One night in Kyoto, a friend and I ended up in a room the size of a small Princeton double, drinking beer with two blond-coiffed Japanese men who, despite their doting, seemed anxious for us to leave. The place, called “Athena”, was a host club — a lounge where female clients pay for an all-you-can-drink bar menu and an hour or two of conversation with a well-dressed male attendant. Athena was cheap for a club, dimly lit with a cramped bar and two couches that looked fresh off a yard sale. Our hosts were scrawny and lizard-like, but their shadiness had its bounds. This wasn’t a brothel, after all. We had simply bought ourselves a couple of friends.

In Japan, it’s not hard to find company for hire. Host clubs and their male-targeted counterparts, hostess clubs, have spread to cities large and small. Geisha, too, still work in longstanding entertainment quarters like Kyoto’s Gion district. Hostess club patrons are often married and middle aged, while host club customers include the young, unmarried hostesses of other clubs. Although Americans sometimes associate both geisha and the clubs with prostitution, service is limited to cleaner entertainment, be it classical Japanese dance or karaoke. Hosts and hostesses will occasionally meet clients off-premises for more than conversation, but their usual method, like the geisha’s, is to use the mere allure of sex to keep customers coming back.

Even if you have never been to a host or hostess club, you can get of a sense of the experience by watching Japanese or American television. Japanese variety shows often feature a crowd of comedians, singers, and actors who just hang out and watch something else— a comedic performance, a video short, a cooking demonstration. A few months ago, I found myself drawn to a program called Bakushou Red Carpet. When a pudgy man in spandex and thick black glasses did a dance with a tambourine, it was as though the show’s hosts and I were laughing at him together. Leno, Ellen, Oprah — the feeling was familiar. Pals for hire, accessible with the click of a remote.

Nevertheless, Americans seem to find the idea of paying for companionship bizarre. When I tell people I study Japan, I’m periodically asked about “that thing where old men date little girls.” Enjo-kosai, or “compensated dating,” entails adult men paying adolescent girls for sex or companionship and is, when it includes obscene acts, illegal. Sometimes, the men only want someone to take out to dinner. Though notorious in the nineties, cases have dwindled. A foreigner asking about enjo-kosai is comparable to a tourist questioning an American about his nation’s “crack addiction” — potentially offensive and sure to invite conflicting responses. Given that American journalists often cast Japan as Western culture’s ultimate inversion, through stories on “maid cafés” and geeks who date pillows, it’s no wonder I get asked about enjo-kosai and not Japanese TV. An individual must be abnormally lonely or licentious, one might conclude, to pay someone to be nice to them. Americans—rugged, puritanical individualists—have no need.

It’s true that in Japan, more so than in the U.S., social isolation is considered a huge problem. As many as one million Japanese are purported to be hikikomori, shut-ins who withdraw from society for months or years. Suicide is epidemic—32,000 cases in 2008, according to the Japanese government’s most recent yearly estimate. In major cities, the proliferation of vending machines selling everything from noodles to cell phones has made it possible to live with limited human interaction.

All the same, there is nothing exotic in loneliness. Prior to visiting Athena, we went with a group to a larger venue. Three-thousand yen a pop (about 30 USD), it was slightly more upscale, though affordable compared to Japan’s most famous clubs, which can cost tens of thousands of yen per night. Hosts bearing drinks rushed to the rear of the gleaming white room, towards a crowd gathered on one of the red imitation-velvet sofas. When the club closed, it became clear that only one of them was a customer: a woman who had been surrounded by hosts when she ordered champagne, which cost extra. Perhaps thirty-something, in a black dress and heels, she could stand only with a host’s aid. She would not have been out of place at closing time in a bar anywhere in the world.

It could be said, in America and elsewhere, that humans are increasingly anti-social. Although cell phones foster communication anywhere, anytime, and social networking services have made it possible to maintain hundreds of contacts, digital interaction is a poor substitute for the real thing. Nevertheless, it is increasingly widespread. If replacing human connection with virtual contact is the way of the future, then perhaps social isolation is a bit like robotics—Japan is only a little ahead of the curve.

Had I been lonely, I doubt our visit to Athena would have made me feel better, though things might have been smoother had I not lacked manners and discretion. Remembering a promotion I had seen advertised, I inquired about paying less for a shorter time minutes after we had started. While my friend Jordan’s questions may have been more discrete, I pried into the men’s personal lives — what jobs they had before becoming hosts, whether they had more than the mandatory nine years of schooling. An hour passed. “Do you have a girlfriend?” “No.” “Where in America would you travel?” “Las Vegas.” “Why?” “It seems like an exciting place.” When another host emerged with the bill, the men smiled, but the conversation was over. Our time was up.