Sex and the salaryman

Letter from Tokyo: Dave McCombs reports that Japan's changing fortunes have reached as far as the sex industry, altering the long-standing relationship between commercial sex and the salaryman.

Published May 8, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Japan's economic descent has landed hard at golf resorts, department stores and exclusive restaurants. The good life is under siege, but nowhere more tellingly than in the sex industry.

Last March, two top-level Finance Ministry officials resigned after admitting that they accepted, among other blandishments, prostitution services paid for by Harunori Takahashi, the president of the bankrupt Tokyo Kyowa Credit Cooperative.

This April, in a scandal that led to the departure of the finance minister himself, Hiroshi Mitsuzuka, two ministry officials were found to have been entertained by Dai Ichi Kangyo bank executives, who were told exactly when audits were scheduled. The two officials were not taken for an especially expensive meal of sushi and ginjo (the champagne of sake); rather they were treated to a long evening of no-pan shabu shabu. "No-pan" is the Japanization of "no panties" and shabu shabu is a cooked-at-table beef soup. Here, panty-free waitresses deliver platters of thinly sliced beef and vegetables, pour beer and attend closely to customers' conversation.

A decade from now the aesthetically advanced, if ultimately juvenile, debauchery favored by the business class may be confined to the fond memories of retired board members and elite bureaucrats. But like Japan's immense residual wealth -- for example, the 1.2 quadrillion yen in pensions and personal savings -- the sex trade still has a long way to fall.

Reiko Shimada has five phones. With her, that is. She has more at home, she explains, reaching into a lipstick-red Louis Vuitton handbag to extract a collection of palm-sized portables.

Her favorite, a digital wrapped in a pink, quilted Hello Kitty case, is small enough to fit in a man's shirt pocket. But it is not the phone's compact utility that appeals to Shimada; it is the man who paid for it.

"He made us laugh. He brought nice gifts, and he always paid first," says Shimada, 18. Like the other phones in her possession, the Hello Kitty unit belonged to a salaryman, one of a dozen or so who paid between $260 and $1,000 to have sex with Shimada's associates, mostly 15- to 18-year-old students. When a new customer was introduced, always by referral, the first thing he did was present his "date" with an activated portable telephone. That way, he could reach her without worrying about a parent picking up or listening to the message.

Once a girl quit or decided she wanted a new "uncle," she surrendered the phone to Shimada, who started looking for someone new to answer the call.

At least that's how it used to work. Shimada quit pimping months ago, discovering she could make as much money with fewer hassles as a media whore. Her first customer was part of a three-man TV camera crew on patrol around a massive postmodern fountain outside Tokyo's Ikebukuro station. Agreeing to digitally scramble her face, they filmed an interview with Shimada, wherein she produced the five phones, talked about her favorite clients, told how much she and her girls make and explained why they do it -- all the basics of the enjo kosai ("subsidized dating") business. Afterward, she gave the interviewer her card, and he gave her 20,000 yen (about $150).

The day after her interview aired, Shimada received calls from print journalists, including some from British, German, Swedish and American publications, and television producers who had seen the interview and tracked her through the station. They all wanted to interview her or the girls who worked for her. Most offered cash. These jobs led to others and, eventually, to book and screenplay offers.

A sunny, fast-talking Tokyo teen with long, streaked hair, Shimada admits she feels lucky to have won the attention. Part of it, she says, is knowing the right answers. "I would always tell them, 'It's kind of exciting,'" she says, describing her response to the question, "What is it like being with an older man?" The quote would invariably end up in the headline or slapped across the television screen in big, lurid characters.

Timing also played a part. Last fall, scarcely a day passed in Japan without a report on enjo kosai being published or aired. The stories seldom went below the skin. Much of it seemed more like titillation than reportage -- lots of visuals of uniform-wearing schoolgirls and much discussion about virginity, prices and number of dates. With the media heat, it was easy to believe that half the nation's high school girls were nightly screwing half of Japan Inc.'s mid- to upper-level managers. Indeed, a headline in the Mainichi Daily News last fall read: "Poll: Schoolgirls say prostitution OK." The survey itself, however, revealed that 56.3 percent of respondents said that they were "extremely reluctant" to take part in prostitution and among those who said they knew what enjo kosai was, 82 percent said they had never been involved in it. Only 12.5 percent answered that they had "no particular reluctance" to participate.

Teenage prostitution is hardly new to Japan. Enjo kosai departs from tradition only in that the girls basically work for themselves. Prostitution was once considered honorable, in fact, if practiced at the highest levels. It was not unheard of for parents to sell their daughters into the trade. And one of the two most common themes of kabuki, the traditional Japanese theater of commoners, is called mi-uri, the selling of human life. In its most typical form, mi-uri features a woman selling herself into prostitution to save her parents or husband, or being traded away secretly by a desperate or dastardly family member.

Shimada is still working on her book. The screenplay offer has withered, though, after a few meetings and one too many ambiguous come-ons by its ostensible backer. And she has no plans to go back to pimping. It's harder to find customers these days, she says, especially ones that pay over the $265 minimum, bring designer accessories for gifts and treat girls to expensive restaurants.

Shinichi Itoh does not own a portable telephone. He oversees an entire
switchboard at a Tokyo "telephone club." Business, he reports, has dropped
by a third over the past several months. Itoh's club looks like a karaoke
parlor, with knee-high velour seats, glass tables and gold-accented
wallpaper. But instead of booths with sound equipment and colored lights,
there are stalls with telephone extensions. Men pay about $35 for up to two
hours here. During this time, Itoh will direct incoming calls to the men at
random, or with regard to special requests. The calls come from women who
have been handed toll-free numbers, typically distributed inside packets of
free tissue handed out near train stations.
The men are almost always looking for some form of sex, says Itoh. Women
callers usually want money, he adds, although a percentage are simply lonely
and seek a conventional date or phone sex. The link between telephone clubs
and teen prostitution is no secret. Several times last year, groups of two
or three girls under 16 years old were arrested for robbing middle-aged men
after meeting them through a telephone club and inviting them to a hotel.
School officials and Diet (parliament) members have called for new
restrictions on the clubs. But the enterprises and their cartoonish
billboards, posters, placards (usually held up outside train stations by
sullen, broken-looking 50-something men), stickers, flyers, brochures and
tissue paper packets still litter the cityscape.
Tokyo has no red-light district. Rather, no part of the city is free of
sexual enterprises. Turn a corner in Shimbashi, mere steps away from
high-class Ginza, and you find the Apple Club, where child pornography,
vials of women's urine with verifying photos, "lifelike" inflatable dolls
and gynecology textbooks are on sale. Take the train to Tateyama, a seaside
resort area two hours out of Tokyo, and you find, facing the station, a day-glo
green and pink cloth banner touting a nearby hotel's live S&M show and "oral
time," otherwise known as fellatio. Slip into a phone booth in Toritsu Daigaku, one of Tokyo's
most expensive neighborhoods, and you can see business card-sized ads for
prostitutes -- "18-21, part-timers, anal-OK" -- pasted to the glass.
To the casual observer, it seems obvious that Japan's famously disciplined
work force stays that way in part because, for men at least, frustrations
are routinely vented into heavy drinking and expensive sex. Considered
normal, such habits do not often entangle salarymen in a way that interferes
with their career commitments.
For increasing numbers, however, this lifestyle is no longer viable. With
companies cutting bonuses and downsizing, the certainty with which salarymen
can plan their future is plummeting. More important, perhaps, is that the
traditional relationship-driven business model is being pushed aside amid
calls for greater transparency in corporations and regulatory agencies.
Companies such as Fujitsu Corp. are moving from seniority-based to
performance-based salary and promotions, which tends to make personalized
relationships less crucial to career advancement.
This, in turn, is cutting into commercial sex, long a favored cement for
holding together relationships in Japan. Simple cash bribes will always be
popular as a motivational tool -- but sometimes, even money cannot establish
or sustain personal trust as firmly as an expenses-paid night of debauchery
Jana Whitfield is a 22-year-old business administration student from
Vancouver. She was recruited for a summer hostessing job in Tokyo through a
Canadian agency. Although hostessing can mean anything from ultra-attentive
waitressing to delivering blow jobs under a table, in most cases, groping,
mouth-kissing and anything more intimate than that are prohibited. Some
hostesses have sex with clients, but almost never inside the hostess club
Although she never got into prostitution, Whitfield has made friends with
some of her customers. One regular she calls George, the vice president of a
real estate firm, used to bring groups of two to three clients along with one or two other male members of his firm, recalls Whitfield.
"The bills would hit over 200,000 yen ($1,600) a lot of the time," she
says. "He used to brag to me that he could spend as much as he wanted. I
believed him."
George still comes around regularly, but he's usually by himself, says
Whitfield. The hostess club gives him free drinks, she says, because he was
so good to them in the past.
"He told me his business isn't going great," says Whitfield. "He doesn't
have so many clients to butter up, I guess."
The hostess business has been in decline for some time, closely tracking
the overall economy. At the same time, increasing competition has come from
strip clubs featuring Western dancers.
George is likely a small-timer compared to the 112 Finance Ministry
bureaucrats "disciplined" two weeks ago for accepting "lavish
entertainment" paid for by private financial firms and others. Some of the officials
were dismissed, others suspended, given pay cuts or officially reprimanded.
English translations of the mainstream dailies offered no details on exactly
how lavish the entertainment was, though readers who have followed the news
know by the amounts, typically several hundred dollars per person, that it
is likely to have involved paid-for female companionship at some level.
Shukan Post, a weekly newsmagazine, reported on a party for Finance
Ministry officials, paid for by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, which
must lobby Finance for its budget. Although the cost was between $800 and
$1,000 per person, the feted few were six mid- to low-level bureaucrats,
according to the Post.
The evening began with eight geisha girls seated among the six officials.
After consuming "fancy foods and Japanese sake," according to the Post account, the
bureaucrats made small declarations of their loyalty to one another. The
festivities proceeded with a few rounds of karaoke to a live band. Then the
youngest-looking of the geisha joined the band for a rock song. Then,
the Post relates, the geisha "started dancing, moving their hips. They
rolled up the hems of their kimonos to their hips, exposing their panties ...
After that, the lights were dimmed and a go-go dance started. The geisha
girls started stripping the government officials down to their underwear.
They danced together closely with the geisha girls and some of them pushed
the girls onto the floor. They were limited to kissing them. When one of the
officials tried to do something more than that, the spotlight was trained on
him. He came back to his seat for a while and then started dancing again
with the geisha girls."
Twenty-four of these parties were held in 1994, according to the Post, and
23 in 1995.
Like most Japanese publications, the Post tends to blend commentary into
its news reports. Of the bureaucrats' bacchannalia, the Post concludes: "This
is the kind of party that government bureaucrats like the best. The MHW pays
for this type of entertainment for MOF officials repeatedly from summer
until the budgeting for the next fiscal year is finalized ... Bureaucrats
never talk about the parties they attend. Also, they do not speak of the
people who attended with them. They commonly share this kind of shame. The
ties established through this type of event lead them to their
business -- allocating budgets ... No record will ever be found in the MHW's
books because the parties are normally paid for by private companies. The
bills are sent by the restaurants to these companies behind the scenes."
In part because of stories like this, but mostly because no one can credibly
deny any longer the need for economic reform, the attitude toward this traditional commingling of sex and business has shifted. From the
press to the public, and to businessmen themselves, the old ways of
relationship-building through debauched male bonding are on their way
Looking out the ninth-story window of Merrill Lynch's office across the street from the Imperial Palace, Hidemi Fukuhara gives a wistful autopsy on the
night life of Tokyo financial elites.
Fukuhara, president of Merrill Lynch Capital Management Co. Ltd., compares
the mood to the final days of the Showa period (1926-1989):
"When the Showa emperor (Hirohito) was seriously ill -- he was dying, in
fact -- everyone stopped all the entertainment. Even though it was the season
for year-end parties and so on, there was a consensus that we wouldn't do
that -- no entertainment, no parties, no shopping. I'm not saying it's that
extreme now, but the past few weeks have felt similar. With so many senior
people in the Ministry of Finance being accused or arrested, there is a new
interpretation of entertainment -- it's a vice. It's not because we don't have
the money for entertainment. It's because there is pressure that it is not
the thing to do. It has become very quiet. That's too bad."

By Dave McCombs

Dave McCombs, the former editor of Tokyo Journal, is a Tokyo freelance journalist who writes about finance, digital media and business folklore for the Asahi Evening News and other publications.

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