TRANSLATED BY LENA OISHI
PHOTOS BY TAKAAKI TANAKA
Dieting is, sadly, an important ritual for girls all over the world. But as with everything else they do, the girls in Japan take it just that little bit too far, right up to the point where it’s basically obsessive-compulsive disorder. “Eat and lose weight!” diet fads are big here now. There are all-banana diets and all-natto [fermented soybeans that smell like your feet took a shit on a pile of trash] diets. When these programs are shown on TV, you can bet that the product in question will miraculously disappear off the shelves of your local supermarket the next day. Eating and losing weight at the same time sounds, um, stupid to people like you and me, but for Japanese ladies who have tried every dieting fad in the book for decades, it’s just another way to avoid getting on a fucking treadmill and laying off the mochi, which is the only way to really lose weight.
But it’s also here in Japan that a bunch of not-so-thin girls run Pomeranian: The Chubby Maid Café, every month in the otaku mecca of Akihabara. The waitresses all dress up in maid costumes, and they all have a nice, cozy amount of heft on them. They call their customers “master” and they attend to their every culinary whim and need. In Japan, the land that gave us rail-thin, orange-tanned, shopaholic gyaru, these chubby charmers are like a warm, soothing breeze that smells faintly of milk chocolate.
I felt a strange sense of calm at Pomeranian. Maybe it’s because the girls are unashamedly letting it all hang out, or perhaps it’s because being surrounded by chubby girls makes me forget how fat I am myself.
Either way, proudly showing off their flab in a nation famous for its low obesity rate and pressure to conform makes these girls sort of like the foodie equivalent of a crust-punk throwing a lit Molotov cocktail into a bank. Plus they’re cute. Did we say that already? They’re really cute.
Vice: When did you come up with the concept of the “chubby café”?
Ichigo: I used to work at a regular maid café until I realized that all of the other girls were much thinner than me. I guess I felt a sense of inferiority, but then I considered how I could turn that around and actually make it work for me. That’s how I came up with this café.
Maid cafés are very Japanese things. To be treated so gently by a waitress would shock a lot of people from other countries.
I’m personally a big fan of maid cafés and have been going to them for around five years. The maids are very polite and offer great service. While waitresses at regular cafés might slam a glass of water on the table, maids are very careful with the way they serve you and offer refills. I love when you can see just how much consideration they have for a customer.
Have you had any particularly unique customers?
Yes, one man wanted to take a Polaroid of every single maid in our café. We have this system where you can take a Polaroid with a maid for 500 yen, and this man wanted to pose with every single girl. He was at the café the whole day, waiting for the shift change so that he could get every one of us. I guess he’s a collector of maid photos [laughs].
Have you had any experiences where your chubbiness acted in your favor?
I find that people find me easily approachable. When it’s raining and I don’t have an umbrella, old ladies let me go under theirs. Also, I get asked for directions a lot. I suppose they think I’m friendly, but whether that’s an advantage, I don’t know! In any case, people tend to open up to me more.
I’m chubby too. Do you think I should be more confident about myself?
Sure. I think it’s definitely better for men to be a little on the chubby side rather than being rake thin, because you exude a sense of kindness that’s all-encompassing. As for girls, I also wish they wouldn’t take their chubbiness as a negative thing. There are tons of girls out there who are chubby and attractive, so they should regard them as role models. Also, even if you notice that someone’s chubby, you shouldn’t comment on their weight so much [laughs]. It’s a unique trait of theirs, and that’s an important thing to have.
Vice: You’re the head maid here. When did you start working at this café?
Tsukasa: Almost exactly one year ago. The first Pomeranian event was held on October 6 last year, and I joined at the third event in December. As the head maid I pass information on to the other maids, give them directions, and work as an organizer.
What’s your main selling point?
Well, even around here I’m on the larger side, so in that way I’m in keeping with the whole idea of the café itself. Being this size kind of suits me, so I guess customers who like chubby girls are attracted to me. But I’m not saying I love myself because of it.
Has working at Pomeranian changed you?
I used to be kind of shy, but through working here I’ve become someone who can enjoy being with people more. Getting to know and spending time with lots of different people has been really positive for me. I’m happy I do this.
What’s your favorite food?
Ice cream, especially soft ice cream. I had some yesterday, actually, and once a day would have to be my ideal minimum [laughs]. I like it so much I can eat it at pretty much any time of the day. My favorite flavor has to be rich milk or a thick, creamy type. Whatever, as long as it’s got milk in it. I don’t drink milk usually but I do tend to prefer ice creams with a full-bodied, milky flavor.
What do you talk to the customers about?
We usually comment on the customer’s clothing or what they’ve brought with them. Or, for example, today we’re running a school theme, so when someone comes in we ask if they’d like to be called Senpai [a Japanese term referring to seniors at school] or Teacher, then we continue conversing with them according to the theme. So with Senpai we speak as if we’re younger girls looking up to them, and with Teacher we act as if we’re one of their students. We think of different themes all the time, so one day you could see us dressed up as maids, and other days as something completely different. It all depends.
Vice: What’s your role in the café?
Kozue: I’m the maid chief. I plan projects and work on adjusting the fine details. For example, right now a lot of schools are hosting school festivals, so we’ve decided to go with the theme of Pomeranian School Festival. We’re all wearing things you would wear at school, such as sports uniforms. In April, we have events where we dress up in regular school uniforms to commemorate the enrollment ceremonies that Japanese schools host for new students. During Christmas, we all wear Santa Claus outfits. We also have Pigtail Day, where all of the maids wear pigtails with the regular maid costume. This was a big hit with our customers; they found it refreshing.
What’s your favorite food?
Carbohydrates like curry and ramen noodles. Out of all of the maids in this chubby maid café, I have the biggest appetite. I have a fast metabolism. When we all go out for a meal, I end up eating like crazy, ordering extra-large portions of rice and so on… And then I’ll have parfait for dessert and still feel hungry afterward.
Do you play any sports?
I’m a cheerleader at my university. Our team came in second place at the national championships. It’s OK for cheerleaders to be a little chubby, because we have to haul people up and do rigorous movements. It’s a sport where you use your entire body, and sometimes we even have to balance other girls on our shoulders, so in that respect I think it’s better if you’re sturdy.
What’s your signature pose when customers ask to take Polaroid shots with you?
One common pose is where you and the customer put your fingers together to make a heart shape. Also, since the café is called Pomeranian, we often wear dog ears on our heads and put a pair on the master’s head too. Then we both do the “doggy-ear pose.”
You seem slimmer than the other maids here.
I think the word “chubby” means different things to different people. For example, some people see Kanako Yanagihara [an overweight entertainer in Japan] as being “chubby,” but I personally think that “chubby” is just when you don’t fit into the clothes sold at normal clothing stores, which I don’t. So when I meet customers who have someone bigger like Kanako in mind, they often say that I’m pretty average-looking, slender even. It upsets me when they say that.
Vice: How long has it been since you started working at Pomeranian?
Kaya: I’ve been with Pomeranian since it opened, so that’s a month and a year now.
Where did you find out about it?
Well, before Pomeranian became Pomeranian, there was group called Utahime Party [Songstress Party] that hosted events. Like Pomeranian, this was also a place where fat people would get together, do cosplay, and just kind of enjoy themselves. I used to be one of the staff at those events and Ichigo used to host them. One day she came to me and offered me a job here.
What’s your maid character?
Well, at Pomeranian most of the girls are bright or cheerful, and there was no one here doing the opposite. So my maid character is a serious, strict kind of person.
What do you do to put across your serious side when in character?
There are things like not dyeing your hair and always watching your behavior. It’s pretty difficult.
What about when you talk?
When talking to customers, I’m careful not to make mistakes with my keigo [a very polite way of speaking in Japanese]. I have to look things up pretty regularly to make sure I’m getting it right.
And how do the customers react?
Some tell me they like it, while others have said they find the character too rigid.
Do you ever wish you could lose weight?
Sure, as a girl there is always the idea of wanting to lose weight, but then I have Pomeranian.
What’s changed for you since becoming a maid at Pomeranian?
I always said to myself, “I must lose weight, I must lose weight,” but since working here I now think, “There’s nothing wrong with being fat.” Being able to accept myself in that way has been a huge change. I’m a more confident person, and other people have said I’ve become more positive.
What’s good about being chubby?
The best thing is when you eat. People often say, “Wow, what you’re eating looks really tasty,” or “You really know how to enjoy yourself.” Hearing things like that makes me feel like people accept and like me, and it also means I get to eat loads. Meals are fun!