Where The Pretty Boys Are

(this article first appeared in the february 9, 2004 issue of newsweek international)

My friend Ako, visiting for the holidays, noticed immediately. The scenery in Tokyo has improved considerably over the past year. Particularly in the service industry. At designer shops, cafes, restaurants and even bookstores, she found more youthful male sales clerks, waiters and helpers than ever before, all more attractive than ever before. Our waiter at a trendy coffee shop in the posh Harajuku district was so divine that we had trouble focusing on the menu. "What happened?" she wanted to know.

It appears that Japanese businesses, recognizing the power and importance of female consumers, have stepped up their efforts to please them. And for many, that's meant hiring ikemen. "Ike" means cool, and "men" means both men and face. Coupled, they mean pretty boy. And apparently, that's who Japanese women increasingly want to have serve them.

You know something revolutionary is happening when the Japanese invent a new term. It means we're going beyond just faces here and signaling a big social trend. As best I can figure, the first high-profile ikemanmade his splash in September, when a former model, Katsushi Yamaguchi, made history by becoming the first male receptionist at a stylish department store, Printemps, in Tokyo's Ginza district.

The store also rounded up a posse of other good-looking salesmen, emphasizing that last syllable by flaunting them as "Printemps Boys" in its splashy promos.

Then, in November, Skynet Asia Airways inaugurated its "Men's Flight," a round trip between Tokyo and Miyazaki in southern Japan. In-flight service was provided by nice-looking male flight attendants, only. It was meant to be a one-time experiment. But owing to popular demand (high-pitched giggles and squeals from would-be frequent lady fliers?) Skynet plans to repeat the service in February and April. During the holidays, meanwhile, the Matsuya Ladies shopping mall in Fukuoka hired a bunch of male models in their 20s as "elevator boys." They were needed, it seems, to announce floors and help customers find their way.

Women find this traditional-role inversion both thrilling and liberating, but it leaves your average non-ikemen squirming. Most of my male friends refused even to discuss the phenomenon. "I'm not going to waste my time talking about something stupid like men's faces," said one, who never minded spending hours analyzing female faces, not to mention other body parts. I've never met a Tokyo cabby who doesn't have an opinion about anything, so I resorted to asking them, and got an earful. "When a handsome sales clerk says, 'It looks good on you,' a woman might forget that the guy's just doing his job. She might feel special and believe him," said one chatty driver. When I pointed out that the ladies in hostess clubs have long sweet-talked men into spending more money in much the same way, he replied: "It's discrimination against not-so-good-looking men who can do the job as well as the good-looking ones." Of course, women know how that feels. We've been commented on, judged, compared and often discriminated against in school, at work and in lines waiting to get into hot clubs, all based on nothing other than our looks. We are used to it. Men, obviously, are not.

Then the cabby turned and said: "You should be offended that these companies think women are shallow and stupid enough to be enough to be influenced by a sales clerk's sweet face." OK, he's right. Now that women are achieving that same level of shallowness and stupidity as men, perhaps we should declare victory for true equality.


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