exploring osaka's underground feeder bars
A celebration of life and female form or an act of exploitation that's difficult to stomach? Performance artist Scottee, no stranger to his exploiting his weight for humour, investigates Japan's latest craze.
I'm no stranger to using my fatness for entertainment purposes, I've created chubby talent shows, radio documentaries on obesity and food based performances, so when I found a group of fat girls in Japan using their curves to earn a yen or two I knew I had to pay a visit.
La Potcha Potcha is one of the 12,000 host bars in Osaka, Japan's second biggest city. Host bars allow you to have a conversation with someone you find attractive - at a price. They are a part of normalised Japanese culture that capalitises on human interaction in an often isolated or restrictive society. La Potcha's niche? All of the hosts are over 80kg. As I enter the dimly lit pink corridor in a sequin onesie my guide informs me, "They might not let you in, you are gaijin?" This is the Japanese slur for white westerners. Words are exchanged with the bouncer and we're ushered in. "I told them you are English popstar," my guide informs.
Two chunky girls stumble with heavy feet to our table wearing laminated badges that inform us of their favourite food and current weight. They hand us their business cards with both hands - this is the Japanese way. After pleasantries are over they ask us what we'd like to drink, we ask them what they'd like to drink, they look surprised but happy to order themselves a jug of wine. We order food and are encouraged to try 'Chicken Tower'. Some of the girls use key English phrases like "I am fat" or "I am hungry" - these are repeated quite a lot so my response becomes a bit numb. Gangnam Style abruptly interrupts our strange interaction and the girls stand up and do the dance, the whole thing is over in 10 seconds and they resume conversation with compliments on my attire as if nothing just happened. Genius.
Akiyama is 19-years-old, she likes omelettes and J-pop, we talk about our love for Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Akiyama is paid 2,000yen (£12) an hour as a potcha girl, not bad work if you can get it. She grabs a karaoke machine and we perform Kyary's hit PonPonPon together.Cue fan fare and a tower of fried chicken karaage; rice balls and chips are making their way to our table. Suddenly we have four fat girls at our table who are evidently hungry, they demonstrate this by fighting over the chicken. Amazing.
Akiyama looks at me with puppy dog eyes, and my guide says, "She's telling you she's hungry for rice, can she have some?" The girls dismantle the tower of poultry and begin to provocatively eat it.
After 30 minutes of being in La Potcha the bouncer whose standing less than five metres away uses a microphone to announce its time for the girls to leave our table, Maeda (32-years-old and 86kg) places the bill discreetly into our guide's hands - we're being asked to pay for the entertainment thus far. Our guide hands them the cash so we can stay longer and all of a sudden the fat fun and friendliness of the girls has turned into a sort of fake formal transaction.
More girls arrive at the table, each of them sit down, hand us their business card and wait to be offered food and drinks - we're adapting to the formula. Once the drink arrives conversation begins, as soon as my glass is half empty the girls repeatedly ask, "more beer?" - after all this is a business! The girls stomp backstage and the bouncer shouts, "Show time!" We're the only people in the bar so this'll be fun if not weird. The girls perform their title song La Potcha Potcha whilst jumping on the floor; our drinks and food bounce off the table as a result. At this point I feel a bit weird, at first I thought this was a fun palace of fatness but it's beginning to feel like we're here to laugh at them, although apparently its ok because we're paying for the pleasure….
After refusing more refills it's clear we'll soon be leaving, the bill is bought to our table and we're escorted to a holding area adorned with jars of M&Ms. We're no longer paying so our time is officially up. As we walk out of the pig house themed bar I'm confused as to what the last hour meant. It would be easy, or perhaps lazy of me, to think the exchange was somehow exploitive towards women and maybe there is an element of truth there but in the context of host bars in Japan this would be untrue. Maybe I'm uncomfortable with women being paid to entertain men in suits, but most of the host bars in Osaka are for women to pay men with bizarre haircuts for 'nice talking' so my beef isn't with the formula but perhaps the fakery.
However, the more I think about my experience at La Potcha Potcha the more I think it's genius - it puts young, fat women centre stage in a world where fat is often the enemy. It allows them the adoration that rarely comes with real life - and this fetishisation earns them a living. It also brilliantly puts a price on those who deem fatness as freaky or those who would usually point and stare at them on the street. It also brilliantly imposes fat culture on Osaka, which I'm totally down with. In that sense it's unintentionally subversive and is what academics would call 'queer'.
Anyway, who am I to criticise the Potcha girls - how many times I've used my fat for the purposes of entertainment and loosely dressed it up as art - I'm no better or no worse but I'm happy for them to think I'm a popstar!
Text and photography Scottee