TOKYO (AFP) — In a nation where many girls grow up on Western fairy tales, Tokyo's Butlers Cafe is tapping into the popular fantasy that they will grow up to meet their Prince Charming.
Just stepping over the threshold, Japanese woman can forget for a few hours that they are in Shibuya, one of the capital's most crowded areas, and enter a world where a handsome man rushes to the tinkle of her bell, goes down one knee and asks: "Yes, my princess?"
The cafe offers a variety of homemade food, sweets and drinks, as well as photo shoots in which a favourite butler holds the woman in the air -- and English lessons.
Since opening in mid-2006, Butlers Cafe has attracted around 2,000 frequent customers.
Yuki Nozaki, a 23-year-old childminder, and kindergarten teacher Aki Nakamura, 24, say they come at least once a month to enjoy a fleeting moment of romance.
"At first I was really shy about the concept of this cafe, but all the butlers are very cute, cheerful and sweet and, above all, the fact that they're foreigners helps us to escape from reality," Nozaki said.
"Even now after visiting so many times, we feel excited when the door opens. I need this kind of excitement in my life," she said.
An evening here, drinking tea and nibbling cake, is certainly more affordable than the well-established "host clubs" where women can spend hundreds of dollars in a few hours drinking expensive wine with well-groomed Japanese men.
In some ways, the Butlers Cafe is a mirror image of the growing number of "maid cafes" where men are served by young women in frilly maid uniforms.
-- "Healing should be available with a cup of tea" --
Yuki Hirohata, 36, the joint owner of Butlers Cafe, said she came up with the idea during her previous job as an office worker as a way of escaping her workaholic world.
"I was basically trying every kind of beauty salon, spa or massage and also considering going to a host club to seek some emotional satisfaction, but it was not easy on my purse," she said.
"Then I realised that healing for women should not be expensive and should be available even with a cup of tea," she said.
She interviewed other women and found their wish list -- romantic settings and a chance to learn English. While many were curious about foreign men, they wanted a safe setting -- not host clubs or drunken nights out in bars catering to Westerners.
"What they need is a bit of spice and excitement in their lives and it can be given by small gestures, such as letting the lady go first or a man putting a coat on his lady. Women want to be appreciated," Hirohata said.
Western-style fairy tales, often with their stock images of a chivalrous Prince Charming, have long permeated Japanese culture, and provide a balance for the male-dominated reality of Japanese society.
Part of the success of Tokyo Disneyland, for instance, is due to the adult women who have flocked to the theme park since it opened 1983.
"Japan has a huge fantasy culture," said butler Brendan, a 27-year-old American who formerly worked in Tokyo as an English teacher. "They often want to escape from daily life and they are good at engineering alternate reality."
Like other butlers, Brendan did not give his full name because the cafe strictly forbids personal relationships outside the cafe.
"I found that in Japan, there are many special treatment services for men but not so much for women despite the fact that more women need their own place today," he said.
-- Japanese women feel inferior to men from birth --
Yoko Nakagawa, a counsellor for women in Tokyo, said that being transformed into a princess or served by foreigners felt "unreal" for the average Japanese woman.
"Most of today's women carry unsatisfied feelings from their childhood and now as adults they are in need of being accepted unconditionally," she said.
"So if foreign butlers accept them unconditionally as princesses, that can be better than going to the hair salon or spa because there is a real human relationship involved," Nakagawa said.
While attitudes are changing, many Japanese men are raised to be reticent about expressing their appreciation of women.
"It is actually a shame that women need to pay to be treated well," said Shinichiro Shuto, who gives tips to men on Japan's popular "All About" website.
After having lived in New York, Shuto said that on returning to Japan he noticed a huge difference between American and Japanese men.
"To be frank, we Japanese men do not oppose the lady-first ideal. It just looks too show-off and cheesy for us to copy Westerners," he said.
"And the biggest problem is the gap in perspective -- Japanese men tend to or want to believe that women do not need such gestures, but in fact women do want and need it," he said.
Hirohata, the cafe's owner, said many Japanese women are facing competing pressures to be everything from cute girlfriend to competitive business woman to devoted wife and mother.
"I believe in women's power," she said. "By wearing a tiara, being treated as a princess or making progress learning English casually, we hope that customers can feel more positive and confident about themselves, if only a little bit."
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