Tokyo sex wars

Karl Taro Greenfeld paints an epic portrait of drug demons and sex junkies in Japan's new demimonde.


Karl Taro Greenfeld
October 31, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

Samson and Shore Patrol crouched side by side in starter's stances at the vending machine outside RIP, a roach-infested bar off Roppongi-dori. Only a few of the dozen spectators standing in the twilight drizzle knew that the race, from the Pocari Sweat vending machine to the UCC coffee machine, was to decide the future of two Tokyo strip clubs.

Both men were athletic, and each was sure he could beat the other in a 100-meter footrace. Anytime, anyplace, they had challenged each other for months whenever they met.

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Their enmity had been born at 2 a.m. one Friday night when they simultaneously approached an attractive Swedish girl who had shown up at Ying Yang in a coral blue cocktail dress, with Balinese warrior tattoos on her fleshy upper arms and high, white stilettos strapped to her bony feet. As she bobbed her head to sip her vodka rocks, Samson and Shore Patrol appeared before her.

"You looking for work?" their voices chorused, Samson's tenor complementing Shore Patrol's bass.

The girl sucked at her drink through the hollow swizzle, swung her gaze from Samson to Shore Patrol and back to Samson, and shrugged.

"Work?" Samson asked.

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"Dancing?" Shore Patrol queried.

The Swedish girl, whose stringy blond hair rose around her head like a shabby lion's mane, smiled at the two earnest, would-be headhunters, "Try elsewhere, you losers."

And she walked away to join a Japanese businessman who awaited her in a corner booth.

Samson and Shore Patrol sized each other up for the first time.

Samson, 27, never told anyone his real name. He was, he told me, from somewhere in eastern Canada; perhaps it was Nova Scotia. When I met him he tried to sell me a knockoff Breitling watch.

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Shore Patrol, 24, admitted to being from San Gabriel, Calif. He had been so nicknamed because one evening when an American serviceman at RIP had jokingly shouted out "Shore patrol!" Shore Patrol had managed to clear the premises so quickly that he appeared to be out the door before the bottle he had dropped hit the barroom floor. An AWOL U.S. serviceman, he was thereafter known as Shore Patrol, or SP.

It was Shore Patrol's hurried bolt from RIP those months ago that had won him the reputation for blazing speed. Shore Patrol, who had been a sprinter in high school, relished the rumors about his quickness that had spread among the clientele at RIP.

Yet Samson, who had not witnessed Shore Patrol's run for the door, was skeptical. Samson had also been an athlete during his youth, a fleet-footed high school wide receiver playing Canadian rules football. It irked him that someone else should be known as the fastest runner in the crowd. He had been sizing Shore Patrol up for some time and was convinced he had better wheels than SP, and whenever talk of SP's barroom flight came up, Samson shook his head and told anyone who would listen, "That punk ain't fast."

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I had been sent to Tokyo by Vogue to write about the most expensive hotel in the world. Before I reached that mountaintop hot-springs resort, though, I was sidetracked by the crowd of scumbags, lowlifes, cutthroats, thieves, dealers, pimps and hustlers who hung around RIP, a has-been dive that in its glory days had hosted the likes of Keanu Reeves, Sting and Seiko Matsuda but was now relegated to serving Asahi in cans to Samson and Shore Patrol. Randall, the frizzy-haired, tattooed, rugby player-sized Aussie who ran the place along with his partner, a straight-haired, weedy Japanese actor named Haru, were desperately seeking a scheme that would enliven their bar and restore its former status as a hot spot. Various ideas came and went as to how to refurbish the joint. One evening I came in to find Randall busy behind the bar killing cockroaches with arsenic-smelling bug spray and beaming because he had stumbled onto the idea that was going to turn RIP around.

"Piercing station," Randall said, as baby roaches scurried across the bar toward me. "This whole piercing craze is about to hit Tokyo. The Japs will go crazy for it."

I shrugged and ordered my J&B and soda.

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"We're out of Scotch," Randall told me, slapping at cockroaches with his bare hands. "How about a nose ring?"

But RIP was wallowing in perpetual decline, consigned to being a backwater of the Roppongi party scene that fewer and fewer of the party people deigned to drop in on anymore. As it devolved into a place where the trendy dared not tread, it evolved into the perfect hole in the wall for those who did not want to be seen, for those who needed a darkened, quiet, secluded spot where they could conduct business with other similarly light-of-day-shy creatures. In Tokyo, with its paucity of spacious living situations, deals are usually done in public places. Even as Randall and Haru scratched their heads trying to come up with a new theme that might woo the smart set back to their establishment, they were inadvertently luring a new clientele that came precisely because the smart set was nowhere to be found. RIP's location down a seldom-traveled side street 50 meters from Roppongi-dori made it centrally located yet discreet. RIP became the venue of choice for shady dealers.

The decor was suitably frowzy, languishing in a state of disassemblage because Randall and Haru were forever coming up with feckless new themes that would require tearing down bits and pieces of the bar but would be abandoned before any reconstruction took place. There were stretches of exposed steel beams and two-by-fours. Chicken-wire plaster braces showed through behind the racks of empty bottles. The dance floor had been stripped away, revealing that the bar had been constructed over a parking lot.

I too was in flux. My nascent marriage to a Dutch woman was showing signs of miscarrying. A contracted novel I had completed and sent to my publisher was about to be rejected. Needing a break, I had cobbled together a few queries and had cajoled my editor at Vogue into assigning me this relatively easy story about the most expensive hotel in the world. I had also convinced the Nation to provide a few thousand dollars in the form of a research grant; I was to produce for them an article about the Japanese economy, then in a severe slump. But I had been in Tokyo for more than two weeks and my research had ground to a halt; I had not been anywhere near the mountaintop retreat I was sent to write about.

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Instead I had found among RIP's shadow-dwellers kindred spirits. They were all hiding out from something -- those of us over 30 from what we had become, those still in their 20s from their inevitable futures. There was no mystique about the place, no hallowed past or gilded myths to toast; it was the absence of mystique, the total lack of any kind of decor, that spoke to me the first time I walked into the place.

There was another problem I had come to Tokyo to escape. In Los Angeles, during the writing of that doomed novel, I had taken to ingesting prolific amounts of narcotics. I didn't take these drugs -- vicodins, percocets, dilaudids, morphine-sulfates, talwins, darvons, codeines, the occasional balloon or bindle of street heroin; basically, all the hairy-chested analgesic opiates -- to help me write; I took these substances to make me feel better about how badly I was writing. I had convinced myself that what I needed was a quick trip back to Japan, where I had been relatively drug-free during the five years I had lived there in the late '80s and early '90s. What was required, I was sure, was a return to the site of former glories, to where I had written numerous magazine articles and come up with the material for my first and only book. My life in Los Angeles, with its failing marriage and dimly plotted writing projects, was without luster. Tokyo, on the other hand, was where my life could regain lost sparkle. I would become the person I imagined I used to be: vital, charming, intuitive, a thorough journalist and artful writer. My drug addiction would magically fall away from me, like a tearaway jersey ripped from a streaking tailback.

But Tokyo had changed.

The Tokyo where I came of age, amid the splash and glitter of the bubble economy, the dazzle of a gaudy, turbocharged boom that spit out six-figure salaries and fancy imported suits and allowed me for the first time in my life to feel like a grownup, was gone. Those were years when high school dropout hostesses, fresh off jumbo jet steerage one-way from Vancouver, Los Angeles, London, Stockholm or Melbourne, boasted of saving a million yen a month, and scruffy, snotty punks like myself, hair gelled and smarmy in Italian suits, abounded. We inhabited the neon-lit streets and shrieky nightclubs and black-lit bars with such aplomb because we were sure, totally, that we were in the right place at the right time. The vibe had been rapacious, but with the sense of optimism that springs from believing there is enough to go around.

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The city that I flew into that dark February of 1996 was a half-decade removed from the glory of the bubble and mired in myriad political and financial scandals -- the prime minister was teetering, the banking system was on the verge of collapse. The mood of the city was somber. I took as my economic barometer the condition and well-being of Tokyo's foreign hostesses. If during the glory days there had been an insatiable demand for more hostesses, more good-time girls to pour drinks and make small talk with expense account-riding executives grown fat on Japan Inc., there was now a plethora of unemployed Caucasian blondes and brunettes roving the Roppongi and Ginza streets. Expense accounts had been slashed. It was no longer acceptable at Nomura, Dentsu or Mitsubishi to run up multi-thousand-dollar tabs, and the corporate warriors could no longer afford to spend millions of yen wooing these nocturnal flowers with lavish gifts and pecuniary displays of affection. Girls who used to make thousands of dollars a month and revel in diamond and gold perquisites were now unemployed. "One of the first things we slashed was entertainment expenses," said Masa Kobayashi of Sakura Bank. "When times are tough, having a good time is not so much of a priority."

But hostess bars, with their posh atmosphere, steady flow of drinks and beautiful women, had always helped businessmen close crucial deals. Times may have been tough, and businessmen less patient, but the need for a place to entertain clients and get a few cheap thrills ogling sexy, ostensibly available foreign women remained as real as ever. Just because business was down, that didn't mean that business had stopped. "The hostess bar was a business place," said Takeo Hideoka of All Nippon Airways. "That's what it was first and foremost. Take away a place to do business outside the home and office, and the Japanese GNP would suffer even more than it has."

It was the patrons of RIP who fueled the upstart industry that was replacing hostess bars as the evening entertainment of choice for well-heeled Japanese executives.

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Samson squatted beside a carbon-caked 250cc motorcycle, his blackened hands twisting and fiddling in an attempt to adjust the Suzuki's carburetor. He had arrived in Japan with just one skill -- he was a whiz at repairing and restoring internal combustion engines. The small garage space he rented in Koto Ward was no larger than a walk-in closet, allowing him to store three motorcycles if they stood handlebar to exhaust. During the day he unfurled a canopy over the sidewalk to stake out a few more precious feet of working space and set to tinkering with motorcycles, scooters, mopeds, even the odd lawn mower or hedge-trimmer. Renowned in this neighborhood as the kuroi tei no gaijin ("foreigner with black hands"), Samson quickly made a reputation for himself as reliable, dependable and, most important of all, trustworthy. He also developed an extensive web of connections that allowed him to traffic in hard-to-trace stolen motorcycle parts, as well as illicit substances that he would transfer from the foreign community to the Japanese community and vice versa.

He stood up when he saw me, wiping his hands beneath a Husqvarno poster of a preposterously top-heavy Latina model leaning forward over a set of chrome handlebars. I had met Samson at RIP, where we were introduced by a mutual acquaintance who knew of my chemical predilections. After unsuccessfully trying to sell me a dodgy watch, Samson told me to come see him at his shop.

In the shadowy light beneath the canopy, framed by exhaust pipes and mufflers arrayed on the wall behind him, Samson appeared hauntingly thin, his narrow cheekbones and cleft chin giving him a drawn, hungry look. He had brown hair, which he kept short and well-groomed. By design, there was nothing exceptional about his appearance, save that he always seemed to be smirking around his two prominent buck teeth.

"So how do you know Motoko?" he asked.

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"We used to work together," I told him.

He considered my answer, rolling his upper lip beneath his lower as he did so. He posed questions about why I was in Tokyo, about who I worked for.

We spoke of Bangkok, of pharmacies along Patpong, of bars we both knew. The conversation circled around but never quite settled on what I had come to see him about: heroin. I was impatient. My last few darvon were staving off serious discomfort, but I had concluded that in order to successfully research and complete my assignments I would need stronger narcotics.

My plan to wean myself from synthetic and nonsynthetic opiates in Tokyo had failed. I had sniffed what was supposed to be my last bindle of heroin on the plane to Tokyo. The dozen percocet and bottle of valium in my briefcase had been intended as a gradual detoxification kit. But the first morning in Tokyo, awake early because of a discomfiting combination of leg cramps and jet lag, I had wandered in the gray mist to see a sympathetic, elderly doctor I knew who provided me with a few dozen candy-colored darvons and some French tranquilizers called cercine. That had been a few days ago. Now I was running out of pills.

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A few minutes later, while Samson washed his hands with powdered soap over a tiny, plastic basin, he said, facing the mirror, "So you're riding the horse?"

After he dried his hands, he removed a bindle of Japanese newsprint from behind the busty Hispanic woman and carefully unfolded it, revealing a mound of brownish powder. He had already pushed in the bike he had been repairing and had shuttered his modest establishment. There was barely room for the two of us to stand without touching. He poured out a small, two-centimeter-long line of the powder on a shiny, vinyl motorcycle seat. I inhaled the powder with a rolled-up 1,000-yen note and handed the note to him.

As we stood face to face in the crowded little garage, we agreed that I would buy the remains of what was in the bindle for 20,000 yen. Samson, relaxing after his day's work, handed me a deck of Polaroids.

"What do you think?" he asked.

The dark, shadowy photographs were of women, in bikinis or naked, with teased, stringy blond hair. Most of the girls were standing, but one or two were lying back on what appeared to be dining room tables holding their feet with their hands to show their splayed genitals to the camera. I was reminded of the Girl Next Door sections of various adult magazines.

"Who are they?" I asked.

Samson explained they were strippers, 24 of them, and they were en route to Tokyo via Vancouver. He had arranged to house, feed and transport these girls, who were to work in Bachelor Party, one of the new strip clubs opening around Tokyo. He had found them through a scout who worked in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia, hiring girls to dance in the Far East. The new Tokyo clubs were competing for exotic dancers. Samson, along with Shore Patrol and a few other foreign hustlers, had gone into business providing girls for the new Tokyo topless and bottomless clubs. He kept an eye open for out-of-work hostesses and foreign girls fresh to Japan, but the clubs were increasingly requiring the top-heavy, siliconically and collagenically enhanced beauties of the type on the Husqvarna poster. Those sorts, the archetypal lap-dance queens, were harder to come by in Tokyo. Each club needed about 50 girls. For the girl with stupendous cleavage and firm buttocks, the money was very, very good.

"There's a definite shortage," Samson told me, "of classy ladies."

When those girls whose Polaroids Samson had shown me arrived and were ensconced on Japanese executives' laps, Samson would net his biggest score ever. None of the local agents had delivered 24 girls. Bachelor Party, an upstart club in Shibuya, would instantly leap to the fore of Tokyo's new wave of erotic entertainment; Samson would then allow himself to leave Tokyo. He wanted to exit a winner, on the heels of a big score, a memorable move, one the patrons of RIP would be recounting to each other for months to come.

Like so many people I met in Tokyo that dark season, he wanted out.


Karl Taro Greenfeld

Karl Taro Greenfeld is a Knight-Bagehot Fellow at Columbia University. He is the author of "Speed Tribes" and a contributor to Vogue, Details, the New York Times Magazine, Wired and other publications. He has written for Wanderlust on Ibiza and exploring northern Thailand by foot.

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