A butler café (Japanese: 執事喫茶, Hepburn: shitsuji kissa) is a subcategory of cosplay restaurant found in East Asia, primarily Japan. In these cafés, waiters dress as butlers and serve patrons in the manner of domestic servants attending to aristocracy. Butler cafés proliferated in reaction to the popularity of maid cafés, and serve as an alternative category of cosplay restaurant intended to appeal to female otaku.
Maid cafés, where waitresses dress as maids to serve a primarily male clientele, achieved widespread popularity in Japan in the early 2000s. Butler cafés were conceived in response to their popularity, after entrepreneurs noted a rise in Internet message board postings from women who sought a "role-reversing alternative" to maid cafés. Women expressed their desire for an establishment where they could seek male companionship in an environment that was less costly than a host club, and more romantic and safe than a nightclub. Butlers were chosen as a male counterpart to maids, and to appeal to fairy tale princess fantasies.
The first butler café, Swallowtail, opened in March 2005. Swallowtail is located on Otome Road, a major shopping and cultural destination for female otaku in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, and was founded by management consulting firm Oriental Corporation and the anime and manga goods chain K-Books. In 2006, the café Butlers Café opened in Shibuya, Tokyo. Founded by former office worker Yuki Hirohata, Butlers Café employed a staff composed entirely of Western men, and allowed patrons to practice English with the butlers. Butlers Café closed in December 2018.
While maid cafés typically promote the physical attractiveness of the servers as their major selling point, butler cafés devote significant resources to environment, ambiance, and service. The central conceit of a butler café is that the customer is treated as an aristocrat who has returned to their home for tea, where they are waited on by a personal butler. Customers are "welcomed home" upon entering and referred to with honorary titles, with female customers referred to as ojōsama ("milady") or ohimesama ("princess") and male customers as bocchan ("young lord") or dannasama ("master"). High-quality food is served (the menu of Swallowtail was developed by Paul Okada, the food and beverage director at the Four Seasons Tokyo), and the interior of the restaurant is typically designed to resemble an English country house or manor house with imported and custom furniture. English-style afternoon tea is the most commonly-served food at butler cafés, including cakes, scones, sandwiches, and tea served in fine porcelain cups
Butlers typically range in age from 18 to 60, though some butlers are as old as 80, and receive extended training in tea preparation, etiquette, and restaurant service standards. Job titles for butlers correspond to those of household staff, including "house steward" for the most senior manager and "footman" for servers. Butlers also occasionally appear in musicals, stage plays and concerts organized by the café, and sell souvenirs and CDs.
Analysis and impact
Anime and manga scholar Susan J. Napier argues that butler cafés represent a widening of otaku culture to be inclusive of girls and women, but notes that the popularity of butler cafés does not necessarily represent a loosening of the culture's gender roles and expectations, stating that "maid and butler cafes, if anything, are reinforcing gender distinctions." Manga artist Keiko Takemiya "does not place great cultural significance" on butler cafés, but argues that they "allow Japanese women a chance to be served and escape their traditional role of serving men."
In 2006, Swallowtail reported serving more than 1,000 customers per month; at its peak, Butlers Café reported having 2,000 regular customers. Swallowtail reports that 80 percent of their customers are female, with women in their 20s and 30s forming the majority of their clientele. Butler cafés are additionally noted as having found particular popularity among fans of yaoi (male–male romance fiction) in their 30s and 40s.
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- @BUTLERS_CAFE (29 December 2018). "プリンセス、こんにちは。昨日無事、最後のお仕えを終え、当館は12年半の長い歴史に幕を降ろしました。長い間、沢山のプリンセスに愛されて幸せで御座いました。有難う御座います。そして、最後に何とか間に合わせて御都合をおつけ頂いた沢山のプリンセス、どうしても御都合がつかずお戻り頂くのが" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
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