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Crazy Sexy Tokyo
Why does everyone in Tokyo seem to be selling or buying sex? Are the Japanese really sexless?
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Tokyo is drenched in sex.
Japan as a country struggles with a historically low birth rate which some sociologists attribute to cultural stigma towards sexuality. I resist this notion. Sex is everywhere and access to it has never been easier. From a utilitarian perspective, in a deflationary economy like Japan’s, having a child and wife would be a mistake. Gourmet food, feminine companionship and sex are easily accessible for even working-class men. In a society that doesn’t value women outside of being incubators, household, and sexual partners, we’ve outsourced a long while ago.
It’s easy to remember the first time I was solicited for sex on the street by a stranger in Tokyo. For many hyper femme Tokyo-ites this is a daily thing. Of fucking course it was in Akiba–a place where the commodified woman is ubiquitous. In fact, there are more women as marking concepts such as idol bands and themed cafes than there are women consumers there. This night, Chuo-dori was filled with college-aged girls in fluffy french maid uniforms beckoned passerbys on the streets. One gave me a flyer for her shop. My eyes darted into my bag and glanced at the small mountain of other street pamphlets I had been too shy to turn down. With a half-assed bow and shit-eating grin, I took the Maid’s leaflet and added it to my hoard of advertisements. I hadn’t been in Tokyo long. Remarkably, the novelty of Maid cafes has already worn off. The pungent cool January air filled with the fishy smell of Oden was still quite new. As my senses were enticed, I stumbled around Tokyo’s nerd district of Akihabara. It used to be the electronics district, now it’s known as Neckbeard Neverland. The streets were lined with anime porn, giant billboards of teenaged girls in bikinis, and storefronts selling video game dolls–ahem, figurines. In Akihabara, you never have to grow up! As I sorted out my duffle bag, I felt an ominous tap on my shoulder.
“Hey sis! You’re so cute!” A bald guy, no younger than thirty stood in front of me. The air around me shifted from yummy Oden to the greasiness that clung to every word he spoke. “What grade are you in?” My navy duffel bag was a parody of the famous Japanese assigned high school bag. Instead of a prep school crest, it had a hot pink embroidery of Hello Kitty. Wearing school uniform-inspired fashion items is incredibly popular in Japan for young women. I was also 18, the age of most Japanese high school seniors. “Oh, I’m in college already…” As a bumpkin, I wasn’t used to brushing off strange older men. “College, heh…Well, if you want to have tea with me, I don’t mind giving you a little bit of pocket money.” My Kid-ult brain started to connect the dots. He assumed I was a high schooler and boldly came to me to offer me money for tea.
Ae who lives in Tokyo long enough to scratch beyond the surface realize that women are for sale. A woman’s hug can be easily purchased at a cuddle cafe(no sex whatsoever). Maid cafes IRL fantasy roleplay to nerds(although they are also strictly no sex). I’ve never seen the notorious used panty vending machines, but I know for a fact that some basement sex stores in Dougenzaka sell used underwear behind the shop counters. Go to Ikebukuro, Ueno or certain parts of Shibuya on a weekday night and you will easily see a few odd pairings. Women who can be no older than twenty in arms with a man well in his fifties. Of course, nobody bats an eye. In gentrified Kabukicho the newly built Krispy Kreme donut shop was built right next to a brothel that advertised full frontal nudity in public with a huge sign. A shock for the busloads of Chinese tourists who spent their weekends on Tokyo shopping sprees.
I was also quick to learn that a good portion of my university classmates engaged in some form of sex work. I would frequently see the cute and nerdy Midwestern girl from Psych class in arms with a pudgy middle aged Japanese shachou, hand in hand around Dogenzaka. I know that because I too walked in a similar predicament and our eyes met. We made a reassuring smile to the other and never mentioned it in class. Girls, foreign and Japanese alike would murmur in school computer labs about which Roppongi Hills Girls’ Bars or Hostess clubs were profitable. And when a friend and I were approached by a classmate who admitted to money problems, she confided that she had been engaging in street-based sex work. There was one instance where I was the other woman to a famous Japanese writer in the otaku world. When I was caught, girlfriend (Japanese) had lunch with me and gave me advice on navigating sex work safely. She too, tried it, as a young woman.
The laws around prostitution and trading sex in Japan are murky. With a quick Google search, you can see that it’s technically illegal. This is deceiving. It was only less than 100 years ago that sex workers were kept in cages in public streets in large cities like Tokyo and Kyoto. When America occupied Japan in post-WWII, they made quite a few changes to things. Hemp became criminalized. The US quickly introduced miscegenation laws to brothels that segregated the Japanese sex workers by the clientele they serviced (Black, White and Japanese). They then introduced laws to ban the trade all together. However, that was impossible. Sex work is so intertwined into the fabric of Japanese culture that these American imposed laws have never been enforced. The law explicitly bans the trade of money for sex with “unknown parties”. And the Japanese abide by the Catholic schoolgirl definition of sex. Anal, Oral and everything outside of vaginal penetration is completely fine and openly advertised. Made a “private arrangement” (ie chat with someone for five minutes, meet someone online, set up a sugar daddy thing?) all fine because that isn’t a stranger. Therefore it’s sort of in a defacto decriminalized state in Japan–as long as you don’t do penetration.
Due to this lack of penetration, the ever-so-creative Japanese have made a big business by catering to niche fetishes. In my later time in Japan, I worked in a massage agency that marketed Western women. The business model was laughably closer to a regular office job than it was to pornography. There was water cooler gossip, workplace affairs and awkward elevator rides with workers from other businesses. These other workers were also sex workers as the entire building was dedicated to adult industry office spaces. Whether you want a lactating mature woman, a busty dominatrix or a space to act out a train groping fantasy, all of these services are widely offered in the Tokyo sex industry. Quiet as its kept, penetration is not uncommon and the cops aren’t bothered about it.
The issue is trickier for migrants. In the mid 2000s, the Bush administration forced countries in Asia to change their prostitution laws in order to “rescue” Southeast Asian women. By rescue, I mean make it so they had no other options than work in US corporate sweatshops. Therefore there are strict penalties for migrants caught engaging in this industry in Japan unless they have a special sort of visa. I hardly saw this enforced if there were no drugs involved or other crimes such as money laundering, immigration fraud, or whatnot. Tokyo is still filled with establishments with Southeast Asian women being the main concept.
As a (legal)teenager, I was stopped by the police in Shinjuku as I walked hand in hand with a man near Love Hotels. The officer was concerned that I was underaged and made no remark on my nationality or sex work. He just threatened to call my parents. I was quite annoyed at the time but now I look back on it with fondness. It was totally something out of Leave It To Beaver. In fact, random street punks came to my defense demanding the officer to leave me alone and that it was useless to stop a woman for something such as this. I was left with a paternal demand to return home. This has happened to two other foreign women I know who worked as sex workers in Japan, an officer merely asking if they had drugs and letting them go when they did not. I only knew of one girl being arrested who was my Japanese friend. She said at 16 she was sent to a juvenile delinquency center.
Since there’s loads of foreign sex workers in Japan It’s easy to assume this is racialized. Most of them are from previously occupied(colonized) by Japan or fallen Soviet states. While there is a racial component to this, Japanese society makes it hard for working-class women to enter gainful employment. Although there are human rights’ violations, specifically in pornography, the sex industry is Japan is equitable in my opinion.
The commodification of women isn’t just a one way affair. Host clubs are large venues where women can purchase the Boyfriend Experience. Most of their clientele are woman sex workers. There’s also profitable escort agencies for lesbian women. This sort of business wouldn’t exist in America outside of somewhere like Portland or 1990s San Francisco.
Sex has always been for sale in Japan and that isn’t the sole cause for the dangerously low birthrate. Society has a far more favorable view of sex workers than most Western countries do. Late stage capitalism has made it so that there is absolutely no reason to get married and have a child. In fact, it’d be a foolish decision to make. Outside of personal choice, there is hardly any reason for women not to sell sex. Especially when offers are regularly made on the streets. In Tokyo, everything is for sale. Cuddles, sex, and love.
Thank you for reading! I wrote this blog post while reflecting on why sex for sale is widely accepted in Japan yet hardly spoken outwardly about. The title of this article is taken from a cool On Demand travel show from the mid 2000s. Comment your thoughts or what you’d wanna read next?