Exclusive Interview with Swallowtail Butlers Iori and Kagawa
What does it take to become a full-fledged butler at Swallowtail? Iori and Kagawa share their experiences
Working at Swallowtail, the number one butler cafe in Japan is not easy. You have to entertain the Ladies and Lords coming home to the mansion, taking and putting away their bags and coats, serving tea and food, making small talk to ensure their stay is as comfortable as it can be. To give us a better idea of how butlers in Swallowtail work, futekiya was given the chance to do an exclusive interview with Butlers Iori and Kagawa. They talked about the process of becoming a butler, from the time new butlers undergo training up to the point they are finally allowed to serve the Ladies and Lords at the tea salon, the challenges they face on the job and other stories we will probably never get to hear when we “come home to the mansion.”
Thank you for your time today. Could you please introduce yourselves?
Iori: I am a Second Steward, my name is Iori.
Kagawa: My name is Kagawa and I am a Groom of the Chamber.
What do your titles mean?
Iori: The titles are the names of positions and the top among us butlers are called the House Stewards. Being a Second Steward means that we are the supporters of the House Stewards. We are the men-of-all-work.
Kagawa: The position Groom of the Chamber stems from the servants that were in charge of the guestrooms in English aristocratic mansions. In our “mansion”, the tea salon is our guestroom so we, Groom of the Chamber butlers are mainly in the tea salon.
Iori: There are about 40 butlers here at Swallowtail. We all have positions. The most common one being the Footman. Their uniforms are similar to Second Steward uniforms. Then there are other positions such as The First Footman and Butler. The Groom of the Chamber, like Kagawa, are in charge of the environment that our guests experience. My tasks as Second Steward is tending to our guests as well as administrative tasks to help the House Stewards behind the scenes.
I see. How did you become a butler at Swallowtail?
Iori: I used to be a server at a French-Chinese restaurant which is where I gained basic skills but I wanted to learn further and found out about Swallowtail and how working here would teach me the proper manners of a server. I was used to wearing a tuxedo from my previous position and figured that Swallowtail’s uniform would be the same but with a longer tail. (laughs) In total, I have been here for around 12 years.
Kagawa: I think I am an unusual case. I first started as a support staff for the Butler Opera Company here. After about a year, I was told that I should work in the tea salon as well. It’s been almost 5 years since then and I am not sure what I would have done if I didn’t receive that nudge.
Iori: Kagawa is a rare case, he is like a reverse import. (both laugh)
How do you usually recruit new members? Is there a training program after hiring?
Iori: We always have a posting on our website. After the interview process, if the candidate is hired, they undergo a rigorous training program that we created. After a month or two, they are tested and if they pass, they can tend to a guest. After smoothly serving their first guest, they are recognized as a qualified butler.
Kagawa: We have a textbook. It’s handmade by the butlers and often gets adjusted to make sure it is up-to-date.
What does the training program include?
Iori: Firstly, we teach using proper language so as not to be rude. New recruits also must gain basic knowledge in tea, tea sets, and etiquette. They must also study the ingredients in the dishes they serve and understand the fundamentals of the establishment and this mansion. At the same time, they must learn how to implement this knowledge physically and learn how to move properly and smoothly.
Why do you have to update your manual so much?
Kagawa: Right now our maximum capacity is 47 guests; 26 parties but it used to be much smaller and could only fit 6 tables.
Iori: Now that area is our kitchen and since expanding, we’ve renovated 3 times. (both laugh)
Kagawa: So as the space changes, the points we teach also have to change.
I am sure you have to be aware of so many things, but do you have any specific points that you watch out for in particular?
Kagawa: I always make sure that I maintain the stories of our roles. At the end of the day, we, the butlers, are here to be servants for our guests. I think so long as our actions are rooted in this understanding, we are able to maintain the proper relationships and backgrounds of being a Swallowtail butler.
Iori: My personal policy is that being a butler means that I must not be in the way of our guests. We are here to make sure their dining experience goes smoothly. So, personally, this means to me that I must be both present yet unnoticeable, like a shadow. Butlers are often depicted to be extravagant but in reality, butlers must move and communicate as efficiently as possible. Using the minimal movements or words creates artfulness naturally, which I think is truly beautiful.
What are the difficulties you face as a butler?
Iori: I think we all have our own beliefs, but if 40 of us are trying to serve to our own policies, there will be no sense of unity. I think it is vital to ensure that everybody has the same core values and serve those values prior to fulfilling their personal beliefs. Maintaining this core is very difficult. Sometimes, younger butlers take shortcuts on certain aspects in order to exceed in another. It is up to the veteran butlers in those instances to have them fully understand our purpose and tasks. Of course some younger butlers can grasp this quicker than others but those that do not have the will or intention to understand, usually do not stay with us for long.
Hearing this really makes me feel that you all are thinking about everything while serving the guests.
Iori: Yes, to us, it is not just standing there and bowing but also about the purpose of doing these actions and the story behind them. We must constantly be thinking while performing.
Speaking of performing, can you please talk about Shitsuji Kagekidan (Butler Opera Company)?
Iori: Of course. The Shitsuji Kagekidan, which Kagawa and I both participate in, was created because the guests really loved the original songs we would debut during our annual countdown party on December 31st to ring in the new year. Now, we create our own performances as our group called the Shitsuji Kagekidan (Butler Opera Company).
Kagawa: We have just started our 10th year since the group’s inception.
You create everything yourself from scratch?
Iori: I don’t do everything. (laughs) At the beginning of the creation process, we all come together to discuss what kind of performance we want to bring to the guests. Some butlers have songwriting skills so they often write all the songs. And sometimes we ask a director to come and they will help me write the script. It takes two months at least to finish the writing. Then we rehearse when we are not in the tea salon.
Kagawa: Yes there are days when the tea salon is closed so those days we can focus on rehearsing.
Do you see many people from abroad coming to your shows?
Iori: Yes, recently we receive more guests from outside Japan, usually from East Asian countries. Sometimes I worry that they are not getting the full experience because they might not understand Japanese but I am grateful that even still, they come to see us. Sometimes our guests align their visit to Japanese according to our performance dates as well. I am beyond grateful for our guests.
There are maybe two or three butlers that we can rely on for speaking in English. But we do all the enthusiasm to communicate, even if it is not verbal.
Can you please explain more about Blue Moon?
Iori: Blue Moon is in Ikebukuro and unlike in the Tea Salon, where we serve and drink tea, we focus on serving and drinking cocktails. It has been about two years since its opening. We see many of the Tea Salon guests come visit Blue Moon. We actually held a Beaujorais Nouveau event here with guests from Blue Moon until around 5 AM. The celebrations last so long because if we ended earlier, our guests would have to wait outside until the first train.
Kagawa: The New Year’s Countdown party ends at 2 or 3 AM, though, because the trains run all night. But yes, anyway, guests can reserve two weeks in advance but there are only 10 seats so sometimes the spaces fill up quickly.
You mentioned that you go abroad sometimes, what differences do you feel between being here and overseas?
Iori: Yes, we are planning to go to Houston again next year. I think the main difference is whether we go abroad to visit our guests or whether our guests come here to visit us. Of course, the environment is different as well, so sometimes guests that are more used to a casual setting are a little overwhelmed when they visit us here in the Tea Salon. But after a couple of visits, the initial nervousness melts away and our guests can enjoy this experience.
Thank you for taking the time to sit down and talk today.
Both: Thank you very much.
What would you ask the butlers if you had the chance to interview them? Tell us on our Twitter account!
If you’re interested in reading more of futekiya’s interviews, be sure to read our exclusive interviews with Christopher Hepburn, the owner of Local Manga, Seru, the founder of The Yaoi Army, White Eared, creator ofFrom Points of Three, Mingwa, creator of BJ Alex, and Fargo, creator of If You Hate Me So and Love is an Illusion.
About Butler Cafe Swallowtail
Address: Showa Building B1F, 3-12-12, Higashiikebukuro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo (Access Map)
Operating hours: 10:30 – 22:45 (Please make sure to check the website to know when the cafe is closed)
Twitter account: https://twitter.com/swallowtail_bc
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