Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Deaf Tokyo Barmaid Flirts With Pen, Calms Men in Crisis: Books

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If you add one stroke to the Japanese word for “hardship,” it turns into “bliss.”

“Hardship is just a path toward happiness,” writes Rie Saito in her best-selling autobiography.

She should know. Saito, 25, works as a hostess in Tokyo’s Ginza district, where influential Japanese men eat, drink and pay to flirt with impeccably dressed and coiffed women. And she does so with a disability: She’s deaf.

That might sound like an insurmountable obstacle in a job that involves pouring drinks at a gentlemen’s club and coddling the clients with doting attention.

Yet Saito claims to earn about 1 million yen, or $10,500, a month. In “The Hostess With a Pen,” she explains how she turned her lack of hearing into an advantage in consoling recession-weary customers.

A high-school dropout who started smoking and drinking in her early teens, Saito now uses an antique Cartier fountain pen and a leather-bound Rhodia memo pad to share secrets and words of consolation with her clients.

She describes, for example, a real-estate executive who in good times spent as much as 1 million yen in cash on a single night of drinking and merriment. Then the recession pushed his company to the brink.

Stone Silence

One night, he just wrote the word “hardship” on Saito’s notepad and slumped into a stone silence. Seeking to lift his spirits, Saito took her pen and drew a line to transform the character for hardship (tsurasa) into happiness (sachi). His expression changed and tears of appreciation followed, she writes. By the end of the night, his mood had brightened.

Intimacy born of the written word has won Saito a loyal following, making her a top earner at Ginza Club M in spite of the economic crisis.

When another client complains about a disrespectful subordinate, she urges him to stand up for himself by quoting Robert De Niro’s character in the 1995 film “Casino”:

“There are three ways of doing things around here: the right way, the wrong way, and the way that I do it.”

Saito’s method allows her clients to write what they wouldn’t say aloud. Her pithy notes are enhanced by her fluid penmanship, picked up from childhood calligraphy lessons. The book is sprinkled with handwritten phrases lifted from actual club conversations.

Her publisher, Kobunsha Co., plans to print her best sayings and text messages in two separate volumes. Her editor, Osamu Miyamoto, says Kobunsha has also been inundated with offers to turn Saito’s story into a movie.

Childhood Meningitis

Saito, who comes from Aomori prefecture in northern Japan, became deaf from meningitis two months before her second birthday. She never learned sign language because her parents chose to send her to a preschool for the deaf that deliberately avoided the practice. She got the rest of her education at standard public schools that had special classes for the deaf.

While Saito can read lips, clients often prefer to engage in a written tete-a-tete, sometimes peppered with drawings. To break the ice with skeptical new customers, she engages them in word games that pique their pride and intellect.

How did she get into this line of work? Saito chalks it up to luck and others’ generosity: A shoplifting incident during her troubled teen years led to a job offer from the sympathetic store owner, opening up her interest in the service industry.

Narrow Escape

She spares no wrath, however, for people who hurt her. One mean-spirited grade-school teacher, she says, filled a blackboard with the phrase, “God took away your hearing.” The owner of a hostess bar in her hometown, she writes, spread unseemly rumors about her and once tricked her into accompanying a customer to a hotel. Saito managed to escape, she says.

“Hostesses sell their hearts and drinks, but not their bodies,” she writes.

Saito excels at tending to her customers’ less carnal needs, filling their glasses and emptying their ashtrays, according to Akemi Mochizuki, who owns Le Jardin, the first Ginza club where Saito worked. She’s less deft in dealing with clients who seek more than friendship, Mochizuki says in a testimonial in the book.

Her pointers for entrancing clients will be familiar to anyone who reads women’s magazines: Play dumb, ask to be spoiled without nagging, compliment his taste, not his possessions.

More memorable are her descriptions of how she tries to cheer up former high-flyers, such as one executive whose big project was recently shelved.

“‘Man’ and ‘dream’ together form ‘ephemeral’ (hakanai),” she tells him. “Maybe that’s why people chase one dream after another.”

“The Hostess With a Pen” is available in Japanese from Kobunsha Co. (237 pages, 1,300 yen). The publisher is exploring the possibility of translating the book into other languages.

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