to the government's Cool Japan initiative to promote manga and anime3 abroad),4 Hiroki Azuma claims that for a large part of their history they were maligned by the mainstream press as perverted sociopaths and deemed an unwholesome topic of research (Azuma, Superflat). This was due solely to an infamous incident in the late 1980s when a manga aficionado was arrested for murdering four young girls.5 English-language research on maids is also profoundly scarce, due, perhaps, to Timothy Iles' claim that academics are discouraged by the potential of discussions on otaku culture to result in never-ending critiques of contemporary Japanese society (1). Nevertheless, this article aims to shed light on the stifled Japanese maid, and approaches two further subjects typically verboten in Japan: carnality and corporeality.

Ready-Maid in Japan: A Historical Overview

Had the female domestic servants of nineteenth-century Britain known their influence would resonate more than a hundred and fifty years into the future and more than half a world away on the islands of Japan, they would no doubt have been stupefied. They were a potent and widespread force, who numbered an estimated two million at their apex and at one time represented forty percent of all working females in the south of the country (Henshall Momsen 3). They have since become the undisputed cultural icons of the Victorian era, encroaching even on the "collective imagery" of the Edwardian epoch (Gregson and Lowe 51). This status as a cultural symbol can be attributed to their many representations across various popular media, including British television dramas (such as Upstairs, Downstairs and You Rang, M'Lord?), acclaimed novels like those by Ivy Compton Burnett, and autobiographical pieces by working-class British women themselves (51).

The Japanese avatar of the Victorian maid, the meido, is also fast becoming a cultural icon of her time, and is a fierce adversary of both the uniformed schoolgirl and the geisha as the ultimate female symbol of Japan. Once relegated to the disreputable underside of otaku culture, the maid persona is now so mainstream and omnipresent that she is touted in tourist brochures,6 listed in international guidebooks,7 and is an official welcoming mascot to the Akihabara district of Tokyo, the main hub for anime and manga enthusiasts in Japan (see fig. 1). She is also the visage for the Akihabara branch of Yodobashi Camera, a leading electronics store in Japan (see fig. 2), and can be [End Page 61] encountered on nearly every corner in one form or another throughout the entire neighborhood. Yet this power of the British domestic servant to capture the artistic imagination has only managed to traverse cultural boundaries in recent times. The maid as a source of inspiration for Japanese artists and authors is a relatively new phenomenon when compared to other figures of popular culture (Nicholas Bornoff acknowledges a history of more than fifty years of the schoolgirl [50]), but despite having only emerged in the past decade she has been embraced with enthusiasm and vigor across Japan.

Fig. 1. Images of the maid character (and her quasi-animal form) have become integrated into mainstream popular culture, such as this welcome sign on the main street of Akihabara that greets visitors to the area.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig. 1.

Images of the maid character (and her quasi-animal form) have become integrated into mainstream popular culture, such as this welcome sign on the main street of Akihabara that greets visitors to the area.

The origins of the maid character in Japan are obscure, and remain unexplored academically. While Azuma claims the very first maid-like costume was witnessed in the pornographic animation Cream Lemon: Black Cat Mansion (Otaku 42), many Japanese fan websites insist it was neither a comic book publication nor an anime series that vivified the maid, but rather the highly popular video and gaming industry.

More specifically, it was pornographic computer games and so-called visual novels that produced the first incarnation.8 These come in a variety of forms in Japan, reflected by their categorization and the names they are commonly known by, such as erogê (erotic games), bishôjo gêmu (pretty girl games), and renai gêmu (dating-simulation games). An otaku staple that developed in the 1980s, these games are almost unheard of in Western gaming markets but flourish in Japan, where new release titles retail between ¥8000-¥10000, and where sales can exceed one million copies (Taylor 193). The [End Page 62] most probable cause of these games failing to garner any popularity in North America or Europe is their explicit sexual content, which often features motifs such as the rape and molestation of young women.9 Bishôjo games characteristically allow the player to act as the male protagonist of an elaborate story, whose primary aim is to establish relationships with female characters while interacting to a small degree with ancillary characters such as family members and neighbors (194). While dialogue is spoken by female voice actors, the voice, thoughts and actions of the central male character are always represented by on-screen text only (194). Dating-simulation games cannot be likened to arcade video games, as they demand minimal interaction from players with large portions of the game requiring the player to do nothing more than watch. This passiveness renders them more like mildly interactive pornographic manga and anime, as players on occasion do select certain options and choose endings (197).

Fig. 2. Logo for Yodobashi Camera.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig. 2.

Logo for Yodobashi Camera.

In 1995 the company C's Ware released the erotic game Kindan no ketsuzoku ("Forbidden Kinship"). The gamer takes the place of the central character Osato Kenya, who, shortly after the sudden death of his parents in a car accident, is adopted by a wealthy widow and goes to live in her mansion ( Once there, the sordid nature of the family is revealed, and while "pursuing lust in this world of obscene pleasures" (, the objective of the player is to uncover the family secret. Of particular significance to this narrative is the maid of the mansion, a young girl named Sayori. Known [End Page 63] for her willingness to submit to any sexual act, Sayori is possibly the earliest maid character to appear in any bishôjo game and is the potential initiator of a wave of popularity with the maid persona in the video gaming world. While the attire of Sayori as a maid was distinctly Victorian (a full length black gown and white pinafore), there were no direct references to her background or to the period of the setting. This lack of definition would not be repeated however, when the first all-maid cast appeared a year later in the erotic game Kara no naka no kotori ("Little Bird Inside the Shell") and its sequel Hinadori no Saezuri ("Song of the Baby Bird"). Set in Victorian Britain during the industrial revolution, the games were significant in positioning the origins of the meido, and directly linked her to the female domestic servants of nineteenth-century England.10 Both have since become pornographic anime productions, a common cross-media transformation for both erotic games and manga.

As more of these games were produced and subsequently made into erotic comic books and X-rated animations, the maid persona firmly became associated with sexual submission. The corporeal representations of the maid in these media are quite formulaic, with oversized (and often bare) breasts, accentuated by plunging necklines and complemented by short skirts that expose most of the legs. When compared to the uniforms of true Victorian maids, the bodies of these newly incarnated meido are effectively eroticized by revealing excess flesh in the areas of the legs, chest and also the arms with sleeveless uniforms. While the body of the maid in these genres is invariably a vessel for subjugation, she is eroticized not only in a corporeal manner, but also by way of her inherently subservient disposition. The storylines of these erotic manga consistently delineate the maid protagonist as a naïve ingénue, vulnerable and at the total mercy of her master (the central male character of the narrative). While this is fiction, depictions of this sort are not entirely historically inaccurate, and many historians acknowledge that in both Japan and Britain, sexual relationships (consensual and non-consensual) between maids and master were common.11 This point has obvious appeal to such genres preoccupied with sexual exploits, and erotic manga like Maid in Japan, Rental Maid, 100% Maid and Meido Wo Nerae ("Target Maids") epitomize the submissiveness in such relationships, with all four narratives formulaically centering on the obeisant and innocent qualities of the maid, subdual at the hands of her master, and the ravishing of her body.

As this maid phenomenon developed, animal cosplay was a concomitant motif in erotic manga. It is difficult to pinpoint an exact period when this theme first emerged, though it abounds in manga productions from the mid to late 1990s and is still commonly seen today. Cosplay, combining the words "costume" and "role play," refers to the practice of dressing as a manga, anime, movie or game character, and involves emulating not only the clothing of the persona, but also their gestures and attitudes (Norrie and Bainbridge 1). As the name animal cosplay suggests, imitating animals by adding accessories to the body such as pointy ears and long furry tails is at the core of this practice. In erotic comic books a small number of mammals are the inspiration for this transformation of the female body into this quasi-animal form, including rabbits, foxes, and dogs, though none appear with the frequency of cats. [End Page 64]

The symbolism of the female body taking on cat-like elements in these manga is quite striking. In the narratives the women usually take on the role of pets, and like the maid persona submit entirely to the main male character. These storylines are as formulaic as those in maid-inspired erotic manga, with the sex act always following one of two trajectories: (i) the woman is coerced into submitting, or (ii) she does so of her own volition. However, even in the narratives where she resists unwanted advances at first, she always finds pleasure in them once the act is in progress and comments positively once it is over. With these two separate phenomena (i.e., animal cosplay and maids), it seems inevitable that an amalgamation of them would soon emerge, and it did in the form of the "neko meido" (cat maid). Combining the various interpretations of the Victorian maid costume and elements of animal cosplay, the body of the cat maid, like those of the women before her, appeared across the whole spectrum of erotic comic books, games, and animations.

Yet not everything about the maid and her hybrid incarnation had overtly sexual dimensions. Along with the boom of maid characters in the gamut of erotic productions, the intense interest in the persona was also solidified in a literary manner devoid of explicit sexual connotation or innuendo. According to Kiyo Hayakawa, this fascination with the maid identity and costume culminated in 1999 with the immense popularity of the manga series Mahoromatic (28). The eponymous heroine introduced fans of the maid genre to a different side of the maid persona, since she was "a tough and noble young girl" (tsuyoku kedakai onna no ko) and was the precursor to numerous other maid-themed productions. These include the love story Emma (about a maid in Victorian England who falls in love with a wealthy upper class man) by author Mori Kaoru, and the 2005 television drama series Densha Otoko ("Train Man"), which depicted the male protagonist as an ardent habitué of maid cafés (Hayakawa 32).

By the start of the new millennium the maid character had a large repertoire of productions to her name, and was well on her way to becoming a permanent icon of Japanese popular culture by traversing both sexual and non-sexual genres to enter the mainstream.

Kawaii and Moe: The Cute Pseudo-Romance

The concepts of kawaii and moe are pivotal to considering the animalization of the maid body. Kawaii, most commonly translated into English as "cute," is a loaded and complex term that carries a large number of nuances, subtleties and connotations. It has been the subject of numerous scholarly enquiries, and myriad opinions exist as to what exactly constitutes this aesthetic. According to Yuko Kinsella, the word kawaii can be equated with childlike attributes and "celebrates sweet, adorable, innocent, pure, simple, genuine, gentle, vulnerable, weak, and inexperienced social behaviour and physical appearances" (220). For Sharon Hasegawa:

the concept of kawaii includes elements such as "cute," "pretty," and "lovely," but it is not restricted to these. It also implies something precious: something that we are [End Page 65] drawn towards and which stimulates one's feeling of wanting to protect something that is pure and innocent.


Brian McVeigh agrees that kawaii inevitably evokes feelings of pity or compassion, as it "arouses the protective instinct in others," and is "a desire . . . to be liked by expressing weakness" (139). Christine Yano also insists this sense of solicitousness is crucial to understanding kawaii, explaining that it "suggests positioning within interpersonal relationships through the verb kawaigaru (to give loving care). To be kawaii is to elicit a response from beholders that asks for that care . . . kawaii thus reflects fundamental relationalities of the helpless and helper, the kept and the keeper, the dependent and the dependable" (58).

Kawaii can encompass an entire sensibility. While it can be a type of fashion, it is also "a way of thinking, of being, of speaking, of writing, and of gesticulating" (Gomarasca 29).12 More specifically, the term kawaii itself "represents everything that is small, infantile, asexual, gentle, defenceless, or what one can cajole" (29).13 Sôichi Masubuchi believes one fundamental element of kawaii is having animal-like characteristics (qtd. in Yano, 57), a quality Yano links to protectiveness since animals require looking after and training. She also claims that kawaii has elements of a sexual nature attached to it, which are often mediated by the shôjo (young girls between the ages of 10 and 14) and consumer culture. In whatever ways cuteness as a sentiment is manifested though, on the whole it "communicates power relations and power plays, effectively combining weakness, sub-missiveness, and humility with influence, domination and control" (McVeigh 139).

Perhaps not yet as pervasive as kawaii but as equally important, the concept of moe is also inextricably linked to the maid and her body. The origins of the word in its contemporary context are unknown, however it most likely derives from the verb moeru, which means "to sprout" or "to bud" in the sense of a plant or tree. The word is also a homonym for the verb moeru, meaning "to burn" (Galbraith 154). Patrick Macias and Tomohiro Machiyama claim the term was first used on an Internet forum in a discussion on female anime characters, and possibly came into existence through a typing error (49).14 It is also possible that it is derived from the names of a string of young female anime characters (Galbraith 154).15

Moe is an extremely abstract concept, which Aki Enomoto believes is impossible to articulate with precision given it is an emotional response to an object. Nevertheless he makes an attempt, stating that fundamentally:

When otaku contemplate the objects associated with their interests (such as anime, games, idols . . .) they may think to themselves things like "I really like this," "what a rush," or "this is great." These intuitive feelings of pleasantness, which cannot effectively be put into words, have all been placed under the category of moe.


Takurô Morinaga believes moe is a much stronger sentiment, and is about being in love with an animation character (36). This is not just a strong penchant in the sense of being [End Page 66] a fan, but love for and the need to be with the character as if it were human. Patrick Galbraith seems to agree with this, defining moe as a softer incarnation of Japan's widespread tendency towards the "Lolita Complex" (a predilection for younger girls) and is essentially used "among otaku to mean getting fired up for beauties" (154). Considering both these meanings is perhaps the safest way to approach moe: while it can be a "pseudo-romance" ("gijirenai"), it also "expresses a liking or a preference, though that will be contained in that penchant will vary from person to person" (Enomoto 30).17

In the following section I shall return to synthesize these concepts and explore how they are manifested inside maid cafés through the channel of the animalized body, but in order to understand this it is essential first to explore the maid café per se and the activities that take place inside them.

The Maid Café and the Maid Body: A Marriage of Reified Moe and Kawaii

What exactly is a maid café? Hayakawa believes that the precursor of the maid café is the American establishment known as Anna Miller's, a family restaurant chain that first opened in both Hawaii and Japan in 1973 (26). The waitresses in Japan are renowned for their uniforms, which consist of a white blouse and a short orange apron dress that sits just below the bust, heavily accentuating the breasts (26). The popularity of the restaurant in the 1990s inspired artists to make cafés the setting for various games and visual novels, most of which were aimed at the otaku audience (26). One such game was Pia kyarotto e yôkoso! ("Welcome to Pia Carrot"), released in 1997 and set in the fictional chain restaurant Pia Carrot. The main male character is a waiter in the restaurant, and the aim of the player is to establish relationships with his female co-workers, who are all dressed in various costumes, of which the maid character is a prominent figure. The game and its sequels were a huge success, and an exhibition at a cosplay convention in 1998 where waitresses in costume served food and drinks in a simulated Pia Carrot restaurant was equally popular. This prompted organizers to search for a more permanent location, and the concept eventually snowballed into the first ever all-maid café in Tokyo. The Cure Maid Cafe opened in March 2001, paving the way for the debut of several other maid cafés (Hayakawa 28). Today Akihabara boasts the largest concentration of maid cafés in Japan, though their popularity has spread nationwide with large cities like Osaka, Nagoya, and Yokohama now all sporting similar venues.

Ostensibly maid cafés are small establishments where the waitresses are dressed in variations of the maid costume, and differ dramatically in terms of interior décor and desired ambiance. Some, such as the Cure Maid Cafe (Akihabara) and the Wonder Parlour Cafe (Ikebukuro), strive to recreate the atmosphere of rustic Victorian manors with their wooden floors, cabinets full of fine china, grandfather clocks, Union Jack flags and wall-paper plastered walls imitating brick and stone. Others, such as Maid Station Cafe (Akihabara), aspire for a more modern and chic look by furnishing the interior with suave white leather sofas and hanging trendy pop art on the walls. Most, however, identify as moe-kei and fall under this category when listed in local print media. These cafés [End Page 67] are typically painted in either a variety of pastel colors or have a completely pink-colored theme, often filling every available space with figurines and stuffed toy animals. From these differences it is clear that no one type of maid café exists, and there is a multitude of motifs between these three main rubrics (For example, Yûrei Maid Cafe Eine Burg (Akihabara) is decked out in the style of a haunted seventeenth-century German castle, and Mononopu has a war-time samurai theme).

The style of costume that maids wear varies tremendously from café to café in accordance with the type of ambiance it is aiming to reflect. Cure Maid Cafe (Akihabara) and Schatzkiste (Akihabara) have remained true to the style of Victorian-era domestic servants, with long black dresses that extend to the floor, long-sleeves that cover the arms completely, and full-length white aprons and frilly caps. Many others like Maid Station Cafe (Akihabara) and Maid in Cafe (Osaka) have interpretations of this attire influenced by modern fashion—while the colors of the uniforms are restricted to black and white, the skirts are considerably shorter in length (usually above the knee) and have accompaniments such as lace and bow ties. The footwear also varies, though high heels and socks usually replace the flat closed-toe black loafers worn in the Victorian style cafés. Establishments like Mel Cafe (Osaka) and Cafe Andante (Osaka) have similar varieties of this modern look but are in different colors (such as yellow and dark green), while at the opposite end of this spectrum the moe-kei cafés (such as Maid Cafe Pinafore and Royal Milk in Akihabara) seem to have completely redesigned versions of the maid costume, creating an almost Lolita-esque version of it. This incorporates miniskirts with a multitude of "cute" accessories, including pink hand bags, headbands and ribbons, clip-on toys attached to the apron, and most important to this discussion on the corporeal representations of the maid, mammal-like accessories that adorn the body. These include: (i) a variety of furry ears (ones that are cat-like, being pink on the inside and dark-colored around the edges, long rabbit ears, and pointed vulpine ears); (ii) clip-on furry tails that are attached to the strings of the apron or directly onto the skirt; (iii) paw-like gloves (only ever one, presumably for logistical reasons); and (iv) fine lines drawn across the face in make-up to simulate whiskers (only on rare occasions). Examples of these hybrid characters can be seen in Figures 3 and 4.

While these quasi-animal characters consisting of appendages from rabbits, dogs, and foxes can all be subsumed under a general cosplay term, the cat maid, as with the pages of erotic manga, appears with the highest frequency inside maid cafés. This is reflected not only in the costuming practices of the establishments where pink cat ears are worn, but also in the feline-themed activities and accessories that accompany almost all trips to moe-kei maid cafés. One such activity is collecting and taking cheki (small photographs that are shot with an Instant Polaroid camera). All maid cafés have a strict policy that prohibits customers from taking their own photographs in any form, whether it be with a mobile phone or personal digital camera. While one reason may be to protect the privacy of customers who may object to being photographed in such establishments, another reason is for the commercial value of cheki. Each photograph taken with the maid costs between three and five US dollars, and is decorated with artwork, [End Page 68]

Fig. 3. A quasi-animal maid (resembling a fox) tour guide with me in Akihabara.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig. 3.

A quasi-animal maid (resembling a fox) tour guide with me in Akihabara.

Fig. 4. A cat maid (with white clip-on tail and ears) distributing flyers on the main street of Akihabara.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig. 4.

A cat maid (with white clip-on tail and ears) distributing flyers on the main street of Akihabara.

[End Page 69]

the name of the café, the date visited, and quite often a personal message about the customer's experience in the café. The concept behind cheki is to start a collection of different maids and different cafés, almost in the fashion of accumulating base-ball/collector cards. While on a recent fieldtrip I observed men who had entire folders of these and were proudly showing them to other patrons seated nearby, and many cafés accommodate this practice by selling merchandise such as photos albums for the cheki collection to be kept in. Ken Kitabayashi claims that the activity of collecting is an important element of the otaku psyche, and designates this as one of six needs they must fulfil (15).18 Cheki may be taken together with the maid of the customer's choice, or an individual photo of a maid may also be requested. When photos are taken with a patron, the most common motion initiated by the maids is what is known as the neko pôzu ("cat pose"), where a cat is imitated (see figs. 5, 6, and 7). It often involves the customer placing cat ear accessories on their head, and consists of making a clenched fist (with limp wrists) in order to simulate a cat preparing to clean its face. The artwork is also injected with a feline sentimentality. The cheki in Figures 5 and 6 have the words nyan ("meow") inscribed, accompanied by a paw print. Figures 6 and 7 have ears and whiskers drawn onto the face, while Figure 7 has the head of a pink cat drawn in on the bottom right. The activity of taking cheki and the artwork that follows are undeniably the pinnacle of animal moe where the body not only of the maid but also the customer take on this feline form.

Fig. 5. Cat pose with cat ear accessory
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig. 5.

Cat pose with cat ear accessory

(@home Cafe, Akihabara)

[End Page 70]

Fig. 6. Cat pose with whiskers and ears drawn on (Cafe Doll, Osaka)
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig. 6.

Cat pose with whiskers and ears drawn on (Cafe Doll, Osaka)

Fig. 7. Cat pose with ears and picture of cat head drawn on (Cafe de Porte, Osaka)
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig. 7.

Cat pose with ears and picture of cat head drawn on (Cafe de Porte, Osaka)

[End Page 71]

This propensity of animal moe to be manifested in maid cafés does not cease here. Another salient activity common to almost all establishments is rakugaki (literally "graffiti"), which is the practice of drawing on food using condiments such as ketchup and chocolate topping. Again "cute" cats (fig. 8) and other mammals (fig. 9) are prevalent themes, and in most cases the maid performs a high-pitched chant (which the customer is asked to repeat), reciting the word "moe" to inject "love" into the food to make it taste more delicious.

Fig. 8. Feline visage drawn in ketchup.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig. 8.

Feline visage drawn in ketchup.

What can be understood from the animalizing of the maid body to create the hybrid cat maid and all of these animal-oriented activities? The basis of the maid café is clearly a communicative exchange, and as such these establishments are not at all dissimilar to kyabakura and hostess bars. Kyabakura (a portmanteau word from the English "cabaret club," though depending on the club they provide little to no cabaret-style entertainment) are venues that have expensive cover charges where male customers chat to and are entertained by hostesses, and are generally open from late evening to the early hours of the morning. Anne Allison has documented the importance of these venues in establishing after-hours camaraderie amongst male colleagues at the workplace and in corporate bonding, but maid cafés seem to cater for more of an individual experience. The motives for customers to visit these types of establishments appear different, despite [End Page 72] both acting as platforms for communication. Many maid cafés market themselves as locations for kokoro no iyashi, which translates to "healing of the mind," and patrons of maid cafés effectively appear to be engaging in a kind of communicative therapy. Visits are on the premise of momentary escapism, relief of stress, and perhaps a fleeting "pseudo-romance."

Fig. 9. Miffy-inspired rabbit created with chocolate topping
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig. 9.

Miffy-inspired rabbit created with chocolate topping

This is evident from two factors: the type of language employed between maids and patrons (keigo, the honorific form of the Japanese language, is rarely used when conversing after the standard formalized "welcome home master" greeting is given to customers when they first enter the café), and the so-called communication service that most maid cafés provide. Many establishments typically have what is known as a communication menu, detailing the price and activities available to patrons for "alone time" in a private room with a maid. There is usually a 30, 45, or 60-minute option (with the cheapest starting at around ¥5000), that allows patrons to engage in activities with the maid of their choice, such as playing video games together, chatting, reading manga, and watching anime. This interaction, however, is governed by a number of strict rules, which are usually explained on large signs that are posted on the walls, or printed on laminated cards placed on the tables. Five identifiable rules are common to all cafés: (i) never touch the maids in any way, (ii) never ask for their personal or contact details [End Page 73] (such as their real name, cell phone number, or address), (iii) never ask to add them as friends on mixi (a social networking site in Japan similar to Facebook), (iv) never ask for the hours of the shifts they work, and (v) never make any gesture or action, or say anything that a maid would deem offensive, inappropriate, or find uncomfortable. Regulated by these directives, the interaction during this communication service is thus a one-way flow of information as the maids generate a discussion with customers about their hobbies, interests, and events in their life, but asking them similar questions in return is a strict taboo. The idea of this seems to be to keep the cafés sex-free domains, lines which often seem blurred in the so-called water trade of hostess bars and cabaret clubs.19

The animalized body of the maid acts as an aid in this process of communicative therapy. To be precise, it attempts to elicit moe and kawaii, which work in unison and have the objective of "sweeten(ing) social relations by making what is otherwise a ritualised, serious, formalised social existence more spontaneous, light-hearted and intimate" (McVeigh 139). The rigid social structures in place throughout Japan usually prevent any sense of familiarity between client and vendor from developing, and maid cafés strive to break down these barriers by offering a highly personalized and interactive experience for patrons. In essence, the aim of the maid's animalized body is not only to create a sense of comfort during maid/patron interaction, but also to soften the authoritarian dimensions that dictate such communicative encounters. This type of animalization is far removed from the "want" versus "need" structure that Kojève asserts and Azuma supports, since it is highly dependent on the "other" to function properly. Azuma implies the combination of animal cosplay and maid costumes evokes a kind of "double moe" (47), and while this may be so, I suggest there are elements of kawaii that he overlooks, as well as the importance of an imagined sense of domesticity that the cat maids provide. With the associations of cats as domesticated animals and maids as domestic laborers, the hybridized form of their bodies helps to reinforce for the customer a feeling of coziness and familiar surroundings. This in turn initiates intimacy and reassurance on a subconscious level, assisting interaction and communication with the maids.

Concluding Remarks

The function of the animalized maid body in maid cafés is to evoke moe and kawaii. By eliciting these phenomena, the formal, stringent rituals normally associated with the customer/vendor dichotomy in Japan are weakened to create an environment conducive to a variety of communicative "therapies" (such as the taking of cheki, the art of rakugaki, and private time with maids). These therapies are marketed as "healing of the mind" and are bound by strict directives, which prompt a secondary function of moe and kawaii in softening the authoritative voice of these rules in a soothing, home-like atmosphere. This theme of a highly personalized service and communicative therapy resting on moe and kawaii (induced by the animalization of the maid body) corresponds to [End Page 74] many other animal cosplay activities and venues located in Japan, with the wide ranging (cat) maid services, including reflexology clinics, tour guides, dating agencies, casinos and hair salons, all of which animalize the body for the same effect and with the same intent.

Luke Sharp
University of New South Wales
Luke Sharp

Luke Sharp is currently a PhD candidate in the School of Languages and Linguistics at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, where he has tutored courses on contemporary Japan, cultural studies, and global media. His major research interests center on Japanese popular culture, such as otaku, the cosplay maid phenomenon, and representations of shôjo across various Japanese media.


1. Hayakawa, Meido Kissa de Aimashô [Let's Meet Up at the Maid Café] (26). The original reads: "meido kafe no daigomi wa, honrai no anime ya manga, gêmu nado ni sonzai shinai 'moe kyara' toshite no meidosan to, riaru kûkan de tanoshimeru koto da." All translations in this article are made by me.

2. A full discussion of the term otaku is beyond the scope of this article, though it is often (incorrectly) translated into English as "nerd" or "geek." In modern Japanese vernacular it connotes "an over-the-top fan, hobbyist, or enthusiast of any sort" (Abel and Kono 117) and essentially "is a general term referring to those who indulge in forms of subculture strongly linked to anime, video games, computers, science fiction, special-effects films, anime figurines, and so on" (Azuma, Otaku 3).

3. Throughout this article I use the terms "anime" and "animation" interchangeably, as I do with "manga" and "comic book."

4. Michal Daliot-Bul explains that for many years in Japan media content such as anime, manga, and computer and video games were regarded merely as forms of entertainment and were not considered for their economic value. After the collapse of the economy in the early 1990s, the burgeoning popularity of these media in overseas markets gained attention in Japan and their commercial potential was reevaluated. This culminated in 2002 when the Japanese government introduced a new policy to promote them overseas, branding it as Cool Japan (250).

5. This is widely known as the Miyazaki Tsutomu incident. Mizuko Ito claims that the press labelled Miyazaki as the "otaku murderer" since his room was found to be filled with pornographic manga and anime (53). A public backlash against fans of these media ensued, and after the incident the term otaku "came to be used and recognised by the mainstream as a stigmatising label for somebody who is obsessed with media mix content and out of touch with everyday social reality."

6. Many free maps provided at train and subway stations in the Akihabara area are completely dedicated to listing maid cafés and other shops associated with maid paraphernalia. One such map is the Boku no Akiba Mappu ("My Akiba Map"), which lists all such stores and cafés in the immediate area around the JR Akihabara station and the quarter west of Chûô dôrt (the main street of Akihabara).

7. The seventh edition of the Tokyo City Guide by Lonely Planet lists the @home Cafe in Akihabara under the section "Eating" (160).

8. Visual novels, known in Japanese as bijuaru noberu, are not printed novels as the name might suggest, but are interactive computer games with narratives.

9. This is exemplified by an incident in February 2009, when the American Internet retailer was criticized for permitting the sale of the pornographic videogame RapeLay on its websites outside of Japan. The Agence France Presse reported that while the computer game manufacturer would not comment at length, it did insist the game was [End Page 75] intended for the Japanese market only and had been authorized by a domestic ethics committee (

10. Even though servitude was a phenomenon not unique to Britain, particular styles of liveries were. Cissie Fairchilds claims that in Old Regime France, despite male servants often wearing expensive and lavish uniforms, their female counterparts commonly wore just the cast-offs of their mistresses (103), while Gary Leupp mentions that maids in Tokugawa Japan wore blue kimonos (3).

11. Bridget Hill asserts that maids in England were particularly sexually vulnerable since most were young, single, removed from their only source of protection (their family and friends) having travelled from rural areas, and had no privacy (44). Leupp believes that sexual relationships between masters and maidservants in Tokugawa Japan were rarely initiated by love and affection, but were rather a mercenary incentive on the maids' part in addition to their normal remunerated work (94).

12. The original reads: "une manière de penser, d'être, de parler, d'écrire, de gesticuler."

13. In the original, "kawaii désigne tout ce qui est petit, enfantin, asexué, doux, sans défense ou que l'on peut cajoler."

14. Here the Japanese script hiragana for moeru would have been changed into the incorrect Chinese character, thus altering the meaning from "to burn" into "to bud."

15. Examples include Sagisawa Moe in Dinosaur Planet, Takasu Moe in Taiyo ni Smashu and Tomoe Hotaru from Sailor Moon S (Galbraith 154).

16. The original reads: "otakutachi ga kyômi no taishô (anime de attari, gêmu de attari, aidoru de attari . . .) wo mita toki ni 'a, suki dana,' 'gutto kuru na', 'kore wa ii!' to omottari, kotoba ni dekizu ni modaeru yôna kaikan wo kanjitari suru yôna furuku kara atta kankaku wo, jippahitokarage ni kukutte shimatta no ga 'moe' nanoda."

17. The original reads: "otakuteki na [suki] [konomi] no hyôgen da ga, kojin ni yori naiyô wa kotonaru."

18. Kitabayashi explains that putting the objects of one's fixation in order evokes "a feeling of superiority" ("yûetsukan"), though there is a tendency for this to be accompanied by "obsessiveness" ("kyôhaku kannen"; 16). This sentiment of superiority stems from the initial feelings of satisfaction and fulfilment ("manzokukan") that one attains having achieved a complete collection of something, taking pride in their own ability to have completed such a task. Obsession, on the other hand, is likely to come from a desire not to want to quit, a feeling experienced when a collection may have reached a certain point, and not continuing may feel like failing.

19. Mackie explains that the literal translation of the term "water trade" from the Japanese "Mizu Shôbai" is a "vague and euphemistic term for occupations connected with bars, entertainment, hostessing and sex work" (421).

Works Cited

Abel, Jonathan E., and Shion Kono. "Translators' Introduction." Otaku: Japans Database Animals. Hiroki Azuma. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009. Print.
Allison, Anne. Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. Print. [End Page 76]
"Amazon retire Jeux Video Obscene vente Japon Internet Pornographie Illusion USA" 2009. Web. 18 Mar. 2009.
Aoyama, Tomoko. "The Girl, the Body, and the Nation in Japan and the Pacific Rim: Introduction." Asian Studies Review 32.3 (2008): 285-92. Print.
Azuma, Hiroki. Otaku: Japan's Database Animals. Trans. Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009. Print.
———. Superflat Japanese Postmodernity. 5 April 2001. Web. 4 May 2010.
Boku no Akiba Mappu [My Akiba Map], Tokyo: Asoma-Navi, 2010. Print.
Bornoff, Nicholas. "Sex and Consumerism: the Japanese State of the Arts." Consuming Bodies: Sex and Contemporary Japanese Art. Ed. Fran Lloyd. London: Reaktion Books, 2002. 41-68. Print.
Daliot-Bul, Michal. "Japan Brand Strategy: The Taming of 'Cool Japan' and the Challenges of Cultural Planning in a Postmodern Age." Social Science Japan Journal 12.2 (2009): 247-66. Print.
Enomoto, Aki. Otaku no Koto ga omoshiroi hodo ga wakaru Hon—An Easy Guide to Otaku. Tokyo: Chûkei Shuppan, 2009. Print.
Fairchilds, Cissie. Domestic Enemies: Servants and their Masters in Old Regime France. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984. Print.
Firestone, Matthew, and Timothy Hornyak. Lonely Planet Tokyo 7th Edition: City Guide. Footscray: Lonely Planet Publications, 2008. Print.
Galbraith, Patrick. The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider's Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2009. Print.
"Gloria Kindan no Ketsuzoku" n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2009.
Gomarasca, Alessandro. Poupées, Robots: La Culture Pop Japonaise. Paris: Éditions Autrement, 2001. Print.
Gregson, Nicky, and Michelle Lowe. Servicing the Middle Classes: Class, Gender and Waged Domestic Labour in Contemporary Britain. London: Routledge, 1994. Print.
"GS00004501" n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2009.
Hasegawa, Yuko. "Post-identity Kawaii: Commerce, Gender and Contemporary Japanese Art." Consuming Bodies: Sex and Contemporary Japanese Art. Ed. Fran Lloyd. London: Reaktion Books, 2002. Print.
Hatoya, Mameshichi. Meido 100% [100% Maid]. Tokyo: G-Walk, 2007. Print.
Hayakawa, Kiyo, et al. Meido Kissa de Aimashô [Let's Meet Up at the Maid Café]. Tokyo: Aruzu Shuppan, 2008. Print.
Henshall Momsen, Janet. "Maids on the Move: Victim or Victor." Women: Gender, Migration and Domestic Service. Ed. Janet Henshall Momsen. London: Routledge, 1999. 1-20. Print.
Hill, Bridget. Servants: English Domestics in the Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. Print.
Iles, Timothy. "Connected by Characters: Animating the Postmodern Community." Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies 31 Oct. 2009: n.pag. Web. 9 Apr. 2010.
Ito, Mizuko. "Japanese Media Mixes and Amateur Cultural Exchange." Digital Generations: Children, Young People, and New Media. Ed. David Buckingham and Rebekah Willett. Mahwah: Laurence Erlbaum Associates, Inc, 2006. 49-66. Print. [End Page 77]
Kinsella, Sharon. "Cuties in Japan." Women, Media, and Consumption in Japan. Ed. Lise Skov and Brian Moeran. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1995. 220-254. Print.
Kitabayashi, Ken. "Otaku Kôdô Riron." Otaku Shijô no Kenkyû—Otaku Marketing. Ed. Nomura Research Institute. Tokyo: Tôyô Keizai Shinpôsha, 2005. 12-24. Print.
Leupp, Gary. Servants, Shophands, and Laborers in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992. Print.
McLelland, Mark. Male Homosexuality in Modern Japan: Cultural Myths and Social Realities. Richmond: Curzon Press, 2000. Print.
McVeigh, Brian. Wearing Ideology: State, Schooling and Self-Presentation in Japan. Oxford: Berg Publications, 2000. Print.
Macias, Patrick, and Tomohiro Machiyama. Cruising the Anime City: An Otaku Guide to Neo Tokyo. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2004. Print.
Mackie, Vera. "How to be a Girl: Mainstream Media Portrayals of Transgendered Lives in Japan. Asian Studies Review 32.3 (2008): 411-23. Print.
Masubuchi, Sôichi. Kawaii Shôkôgun. Tokyo: Nihon Hôsô Shuppan Kyôkai, 1994. Print.
Mori, Kaoru. Ema 1. Tokyo: Entâpurein, 2002. Print.
Morinaga, Takurô. Moe Keizaigaku [Moe Economics]. Tokyo: Kôdansha, 2005. Print.
Nakano, Hitori. Densha Otoko [Train Main]. Tokyo: Shinchôsha, 2004. Print.
Nakayama, Bunjûrô, and Bô Ditama. Mahoromattiku 1: Misatoke no Meidosan [Mahoromatic 1: The Maid of the Misato House]. Tokyo: Wani Books, 1999. Print.
Norris, Craig, and Jason Bainbridge. "Selling Otaku? Mapping the relationship between industry and fandom in the Australian cosplay scene." Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific 20 (2009): n. pag. Web. 10 Jan. 2010.
Orimoto, Mimana. Maid in Japan. Tokyo: Akita Shoten, 2008. Print.
Taylor, Emily. "Dating-simulation Games: Leisure and Gaming of Japanese Youth Culture." Southeast Review of Asian Studies 29 (2007): 192-208.
Tsubaki, Asu. Meido wo Nerae! Nakabayashi Kôchô no Kibô 1 [Target Maids! Prinicipal Nakabayashi's Wish I]. Tokyo: Fujimi Shobô, 2007. Print.
Usagino, Tamago. Rentaru Meido [Rental Maid]. Tokyo: Tsukasa Shobô, 2001. Print.
Yano, Christine. "Kitty Litter: Japanese Cute at Home and Abroad." Toys, Games and Media. Ed. Jeffrey H. Goldstein et al. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004. 55-71. Print. [End Page 78]

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.