Piano Players

The economic bubble may have burst in Japan, but here in New York, where Japanese companies have been forced to close branches and lay off employees, executives at firms such as Bank of Tokyo- Mitsubishi and Nomura Securities Company are refusing to give up one special perk.

The biggest deals are clinched not in the boardroom but in ultraexclusive “piano bars,” where modern-day geishas – some of them students at NYU and FIT – sweet-talk their customers in Japanese, freshen their drinks, light their cigarettes, and sing karaoke on demand. Concealed behind unassuming brownstone façades in the East Forties and Fifties between Lexington and Third Avenue lie dozens of these clubs, marked only by small plaques reading knock three times in Japanese.

Piano bars, or “hostess bars,” as they are known in Japan, descend directly from geisha culture and cater to “salarymen,” who routinely spend fifteen hours a day at their desks. “Piano bars are seen as an essential lubricant to keep people happy in their jobs,” says David, who works for a Japanese brokerage firm. “Eight or nine people in an office will spend $200 each, four or five nights a week – and, of course, it’s all charged to the firm.” (Companies did not return calls for comment.)

The more traditional bars have a VIP lounge with a grand piano and a $150 cover charge, where hostesses over 25 years old, jokingly referred to as “Christmas cake” – worthless after December 25 – dote on well-heeled patrons more interested in doing business than in singing karaoke. There, hostesses must follow a draconian set of rules that includes “Sit up straight with legs uncrossed at all times,” “Always receive a business card with two hands,” and “Give customers oshibori hot towels each time they return from the bathroom.” Points accrued toward a bonus are lost for the slightest infraction. Each hostess is paid a different salary – the average is $90 a night – depending on her popularity and looks. It’s certainly not the more than $300 a night they could make hostessing in Japan, but most don’t speak English and many don’t have visas.

The newer, looser piano bars are devoted entirely to karaoke and flirting. Right around the corner from Grand Central is a bar run by a shy transvestite who, at six feet, cuts a glamorous if imposing figure in her perfectly applied makeup and bright-orange suit. Hostesses wearing low-cut cocktail dresses and tight suits lounge on faded pink velvet chairs, and bottles of whiskey bearing the name tags of regulars line one wall.

Customers have been known to bestow lavish gifts on their favorite hostesses: jewelry, cars, even apartments. Simon, a 27-year-old bachelor, says, “This Wall Street trader I used to go with – he had a wife and kid – would start combing his hair at 4 p.m.” Shiho, a pretty 22-year-old student, “played,” as she puts it, a bank executive for a year, sleeping with him three times in exchange for rent and cash, but had to quit the piano bar when he started calling her twenty times a day. In one case that made the Japanese tabloids, a married executive fell in love with a hostess and started a relationship with her. When he tried to break it off, she followed him back to Japan and burned his house down.

But the risk of public ruin hasn’t deterred the salarymen from visiting the bars – nor their companies from footing the bill, even in tighter times. “You’d think entertainment would be the first thing to go,” says David, “but this is the absolute last thing they are willing to get rid of.”

Piano Players