We paused at the bright bubble-lettered sign above Moe Filles. Tucked in against a blocky two-floor complex, it was strategically nondescript, and I’d walked past it dozens of time on my days off without giving it a second thought. White cardboard covered up the main window, and the dark varnished door looked like it’d been pulled from the wreckage of a Victorian home. Most of the surrounding shops were still closed behind steel shutters, and there wasn’t a whole lot to indicate this place was open either. Beside me, Dave, his hands tucked in the pockets of a grey hoodie, lifted his shoulders against a gust of wind funneling down the alley.

I’d been teaching English for about six months in the small city of Himeji, about 100km west of Osaka. Dave had been here nearly ten and his contract at the English school we worked at was coming to a close, but one of his students had told him about a popular maid café off Miyukidori, the main shopping track. Curiosity was our only legitimate excuse for wanting to check it out, but we’d invited another one of our students, Akiko, along as a kind of chaperon.

“Maybe it will be less weird if we have a girl with us,” Dave had suggested.

Akiko went first, and as we entered the three of us played hot-potato with nervous glances that silently asked, How are we supposed to act? A sickly sweet artificial smell of strawberry wafted past, and a young teenage girl approached us in a pink maid outfit. My first impulse was to gauge her age, and I found myself rounding a lot lower than I felt comfortable.

“Gokitaku hajimete desu ka?” she asked, slightly nasal. Is this your first time coming home?

Dave just gave me a giddy confused grin, and Akiko quickly nodded and accepted a laminated card that had the café’s rules written out in English and Japanese, which included never making physical contact with the maids, ordering a mandatory drink, a 500¥ ($5 USD) per-hour cover charge, and the prohibited use of cameras.

Our maid, who introduced herself simply as Mu-chan, made a slight bow in her impeccable outfit. The petticoat, short frilly pinafore, and long stockings seemed exaggerated, as if she really had stepped out of a Japanese anime. The garter on her stockings disappeared up her thigh; a pair of black cat ears sprouted from her hair band. She caught me looking and seemed to reflexively lower the sleeve of the slack black vest she was wearing down her back and on her elbows.

I could make out several patrons passing bored leers at the two gaijin (outsider, or non-Japanese) and their Japanese acquaintance who had just entered. The bright colors of the walls and short tables seemed to accent the feeling of a child’s playroom.

Akiko said something to the effect that we understood the rules and all the maids suddenly turned from what they were doing, bowed in unison, and replied with, “Okaerinasaimase goshujinsama!” Welcome home, master!

Before our hour expired, another of the maids had brought out a karaoke machine and coerced us with pouting eyes to sing “Hajimete no Chuu.”

This greeting has come to define a trend of Japanese subculture that coined the word otaku, a term that has been used to describe a male demographic between the ages of 18 to 35 who have an obsession with anime. The first maid cafés originally found their footing in Tokyo’s Akihabara district in the mid-2000s and were advertised as safe, nonjudgmental places where otaku could buy and play bishojo games (virtual sims that explored interactions with attractive animated girls).

In bigger cities many cafés still incorporate this theme, which includes opportunities to engage in innocuous activities like card and board games and arts and crafts, to more intimate services like massages, spoon-feeding, and mimikaki (or ear-cleaning). There’s even a tsundere café in Nagomi, which refers to another popular personality quirk in anime characterized by an initial coldness that eventually warms up over time.

As we sat down at our table, a flatscreen above us cycled the end credits to various anime with furigana subtitles scrolling underneath, and I turned to Dave. We each ordered from a list of 500¥ drinks and Dave ordered an omelet rice, a feature of most maid cafés.

“This is bizarre, dude,” he said. “I think that guy behind me brought work from his office to do here.”

I looked over his shoulder at an older man with a serious case of fop sweat and in his late 30s, absorbed with some papers in his briefcase. Other regulars seemed to gaze listlessly into space, occasionally making cheerful banter with the maids. Mu-chan returned with our drinks and kneeled down at our table. This act of kneeling down to eye level is a quintessential aspect of the maid’s “character image” as a caregiver and embodiment of innocence.

Unlike hostess clubs in Japan, the sexuality in maid cafés is deliberately subdued. And yet both maid and master seem to follow a kind of script that acknowledges the maid as a symbolic and subversive infantilization of that sexuality, one that hallmarks the anime genre. And though they also lack the corporate misogyny of hostess clubs, the demarcations between gender roles is rigid.

Dave’s omelet rice finally arrived, decorated with an anime-style ketchup drawing of Mu-chan and a personalized message in hiragana. “Kawaii,” Akiko said. Too cute.

Before we could eat, however, Mu-chan insisted on performing an “incantation” to make it taste better. She put both her hands together forming a heart and sang “Moe, moe, kyunnn!” and leaned in close as she urged us to perform it with her. I could smell the fake strawberry on her.

When I asked Akiko later what moe meant, she struggled to translate. “Someone who likes anime, that kind of thing. Cute things. I don’t know in English,” she said, but in my mind the word “fetish” was already rolling around. An individual with moe loves anime, and probably more specifically refers to an attraction to the “young girl” image.

“I feel like a creep now,” I admitted after we left. “I think I just aided and abetted with putting women’s lib back a generation.”

Dave smirked. “Or pedophilia. How did you play it so cool in there? I was freaking out. That was the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been.”

“To be honest, when Mu-chan made us do karaoke in front of the whole café, it felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. I’m not entirely sure I was mentally present for the whole thing,”

Before our hour expired, another of the maids had brought out a karaoke machine and coerced us with pouting eyes to sing “Hajimete no Chuu.” When all eyes turned to the two gaijin and their cute and pleading doe-eyed maid, we finally submitted and brutalized the classic song with quivering voices, red faces, and a very rudimentary grasp of Japanese.

“Well, if we go back next week, they’ll probably remember us, anyway,” I joked.

“At least we have a memento,” Dave replied, referring to the cheki, or personalized Polaroid photo we’d had snapped with Mu-chan (for another 500¥).

“Are you going to tell your girlfriend?” Akiko asked.

“She’s cool. She’d find it hilarious,” Dave said, and then scratched his head. “Maybe not.”

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