Oldies: Japan: Prostitution testing bounds of culture, business

Sex industry endures thanks to demand, commercialization and legal loopholes

First of two parts on prostitution, beginning in Japan, where the act is illegal, then in the Netherlands, where it is legal Staff writer

Megu Kano, 24, spends all nine hours on the job in a small room less than six tatami mats in size, including a bed and a bathroom. On an average day, she accepts five customers, having sex twice with each within the allotted 80 minutes.

News photo
Men pass by neon signs in the Kabukicho entertainment district in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward.

During each session, the service woman at the “soapland” sex parlor in Tokyo must also share a bath with the customers and wash their bodies. In return, she gets 20,000 yen per customer, and the house gets 10,000 yen more.

“For the first couple of weeks, I couldn’t stand and walk straight, because my legs were stiff and shaking like a fawn,” said Kano, which is not her real name.

“But this is so much easier and relaxing compared with my previous job at a ‘fashion health’ massage parlor, where I had to make as many as 30 guys a day ejaculate mainly by oral sex,” she said.

Although the 45-year-old Prostitution Prevention Law prohibits hooking, straight sex has been widely practiced at soaplands, which number around 1,270 nationwide.

“Everyone comes to soaplands, knowing that they can have sex,” Kano said.

“I think my job is even better than other sex businesses, which sneak around the law by avoiding straight sex, but offer all kinds of sexual services, some of which seem to be only perverted sex,” she said.

What is practiced at soaplands, which are mainly Japanese-staffed, represents one of a variety of loopholes in the prostitution law. The law terms prostitution something that devastates human dignity, sexual morals and culture.

The law says that it is prohibited to sell or buy sex, but it does not penalize those acts. Instead, it penalizes prostitutes for soliciting or waiting for customers in public places, such as on the street and in parks. It also penalizes anyone who forces somebody to engage in prostitution, exploits a prostitute or gives financial support to a business engaged in prostitution.

Inside soaplands, which are legally registered as “special public bathhouses” under another law that regulates adult entertainment, employees are allowed to “touch” customers.

Customers first pay an “entrance fee” at the front desk and then pay a “service fee” directly to the employee, giving the business a pretext that sex is conducted on mutual consent between two adults who know each other. The prostitution law says that prostitution is something between strangers.

This gives men a free hand at sex parlors and with prostitutes on the streets. And because the law has interpreted “prostitutes” as meaning “women,” male prostitution is outside of the legal framework.

Aside from soaplands, there are thousands of massage parlors that offer various kinds of sexual services except straight sex. Thus commercialized sex is a regular feature in Japan.

Law fuels sex industry

According to the National Police Agency, there were 908 fashion health massage parlors and 5,425 “outcall-style” fashion health parlors that were publicly registered in 2000 under the Law Regulating Adult Entertainment Businesses, etc.

What protects the operation of the fashion health parlors is simple — they only offer oral sex, anal sex and other sexual services that are not interpreted as sex in the prostitution law.

“Getting around the prostitution law, the sex industry here has expanded even amid the protracted recession, offering easy satisfaction to men’s sexual desires and high-paying jobs to women,” said Masayuki Ogino, chief editor of Tokyo Man-zoku News, a biweekly information magazine on the sex business.

Ogino said he believes there are twice as many such parlors and other adult businesses than what police counted, with between 200,000 and 250,000 women working in the industry.

What characterizes sex parlors today is an extreme commercialization, as is represented by the “option system,” which most employ.

Aside from “basic services,” which usually include oral sex, customers can choose options ranging from anal sex to making girls dress up in special costumes. These cost a couple thousand yen each.

“Because straight sex is prohibited by the prostitution law and the sex business had to provide various services to satisfy men’s sexual fantasies, the sex industry in Japan has become widely accepted by society,” Ogino said.

Corresponding to the increased number of sex parlors, the weekly magazine has doubled its circulation in the past decade to 100,000 copies in the Tokyo area, Ogino said.

Amid increasing competition and escalation of their services, an increasing number of sex parlors other than soaplands offer straight sex today, although they do not explicitly advertise it, experts said, adding that operators of those sex businesses are rarely arrested for violating the prostitution law.

“If we receive a complaint, we will investigate a soapland or any other types of sex businesses, but it hardly ever happens, as prostitution usually has no apparent victims,” said the National Police Agency spokesman. “The current situation (that sex is practiced at such parlors) is not enough for us to begin an investigation into a specific parlor.”

Of the 2,947 reported violations of the prostitution law in 2000 involving 1,225 people, only 627 cases involved registered massage parlors and other sex-related establishments. The remaining cases include those involving street hookers and more underground practitioners.

Law gives tacit approval

Lawyer Yukiko Tsunoda, who has represented a number of women charged with violating the prostitution law, said that its apparent defects seem to be intentionally designed to serve its prime aim — to ostensibly hide prostitution and other sex businesses from the public, not to strictly ban commercial sex.

“The law was designed so ineffectively that it appears as if tacit approval is being given to commercial sex as long as it is practiced behind closed doors,” she said. “This reflects a double standard in the country’s sex culture, which views prostitution or prostitutes as morally wrong but necessary to maintain social order.”

According to Kaori Tanaka, a freelance writer on the sex industry who used to work at a fashion health massage parlor in Tokyo, it was only after Western or Christian views were introduced that people began viewing prostitution as morally wrong.

“Prostitution has been well accepted by society as a tool to maintain social order,” she said. “It was considered something necessary for men to fulfill their sexual desire.”

Before the Prostitution Prevention Law took effect in April 1957, commercial sex was highly institutionalized in Japan, and the government often went hand in hand with the industry. Authorities recognized and attempted to supervise or to tax brothels from the 12th century.

That stance on prostitution symbolically led to creation of the “comfort women” system used by the Imperial Japanese Army, which ostensibly encouraged the recruitment of Japanese “prostitutes” for soldiers fighting overseas, but actually was a mass scale roundup of women in occupied territories who were forced into sexual slavery. Soon after Japan’s surrender, the government even recruited prostitutes to serve the Occupation troops, historical records show.

By 1955, there were an estimated 500,000 prostitutes in Japan in 1,922 public and private red-light districts, government records show.

Legal experts said the law was established only to allow the country to ratify the U.N. Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others, which took effect in 1951, as a part of the country’s efforts to rejoin the international community.

In the following years, thousands of prostitutes and brothel operators were arrested, and old-time prostitution was replaced by the modern sex industry with its legal loopholes.

Conflicting viewpoints

Despite the apparent wide acceptance of prostitution, however, prostitutes were perpetually maligned, while being severely exploited by brothel operators under the indenturing system that lasted through the middle of the 20th century.

“The traditional Japanese stance on prostitution draws a clear line between good women, represented by wives faithful to their husbands, and bad women, who engage in sexual intercourse for money,” said Mizuho Matsuda, program director of the Asian Women’s Fund, a semigovernmental body that runs a public fund to provide monetary assistance to former “comfort women” in Asia. The organization also works to promote women’s rights.

“Men were encouraged to buy prostitutes or to have a mistress in a way to prove they were financially reliable, while prostitutes were viewed as the worst group of all women,” she said.

Amid the long-held prejudice against prostitutes, women in the current sex industry seem to be trying hard to convince themselves that their job represents something less serious than it is.

“I’ve never viewed my job as prostitution, but as a service that is more sophisticated and well-organized,” said Kano, the soapland employee.

“Prostitution sounds to me like something more gloomy, desperate and having something to do with poverty or exploitation, which have nothing to do with my job,” she said.

Behind the prosperity of the established sex industry, a large-scale underground sex trade has also thrived.

2000 saw 1,225 people arrested on suspicion of violating the prostitution law. But that it is believed to be just the tip of the iceberg. Research conducted by Bank of Yokohama on the state of the underground economy in Japan in fiscal 1998 estimated that unreported earnings from commercial and “amateur” prostitution come to around 945 billion yen.

These businesses vary, ranging from individual street prostitute, call-girl networks and those that take the form of bars and nightclubs. There also are so-called “chon-no-ma” (rooms for a second) in the former red-light districts, which are identical with old-style brothels that offer quick sex for cheap prices, according to experts.

Tragedy, fate or choice?

The ever-expanding legitimate sex industry absorbs many Japanese women as well as an increasing number of foreign women, mainly from Asia and South America, to engage in underground prostitution, according to the Asian Women’s Fund.

While no statistics are available, the organization reckons that of the 250,000 or so foreigners who have overstayed their visas, tens of thousands are foreign women engaged in prostitution.

“Just like many of the Japanese prostitutes in the feudal era, many of these foreign prostitutes are forced into the trade, usually due to poverty back home,” said Mizuho Matsuda of the organization.

“This inhumane situation is the result of the country’s long ignorance and failure to view prostitution from the perspective of women’s rights and exploitation of their sex,” she said.

While prostitution has been legalized in some European countries from the perspective of individual freedom and rights, lawyer Yukiko Tsunoda said that it is too early to argue it from such a viewpoint in Japan.

“The fact that so many women have chosen to work in the sex industry reflects Japan’s highly male-oriented culture and social system, which approves or often encourages the view that women are supposed to serve men’s sexual needs,” she said.

“For women, choosing the sex industry is not as much an individual choice as it is a social one, forced on them by society, although many women in the industry are not well aware of that,” Tsunoda said.

Tsunoda thinks commercial sex has also reinforced the view that women can be exchanged for money, and thus has helped perpetuate the unequal relationship between men and women.

The Japan Times: Friday, March 15, 2002

See Part Two


1 Comment

  1. […] Oldies: Japan: Prostitution testing bounds of culture, business […]

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