Japanese culture can often lend to bizarre experiences like wine spas or eating dolphins while playing with dolphins at water parks. It's no surprise that cosplay restaurants, themed dining establishments where waiters wear costumes, have been met with great success. Maid cafes are an offshoot of cosplay restaurants, where Japanese women dress up as servants and call male patrons “master” to provide an intimate experience. Tokyo created the first maid cafe in 2001, which has become the most popular representation of the category, with a clientele of hardcore gamers and anime nerds.
Over the past decade, cosplay restaurants have expanded into a wider variety of themes like chubby cafes and butler cafes. But when New York City’s very first cosplay cafe, Maid Cafe NY, opened this past summer, it was met with a rash of uncomfortable impressions from the media. Despite the cafe's seemingly innocent intentions, it perpetuates the stereotypes surrounding the fetishization of Asian women.
I wanted to find out what it’s like to have to deal with calling strangers “master” in the middle of drawing pictures of puppies and kittens with ketchup on egg omelettes, so I decided to visit the Chinatown establishment to spend time with one of the maids. Jamie Capdevilla-Santiago, a “maid” waitress at Maid Cafe NY, thinks that it is time for everyone to calm the fuck down about the treatment of her co-workers. She believes that even though some of her customers are convinced that she is a prostitute, the cafe is simply undergoing a cultural adjustment in the Big Apple.
VICE: How is this place different than a regular cafe?
Jaime: We give customers the illusion that they're royalty in their own castle and we are their maids.
So what exactly does a maid do here?
First, we say “Okaerinasaimase, goshujinsama!” when customers walk through the door, which means “Welcome home, master.”We have to remember to give them treatment according to the theme. This includes taking pictures with them if they ask while posing and making hearts with our hands. We even shape the food into heart shapes, or draw dogs or cats with sauce onto the food that we serve. I personally change my walk to be bouncier and cuter.
How do you think that your clientele receives the concept?
About 80 percent of our customers are already into Japanese culture, so they know what a maid cafe is and look for it. The other 20 percent think that it's not socially correct and wonder why girls put up with doing this on a daily basis. I know that a lot of people liken it to a strip club or something sexual, but it's not that at all. It's all about the cuteness.
If an adult woman is cute, then people usually say, “Oh, she's a whore,” or “She's just being immature.” Different sides of the world have different opinions of the idea. In Japan, it's more desirable for a person—especially for a woman—to be considered cute.
How are the customers?
In the beginning, everyone was weirded out, including the people who were already into Japanese culture. Since our greetings are in Japanese, we'd shout at customers every time they opened the door to come in. They'd get startled. People used to hear that, turn around, and leave.
Have you had any inappropriate interactions with customers?
Once, I was handing out flyers outside of the store with one of the other maids, and a guy got close to the other girl—completely violating her personal space—and said, “How much would it cost for you to go home with me?” It's bad when people think you're a prostitute, and do inappropriate things like trying to lift your skirt up.
Do you feel like some of your customers think that you are sex workers?
We write the customer's name on the receipts, so when we ask them for their name, some of them tell us to include our phone numbers or our price range. We usually explain that we're not prostitutes and that's not how it works.
Do you get the maid treatment from your co-workers when you come in on your days off?
Oh no. They just deliver my food and say, “Here, that's it.” They don't even say hi. They're just like, “What do you want?”