Home > Life in Japan > Features
  print button email button

Sunday, July 8, 2001

In the pink

Lifting the veil on the realm of the senses


Special to The Japan Times

When Yokohama hosts the final and three other games in the soccer World Cup next June, foreign visitors will be spared a full-frontal view of the city's sleazier side by the waterfront, where a campaign to lessen any shock to their systems has been under way since last year.

Prior to previous major international events -- most recently the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano -- sex-business cleanups have been quite rigorous. But as a port city traditionally relatively tolerant of the world's oldest profession, Yokohama's strategy appears to be one of "control" rather than outright censorship.

The world's oldest profession is alive and well in Yokohama

"It's a kind of human instinct," a superintendent at the headquarters of the Public Safety Division of the Kanagawa Prefectural Police said this week, with a fatalistic shrug. "Men go drinking; they like to look at girls; they play around.

"When the World Cup comes to town, our job will focus first on eliminating public eyesores like those ads for call girls pasted in phone booths or signs on the street. And we'll watch the gangs to make sure they don't start trouble."

But even if Yokohama's red lights may be too dim for some soccer fans' tastes, there's little doubt they will be burning brightly again by the time workers start getting their summer bonuses the following month.

Whether or not one approves, the fact is that commercial sex is an enduring facet of Japan's daily life. What some may regard as sleaze abounds in the sports tabloids read by sleepy rail commuters each morning; in comics and weekly magazines' glossy "hair nude" photo spreads; in "adults-only" corners of neighborhood video-rental shops; on the packs of free tissues handed out on street corners; and in phone booths festooned with fliers for call girls.

As well as all this, in the major cities at least, males who feel the urge (and have the wherewithal) can avail themselves of "pink" establishments that close well after midnight and open their doors to greet the sunrise.

Thailand may be cheaper and more cosmopolitan, but in terms of the scale and sheer variety of its sex industry, Japan is unequaled.

"Both traditionally and subconsciously, extra-partner sexual relationships are allowed, as long as men don't break the official and conscious relationship with their regular partner," observes a Japanese psychiatrist who operates a private practice in Tokyo. "Although such behavior might clash with Judeo-Christian moral values, here uwaki [infidelity] is distinguished from honki [true feelings].

"It's inappropriate to discuss what goes on here in the same light as the male-female power game," he adds.

"Patronizing a 'pink business' is a very convenient way for the more affluent Japanese to engage in pleasure. Males tend to go to such places first just for fun; second for momentary satisfaction without bother and responsibility; and third, for confirmation of their masculinity."

Japan's sex trade may owe its existence to a combination of such social and cultural mores and official tolerance, but it's also an industry run on the principles of pure, laissez-faire capitalism: free competition to give customers what they want, and upward mobility through good old hard work.

The trade runs the gamut of the old and the new, from the straightforward, plain-vanilla variety to the fiendishly imaginative.

At one end of the spectrum is the Yoshiwara district of Tokyo, the red-light area of old Edo that was established in 1657 and now hosts the country's greatest concentration of "soaplands" -- row upon row of bathhouses offering a masseuse's full attention for one- to two-hour sessions costing from 25,000 yen to 100,000 yen. At the opposite end are the relatively new, but very popular, "aesthetic salons" employing foreigners. Analogous to fast food and clearly in tune with the tight economic times, they're structured to provide the bare minimum, with additional services on an a la carte basis.

Being creative and adaptive, the pink business has also been quick to grasp the potential of new communications technologies. Soon after its inception in July 1989, NTT's Dial Q2 pay-data service was full of juicy offerings. Its users are also credited with coining the term enjo-kosai (compensated dating, or enko), a euphemism for amateur prostitution by high school girls.

Today, commercialized eroticism overflows from the Internet, and cellphone users are copiously spammed with e-mail solicitations. The ubiquitous cellphone also makes it difficult for law-enforcement officials to track down amateur and professional violators alike. Similarly, though the business is on a huge scale, a lot of the money changing hands escapes taxes. A Bank of Yokohama survey on the state of the underground economy in fiscal 1998, the last year data are available, estimated unreported earnings from commercial and amateur prostitution at 945 billion yen. In an effort to get a handle on the human scale of the business, the April 18 issue of the weekly magazine Spa! provided data suggesting that, due to the high turnover of workers, the average number of staff per outlet in any one year was likely to be at least five times the number on any one day.

Based on this, Spa! estimated that the nation's 1,000 "fashion health" and "image clubs" employed about 48,000 women, and that 1,265 "soaplands" employed 25,300. In addition, "pink salons" employed an estimated 28,430 women, some 1,000 "delivery health" (outcall) services employed 16,000; about 75,000 women worked in cabaret clubs (where customer and hostess sit in dimly lit, semiprivate cubicles); and around 20,000 worked at S/M clubs.

Comparing these figures with the total population, Spa! then declared that among women aged 20-24, about 1 in 16 was employed in the pink business.

"Prices haven't gone up for the past 20 years or so," Hiromi Hiraguchi, a former adult-video performer, raves to Spa! magazine. "Yet the quality of the girls keeps getting better, and the services they dispense get wilder all the time."

Perhaps most esoteric of the current varieties of "pink" services are the imekura (image clubs), which came into existence about a decade ago to cater to psychological needs while eschewing intercourse. Such shops will adorn their staff in costumes designed to fulfil their customer's chosen fantasy. Such "costume play" images might include high school student (complete with loose socks), nurse, waitress, cheerleader, nun, martial artist, belly dancer, science-fiction character (a la "Blade Runner") or -- perhaps the ultimate in perverse fantasies -- policewoman.

Other popular masquerades are said to be chikan play -- groping "female commuters" in a room set up like a rush-hour train -- and "baby play," in which female staff dress up their wards in a diaper, then entertain them with lullabies, rattles, teething rings and breast-feeding available as an option. While most of these businesses just cater to males, a few will, for an added fee, admit swinging couples.

"When I first came to Tokyo in 1986, I was already well aware of how unashamed and unabashed the culture was across the entire gamut of sexual fantasy," enthuses American author and film consultant Ric Meyers. "Beyond its eye-popping popular culture, Japan was not based on the puritan ethic that is still cursing America -- which tries to regulate fantasy while letting violent reality run wild.

"Unlike many sanctimonious people in the West, Japanese seem to accept that humans are sexual, and find no guilt catering to these natural desires."

Such desires aside, those willing to engage in the oldest profession clearly do it for money. And with the slumping economy and rising unemployment, it seems more young women have opted for what used to be called a "life of shame." "That might be why some women enter the business," says Takeshi Nagaike, whose Tokyo-based company, Fujita Corp., runs seminars on how to start up a pink business. "But for most, the money they can make is just too good to pass up." The figures tell the story: as opposed to about 800 yen an hour for part-time work in a fast-food restaurant or convenience store, a sex-industry worker can easily gross more than five times that.

The potential earnings are explicitly spelled out in biweekly magazines carrying ads for "part-time jobs with high income" in the pink industry.

Such publications first appeared in 1992, and now number at least eight in Tokyo alone -- amounting to several hundred pages of ads along with articles describing what the jobs entail.

The ad copy is remarkably explicit. "You can use a condom while giving oral sex," one reads. "No rough play," assures another. Still another, a Yokohama establishment named "It's Bully," even implies there's minimal physical contact with customers, since its clients are apparently bent on paying to be verbally abused.

The ads also address potential recruits' concerns through assurances of on-the-job training, flexible working hours (even one day a week is accepted), and such benefits as late-night transportation, employee housing and nurseries for single mothers. Sex-industry workers can also conceal their activities from family and friends through the use of professional "alibi" services which issue bogus employment certificates and salary statements.

Aside from the fact that most sex shops operate legally, the chances of arrest are very low. Violations of the Anti-Prostitution and Special Public Morals laws have both declined since the bubble years, partly because police have had to devote more resources to serious crime. According to the Crime White Paper for 2000, in the previous year only 588 women were charged with prostitution and 763 with related violations of the business code. Although the ads lure women with claims they can earn 35,000 yen a day or 800,000 yen or more a month, those in the pink trade are notorious for their inability to hold on to money. Naturally enough, this has prompted yet another type of business -- short-term loan services to women in the pink trade.

"There are certain kinds of women who take to this work," says Kiyoko Anzai, editor of Witty Pat, a biweekly pink business job-recruitment magazine published in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward. She believes Witty Pat's 30,000 buyers per issue are mainly in their 20s, though she says a growing number appear to be in their 30s -- perhaps victims of the rising divorce rate. She also points out that as with corporate employment, the job rush tends to be seasonal, with early July -- coinciding with school vacations and summer bonuses -- one of the peak periods. However accessible the pink business may be to Japanese men and women alike, the objection has often been raised that foreigners are generally not welcomed as customers. The specter of AIDS from a decade ago is doubtless a strong factor here, but it's also clear that foreigners' business is simply not felt to be needed. One reason for this is that the industry has been successful in applying what MBAs refer to as "relationship marketing" -- attracting regular, repeat customers.

In part, too, this success is increasingly being achieved by pink-business operators alert to the potential of cyberspace, with many now running Web sites carrying daily lists of which girls are on duty and when, while customers can also sometimes e-mail their chosen lady love(s). Meanwhile, in a business that's forever improvising on its age-old theme, a 1999 revision to the law gave legal status to outcall services in which no action takes place on company premises. Known as "delivery health," or deri-heru, these businesses send women to the address specified by the customer -- including, it has been reported, expressway rest areas.

In Japan's aging society, some foresee these businesses ministering more and more to the sexual needs of seniors who lack the energy or inclination to go cruising the bar districts.

In a similar vein, a fairly new development are shops whose exteriors sport a large green plastic heart that reads, shinshosha yusen no mise (shop that gives priority to the handicapped), with one Web site alone listing 21 locations nationwide providing sexual services geared to this segment of the market.

Indeed, given Japan's demographics, open tolerance of the sex business may be the most pragmatic approach. At present, around half Tokyo's males aged under 35 are unmarried, and as the offspring of postwar baby boomers (numbering around 10 million) reach their 30s, the percentage of singles is only going to rise. In a 1994 report, the Asahi Mutual Life Insurance Co. projected that by 2015, 58.2 percent of Japanese males between the ages of 20 and 39 are likely to be single.

In view of all this, even greater and more lucrative business opportunities may be just waiting in the wings. Certainly, there seems to be little possibility the nation's pink business will ever be in the red -- or even red-carded next year by authorities in Yokohama.

Lexicon of lust

Afuta (after) -- A date with a hostess, masseuse, etc. after she gets off work. Usually prohibited by her employers.

Bottakuri -- A rip-off joint where customers receive a wildly inflated bill. An ordinance passed last year finally outlawed the practice in Tokyo.

Burusera -- A shop appealing to fetishists, often specializing in sales of used women's garments.

Esute -- Aesthetic treatment salons. Variations include Kankoku (Korean) esute, Taiwan esute, etc. Services range from manual "prostate massage" to intercourse.

Fashion health -- A massage parlor featuring nude bathing and sexual services short of intercourse. The word "health" implies that diseases can be avoided at such places.

Gyaku -- The word means "reverse," and the sexual activities it is applied to include gyaku-nanpa (girls who pick up boys) and gyaku-enko (women who pay younger men for sex).

Hotetoru -- A word derived from hoteru toruko, meaning an unlicensed service similar to soapland (see below) performed in a hotel.

Mantoru -- A word derived from manshon toruko, meaning an unlicensed service similar to hotetoru, but in an apartment or condominium.

Pinsaro -- Also called pink salon, these are establishments where hostesses, often clad in negligees or other skimpy costumes, provide customers with oral sex in dim cubicles.

Seikan esute -- A massage parlor that provides sex services.

Serikura -- Derived from seru (to compete) and the English word "club," this refers to an establishment where men pay to sit in cubicles and peep at a succession of women. They may then make written bids to date whomever they choose in a kind of auction.

Soapland -- These provide an hour or longer of intimate services. Admission is expensive, and only a few admit foreigners.

Terekura -- Meaning "telephone club," this is a place men pay to go where women may call to arrange a meeting.



Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.