Jeeves Takes Japan

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Michiko Toyoma

A waiter at Swallowtail, a "butler cafe" in Tokyo

The door to the Swallowtail opens and there stands Saionji, a good man and as skilled a butler as has ever buttled. He takes our coats and bags and shimmers away, leading us down the corridor, past gilt mirrors, Monet prints and bursting bouquets, to our table in the Swallowtail's elegant tearoom. I move to sit, but my footman, Mikami, has already materialized, easing me into my chair. "Good day, princess," he says to my dining companion — and not, I assume, to me. Menus appear from thin air. I order the Earl Grey tea, and select the Macbeth snack set — petite ham and cheese panini — passing over the Othello and Hamlet options, which I've always thought were overrated. Mikami leaves to prepare the tea, but not before showing us a golden bell we can use to summon him. We get hungry. We ring. He runs. Six seconds. Jeeves would be proud.

A little explanation: Swallowtail is a "butler café," a Tokyo restaurant staffed entirely by Japanese facsimiles of English manservants, down to the formal tails, white gloves and gracious manners. But these butlers don't serve at a British gentlemen's club, where Woosterian fossils sip sherry and puff cigars amid heavy leather furniture. Swallowtail is for women — specifically otome, the female version of the obsessive fans of manga comic book fans known as otaku. (A quick field guide to otaku: Hiro, the time-traveling Japanese mutant from the TV show Heroesotaku. Ken Watanabe, samurai actor — not otaku.) While otaku tend to be anti-social sorts, their female counterparts actually like to spend time together, often on Otome Road in Tokyo's lively Ikebukuro district, where manga stores cater to otome. The word roughly translates as "maidens," and their tastes tend to often run to medieval fantasies, which explains why some of them dress like they shop at Grimm's of Hollywood, in gothic dresses in whitest white or blackest black.

That combination prompted Yoko Otsuka, who owns a bookstore on Otome Road, to open Swallowtail, Tokyo's first butler café. She thought that otome might want to take tea in place that fulfilled their every proper English dream, down to the formally dressed butlers who fawn over the patrons. She was right. Since Swallowtail opened last March, customers have lined up for reservations. The café tripled its space in October, but tables are still booked out solid.

The most ardent customers come every day, Otsuka tells me, and might never leave if she hadn't put an 80-minute limit per reservation. Swallowtail's success has spawned a wave of similar butler cafés elsewhere in Tokyo, including some that offer gaijin butlers who help otome practice their English, but Swallowtail remains the gold standard. It's not hard to see why. Otsuka has planned every detail in the cafe, from the two months of training her butlers must undergo to the grandfather clock by the fireplace and the leather volumes of obscure poetry (like that Victorian bard, William Allingham) that adorn the shelves.

"There's no place like this, so we had to make it from our imagination," says Otsuka. It doesn't hurt that the food is surprisingly good, prepared with the help of Paul Okada, a hospitality consultant who spent 12 years as the food and beverage director at the Four Seasons Tokyo. But while the cakes are delicious, the appeal for regular clients is clearly in the service. Swallowtail indulges otome princess fantasies, but the appeal may be even more basic: Tokyo is a hard town, and it can be even harder for women. Under pressure to conform and marry — which often means surrendering much of their independence — they face a daily battle against the sexism that still pervades in Japanese society. The butler café may be for otome what the local bar is for salarymen — a place to unwind, safe from the pressures of the outside world.

As for me, I could get used to having a footman on call. Not long after I've finished my Macbeth (is this a cream scone I see before me?), Saionji appears. "Mademoiselle, your coach awaits," he says, signaling that our 80 minutes are up. We step through the open door, and flag down our coach on the Tokyo street.

With reporting by Michiko Toyama/Tokyo