Miniskirted Miko – Knife in the Heart of Moe?

Whether or not a deathblow can be deemed victorious, it doesn’t feel as good to be on the receiving end.

LINK-UP Inc., the parent company responsible for @home cafe, @home sabo (tearoom), @home Hana, and most recently Miko-san Cafe, more or less invented what is know as the “entertainment-kei” variety of maids and moe. They opened @home cafe three years ago with the intent of bringing a new type of “idol-maid” to patrons who were perhaps in need of something more to worship. In effect, pairing the rather ambiguous maid character with a singing and dancing short-skirted idol created a new precedent in the industry, and pretty soon everyone was trying to hop onto the bandwagon. The barrier between maid and customer began to erode, performance and exhibition became seen as part and parcel of the job, and the already suspicious general public actually began to suspect something more than tea and cakes. That something more has been theorized many different ways, but the effects of this merger more or less defined if not redefined the one-word mantra for a generation of Akiba geeks: moe. (Pronounced “mo-ay.”)

This brings into question what is moe – or in the case of LINK-UP, which parts of moe are the most profitable?

“Moe” is a part of Japanese slang, a double entendre pronounced “burning” but written with a character that means “sprouting” or “growing.” It can be both an adjective or a noun, even a verb at times, and is perhaps best translated into English as “passion.” A non-otaku Japanese associate speaking to a salary man once explained, “Moe is when guys look at young girls and getting excited – the same way girls get excited when they see Mickey (Mouse).” His statement beautifully articulates the ideal “sexlessness” of Utopian moe. However, as @home boasts at least 40% female patronage, and many of their female clientèle are regulars, the gender exclusion in his statement is perhaps a bit of a misunderstanding. Even before @home, it’s safe to say that moe captured a sense of nostalgia and appreciation for youth, beauty and all things “cute.” Because after @home, things started to change.

Though not always and for everyone, idols remain to be sex symbols at some level. The idea of openly mixing the images “maids” and “idols” leads to a definite conclusion – supported with the various photos, hand-drawn art, and various goods (such as beach towels and body pillows) emblazoned with maids’ images. That is, the sex appeal of the maid image can be materialized commercially, while still contained within the safe and friendly container of a moe-cafe. This is pretty much what LINK-UP has accomplished, and as sex is a more basic human interest than moe, more and more maid-related businesses are taking this angle in both Akihabara and beyond.

In recent times, LINK-UP has worked towards ever more aggressively towards their brand of moe-capitalism. Their most recent venture into moe enterprise is Miko Cafe. Miko means “shrine maiden” – the girls dressed in red and white at Shinto shrines. In recent times, they have become something of stock characters in popular literature – perhaps most recently in the anime series Lucky Star, in which two sisters dress as miko to help out at the temple every New Year’s holiday. However, as most things LINK-UP, these girls are miko with a twist, namely: short skirts and microphones.

Miko Cafe takes up two floors of a predominant Chuo Dori building, which isn’t saying much considering floor size; however, the top floor is reserved for song and dance performances by the miko (currently once a day weekdays, multiple times weekends and holidays). The lower floor is run sort of like a cafe, with a 1000 yen seating charge. They give cute greetings when you enter and leave, such as, “We welcome your worship at Magokoro Shrine,” and “We hope your dreams come true.” They “pray” over your food before you eat it as well, emulating @home’s patented “ai-kome” or “love infusion” magic spells seen in LINK-UP’s other venues. Performances are given at a set time at an additional price.

@home certainly garners a substantial number of regulars who fork out for special services, but by and large their clientèle could be described as tourists. It’s this author’s opinion that Miko Cafe, with set performance times, will be even more popular with casual curiosity seekers yearning to gawk at otakudom. The most regrettable part of this venture is the substantial departure from most things otaku and moe, making Miko Cafe just another cog in commercial entertainment at the expense of the girls working there.

3 Comments

  1. scott said,

    July 1, 2008 at 9:16 am

    i don’t quite get the argument in the last paragraph that miko cafe moves away from traditional otaku and moe mores and into commercialization. i really don’t understand moe so maybe that is why i don’t get it. can someone explain a bit more?

  2. batsu said,

    July 8, 2008 at 4:15 pm

    i tried to set this one up, scott – but it looks like i failed! my bad.

    so, let me try again.

    whereas old akiba sold electronic components, and new akiba sells girls… well, there’s definitely a shift in cultural paradigm. the question is, how far are businesses going to actually sell girls, and why is this now branded as otaku?

    while the first wave of maid cafes tended to be more like regular dining establishments with a costume theme, staff now have to audition (as singers, models, etc). speaking to management from two different “entertainment-kei” establishments, they both underlined the importance of your performance for customers and garnering regular clientèle – as opposed to cafe duties (which were inconsequential). this differed from “more traditional” maid establishments.

    i’m not saying entertainment-kei is bad, but it’s a stepping stone for gravia, hostessing, and other things… like maid dating and soft-porn maid social networks, which are growing in popularity. and of course, none of these things are bad, but more importantly, they are not moe, which is allegedly the core ideal in this maid industry.

    however, LINK-UP has enough money to establish this connection of moe=sex in the media, which in turn influences the opinion of the general public. they aren’t the best known maid cafe in the world by chance. i believe a significant factor in their popularity is through the marketing of idol personalities like Hitomi. just to compete, most new businesses adopt similar policies of turning their staff into marketing tools. staff usually get few rights to the use of their image, and can ultimately loose in the deal.

    it’s totally possible that i have some nostalgic notion of “orginal moe” and now i’m trying dig in my heels whenever there’s a shift. but other critics agree that entertainment-kei is different somehow. every year it takes a step closer to risque… which i think is a bad tone for the neighborhood aside from just plain being NOT MOE!

    but you’re right – the core of otaku culture is consumerism. even moe is consumerism. neither of these are really changing. cultural paradigms are the real shift.

    man… i’d best get off this soapbox…

  3. scott said,

    August 25, 2008 at 1:50 am

    Here, I’ll catch you when you come down. haha! But no, that was a great explanation and very cool that you see all around the argument, both your preferences and the realities of what is happening. Japan has more than enough “naughty” industry that I too would like to see the more innocent incarnation of moe kept alive.

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