Nguyet Thu Nguyen

Prostitution in Japan: A Young Body Worth a Profit

At a street corner, a young girl around the age of seventeen, dressed in a navy blue school uniform and white socks, stands looking vacantly into the street. After a few minutes a middle-aged man approaches the girl and offers to take her out to an expensive dinner; in addition, he offers her a satisfying amount of pocket money. With a shy, quivering glance and a sweet smile the girl graciously takes the man’s arm. On the corner of areas like Shibuya, a central Tokyo entertainment district, popular with Tokyo’s younger generation the scenario described has become a common and casual rendezvous (Moffett, "Little Women" 48). Japan, a country with the second strongest economy and highest academic standing in the world, is facing a major problem with a wide-spreading and popular after-school activity of its young female students. An increasing number of Japanese schoolgirls are soliciting their bodies for entertainment and extra "pocket" money in a society that is setting extremely high prices for them.

Enjo kosai, which translates as "subsidized socializing" or "patronage" or simply "prostitution," is no longer a rare secret on the streets of Japan (Schreiber 84-85). There exist numerous outlets that are propagating the idea and helping teenage girls to find interested clients. Phone booths near train stations are plastered with phone numbers and photos of young schoolgirls, many from middle-class homes (Butler 44). Girls can also market themselves with commercial voicemail. Dial into a commercial voicemail and you can hear a message similar to the following: "I am a 16-year-old high school girl. I am looking for someone to meet me tomorrow for an enjo kosai arrangement. I am 165 centimeters tall and weigh 49 kilograms…I think I’m pretty cute. My price is 50,000 yen for about two hours" (Schreiber 83). Other wise a man can stroll along the street of Shibuya, Ueno or other district areas that are favorite hangouts for teenagers and pick up a young girl. Then he may take her to a karaoke clubroom or somewhere private and start negotiating the price for the evening. Japanese men can also find pleasure at "image clubs," where they pay about $150 an hour to live out their wildest fantasies about schoolgirls (Kristof A6). In what are called telephone clubs, a man could pay a fee and then wait in a room for a call from a woman during which the two parties will make an arrangement to meet at another time for an enjo kosai. These clubs solicit women by advertising in magazines and newspapers, on subway trains, and by direct mail. Kleenex tissues with the club’s telephone number and address are even distributed at train stations (Morrison 3). These outlets, major promoters of "sex for money," have had a significant impact on the numbers of teenage girls engaging in prostitution, aiding the teen prostitute with finding customers and aggressively luring new young girls into prostitution. Allowing women to call at no charge, telephone clubs are one of the most popular tools schoolgirls use to meet interested men.

The number of teenage prostitutes began to climb around 1974. By 1984 the number reached alarming levels and is still increasing (Morrison 3). National Police Agency statistics for 1995 show that 5,841 female minors were involved in telephone club liaisons or other sex-related activities. One quarter of these girls were still in junior high school. There was a 16.2 percent increase from previous years (Schreiber 86). The Tokyo Metropolitan Government survey of 110 schools in 1996 found that 4 percent of high-school girls, and 3.8 percent from junior high, had acted as paid escorts (Moffett, "little Women" 50).

Recently, in a national survey of 3,600 fourteen and fifteen-years-olds by the Congress of Parents’ and Teachers’ Associations, one quarter of the girls admitted to making frequent calls to the telephone club. The number of telephone clubs, commercial voicemail services, and other sex-related businesses has been growing–from 900 in 1992 to 2,164 in 1995–indicating that more young women are availing themselves of these sex-selling businesses.

Alice Yamada, a senior editor of the Trincoll Journal on the World Wide Web wrote about her two years spent in Japan:

I felt like I was left behind by all the aspects of ‘attractiveness’ in Japan, simply because I was not equipped in Chanel nor shielded by ten inches of MAC foundation as all the other girls were. I was plain and I looked poor. And the reality is that my wallet was very empty compared to that of those girls who carried beepers and cell phones to call up their "patrons" (1).

A friend of Yamada, Yukari, started building a career as a teenage prostitute at the age of fifteen. Her first experience was with a forty-year-old man whom she charged a mere 200 U.S. dollars because she was inexperienced at the time. After her first experience, she called Yamada in excitement, and the first thing she said was, "Let’s go to the mall now. I can get that Gaultier bag I always wanted!" When asked to stop, Yukari defended, "You’d never understand. You’re too spoiled to work for the things you want" (1).

There are many girls like Yukari, whose main concern is money. If they have money, these girls can buy whatever they want. Girls are selling themselves to buy designer fashions: the Burberry scarfs, Chanel handbags, and other designer must-haves. With the media accelerating the "necessity" for teenagers to look and dress like the movie actors and singers on television, most of Japan’s youth has become infatuated with expensive designer wear. Prostitution has become the means for young women to appear and remain in style.

Prostitution has a benefit to young women. With just the sacrifice of their body and without much excessive labor, they can make a great amount of money. A young girl working behind the counters at a fast-food restaurant would make about seven or eight hundred yen an hour. In comparison, she could earn 40 to 50 times that amount by having sex, or even by just spending time, with an older man (Schreiber 84). The money is a significant appeal. Girls brought into police custody from a 1994 police round-up of several date clubs said, "they were not poverty-stricken, but wanted the money to buy expensive clothes" (Moffett, "Strange Moves" 30). According to reports it appears that "a client showered three hundred thousand yens worth of designer clothes on one girl. Another girl routinely demanded 70,000 yen a night for sex" (Moffett, "Strange Moves" 30). These young girls view sex as a clear form of acceptable capitalism. They see that they are in demand and that they are paid accordingly. "It’s O.K. as long as they pay me," said sixteen years old Yuki Shinohara (Kristof A6). Nishijima, a Young Night editor, comments that these girls view their work just like another part-time job, similar to flipping burgers in McDonald’s, only for much better pay (Moffett, "Strange Moves" 30).

Instead of feeling ashamed for trading their bodies for currency and dinner at expensive restaurants, many girls are proud that they are able to make so much money on their own rather than pocket money from their parents. According to Yumi Yanmashita, a writer who has studied prostitution, many girls see their youth as a currency with a time limit, so they need to spend it before it expires. He says, "Girls see life ahead of them as becoming an old women" (Moffett, "Little Women" 50). Therefore, they want to take advantage of their ephemeral status as the icon of male fantasy (Moffett, "Litte Women" 48).

Several distinct societal factors also have contributed to the outbreak of teen prostitution. In Japan, sex and sexual relations are not viewed as moral issues as they often are in the Western countries and in the United States in particular. Japanese have traditionally viewed sexual relations as a natural phenomenon, "like eating, to be enjoyed in its proper place" (Morrison 1). Thus, prostitution is widely accepted as a natural component and even a necessity in society. This "acceptance" of prostitution in Japanese society can be observed in their very relaxed laws against sex with children and prostitution, which says that it is legal in Tokyo for men to have sex with children as young as the age of twelve. Similarly, under an Antiprostitution Law in Japan, prostitution is deemed illegal, but in effect it is permitted to exist so long as authorities can control it (Morrison 3). These principles together with the existing consumer driven-society, in which the type of brand-name items people possess is an indication of their social status and wealth, a distancing gap between the young and older generation, and a present national obsession with schoolgirls as sexual objects, all augment the wave of teen prostitution in Japan.

The increase in teen prostitution is largely due to the generation gap that exits and is widening between the young and older generation of Japan. In a rapidly growing economy as in Japan, parents are working harder and longer to earn money. That leaves children to care for themselves, yielding them the growing freedom to live as they see fit. The growing independence and self-reliance developed causes the young people to become more distanced from their parents and other adults. They possess different societal and materialistic views from their parents and elders, developing an entire unique culture of values and beliefs from the traditions of thoughts taught to them. These young people have also been termed the "Generation X" in Japan. One particular differing view between the younger generation and their parents is in the matter of making money. While their parents believe in working long and hard and laboring sufficiently to make money, young people prefer to make money while having fun (Moffett, "Little Women" 48). "Having fun" in many young women’s cases means seeking out older men who want young escorts and will pay to take them out for the evening.

The moneymaking and entertainment, however, is only one side to the increase in teenage prostitution. A number of girls who are engaged in prostitution are driven to it by unhappiness and despair, which are produced by the same distancing between the young and old generations and augmented by family and societal problems. Many teen prostitutes admit to having frequent disagreements with their parents and siblings so they try to stay away from home a much as possible (Schreiber 85). In effect, these individuals become reluctantly disconnected from the family, the society, and its values.

Another major problem is the enormous pressures inflicted on Japanese students to do their best in school. The latest poll, conducted by the government’s Management and Coordination Agency in 1996, found that only forty-four percent of Japanese under twenty were actually happy with their lives, and sex is one form of rebellion to what Japanese psychiatrist Masao Miyamoto calls the "straitjacket society" (Hills 1-2). Under the pressure of a rigorous school system and extreme family and social expectations, it is easy for many teenagers to mentally collapse and simply stop caring. If the future is not worth thinking about, they begin to concentrate on the pleasure of the moment, and selling their bodies is an activity that yields them that pleasure.

The "image clubs" mentioned earlier exemplify yet another factor encouraging the increase in teen prostitution, a present national obsession by Japanese men for schoolgirls. Japan has coined a word for men with this preference, "Lolicon," an abbreviation of "Lolita complex," after Nabokov’s novel about a middle-aged man’s obsession with a young girl (Kristof A6). Masoa Miyamoto, a male psychiatrist and author of a best-selling analysis of Japanese society, suggests that many Japanese men feel threatened by the growing sophistication of adult Japanese women. They desire to position themselves as superior to young girls (Kristof A6). In addition, Japanese cinema enhances that idea more by portraying sexual images and activities of Japanese men and young girls in a wide number of Japanese animation and movies. "Middle-aged Japanese men are willing to pay a premium to date girls in uniform" (Butler 44), and Japan’s sex industry is out to cater those men. More importantly the schoolgirls are fully aware of the high profitable demand for their bodies and companionship, which could easily entice them to engage in prostitution.

Teen prostitution is not shocking news that Japan has just witnessed for the first time. But during recent years, the spectacle of teenage schoolgirls selling their bodies to purchase designer clothes is making many Japanese uneasy. Currently, Tokyo Metropolitan Government is taking the steps to curb the acts when adults pay for sex with children under eighteen. Laws to punish those who solicit prostitution with teenagers are being decided upon. But laws simply against teen prostitution may not be enough. Many of the young prostitutes are willingly marketing their bodies, most of them operating on their own. They understand what they are doing and indicate that they see nothing wrong with having sex for money. The problem is not only that the obsessed Japanese men are seeking out young companions but also the schoolgirls in uniform are enthusiastically seeking out their male patrons. In order to ameliorate the problem, the society will need to attack the root of the problem, working with and educating students to prevent further young girls from being involved in prostitution, helping to reform those who are, and, also taking actions against the promoters and "trafficker" of Japan’s sex-industry. Failure to act accordingly may eventually result in an increasing degeneration of morals and ethics in its young female generation.

Work Cited

Butler, Steven. "Prostitution Has Its Limits." U.S. News and World Report 4 Apr. 1997: 44.

Hills, Ben. "Tokyo’s Teen Tribes." World Press Review v. 43 n. 1 Jan 1996: 39(2). Replicated in Infotrac, ISU Library Expanded Academic ASAP, item A17925266: 1-2.

Kristof, Nicholas D. "A Plain School Uniform as the Latest Aphrodisiac." New York Times 19 May 1999. A6.

Moffett, Sebastian. "Little Women: Japanese School Girls Cash in on Their Innocence." Far Eastern Economic Review v. 159 12 Dec. 1996: 48-50.

Moffett, Sebastian. "Strange Move: In Japan, Sexertainment Reveals Bizarre Versatility." Far Eastern Economic Review v. 158 14 Dec. 1995: 29-30.

Morrison, Andrew D. "Teen Prostitution in Japan: Regulation of Telephone Clubs." Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law v. 31 n. 2 March 1998: 457-497. Replicated in Infotrac, ISU Library Expanded Academic ASAP, item A20862669: 1-10.

Schreiber, Mark. "Juvenile Crime in the 1990’s." Japan Quarterly v. 44

Apr./June 1997: 78-88.

Strom, Stephanie. "Japan’s Legislators Tighten the Ban on Under-age Sex." New York Times 19 May 1999: A6.

Yamada, Alice N. "Teenage Prostitution in Japan." Trincoll Journal. (1996): 2pp. World Wide Web http://www.trincoll.edu/zines/tj/tj02.06.97/articles/inter.html 13 October 1999.